The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell
For many decades Lord Russell has been disclosing his more intimate feelings, and his views on private and public morality, to an enormous public. During his long life his emotions, his changing opinions, and many of his experiences in love and in friendship, no less than his face and the sound of his voice, have become a familiar part of the public scene. Alongside the history of his development as the original master of the modern movement in philosophy, there is another history of the popular moralist. In a steady flow of books, articles, and famous BBC broadcasts, he has shown himself to be extremely gifted in addressing a very large public in a style that is at once elevated, direct, and easy.
When he gave the first set of Reith Lectures to be broadcast by the BBC not long after the war, a vast audience listened; and many people, who would not count themselves as belonging to an educated minority, stated that they would feel his death, when it came, as a personal loss. For he was felt to be the exemplary intellectual of his time, at least in England, and his existence was felt to be an encouragement just because his intellect did not seem to have isolated him from common concerns. Like Bernard Shaw, whom he despised, he had been an unsubdued guerrilla force operating on the margins of organized opinion, and outside all institutions, living in the open; but, unlike Shaw, he had never asked for a license as a comedian of the intellect; he remained a philosopher.
Yet one has always had the impression that his facility in self-revelation, and his willingness to live on the public stage and to advertise his public purposes, still left much of his own inner nature untouched and separate. Partly because the self-exploration was so unnaturally fluent, lucid, and continuous, it seemed that it could not be complete, and that it must be, at least in part, defensive. The truth about his own motives and impulses could hardly be as tidy as he was suggesting in those unfailingly pointed, gay, and resilient sentences.
THIS BEGINNING of an autobiography gives substance to this doubt. Alongside the familiar, always articulate, exemplary, endlessly self-explained, masterful Russell, another Russell appears, scarcely less original and no less interesting, but less accessible, implied rather than declared. This other Russell is a pessimist, always in flight from “the bane of solitude,” and, like other pessimists, he takes refuge in prophecy, and is inarticulate in the description, or in the expression, of emotion and of emotional relationships. He has made a legend of his childhood, and the sources of memory and therefore of imagination have become dry and too much used. A mood of melancholy runs through this history of magnificent achievement.
This first volume can be read as a sequel to the Amberley Papers, which was the first description of Russell’s origins and childhood. One has a long sweep of intellectual and social history, unsurpassed elsewhere in English literature. Russell, the second son of Lord Amberley and Kate Stanley, was dandled on the knee of his grandfather, Lord John Russell, who had been Prime Minister, and who remembered the beginnings of the century and had been near the center of the ruling aristocracy throughout Victoria’s reign. Bertrand Russell was surrounded by rumors of great affairs, and was brought up under the influence of a grandmother and an aunt, amid a cloud of masterful or eccentric uncles and cousins. He recalls the alliances and marriages linking aristocratic families, perpetually visiting each other. He was intensely solitary, introspective, and almost an orphan in the great houses of his childhood. He therefore became, and remained throughout his life, a natural diarist and autobiographer, making the world and his own place in it real to himself by finding phrases that would define for himself his own nature. He looked for the meaning of his life in arguments with himself, and this kind of argumentative monologue became part of the substance of all his later experience, underlying his experience of love and of friendship.
His mother and his sister died when he was two, and his father died a year and a half later. His “people” had given their lives to causes, to social reform and advanced thinking. Proud of his inheritance of public responsibility and unconventional opinion, his awareness of his origins was predominantly intellectual. It seems that from his very early years men and women were differentiated for him principally by the propositions to which they subscribed. His efforts as an adolescent to formulate his own beliefs—on theism, free will, the nature of mathematical knowledge, and on utilitarian ethics—were at the same time a necessary effort to create his own character. To the dismay of his family he was to emigrate into the remote middle classes by his marriage to an American, Alys Pearsall Smith. Yeats used to denounce the Russell family because, with their Whig opinions and advanced thinking, they had brought the depressing and unaesthetic ethical culture of the middle classes into the aristocracy. This marriage to an American Quaker was a further step in the direction taken by his father in his friendship with Mill and the Grotes. Repelled by the heartlessness and mindlessness of the true aristocracy, he had tried to assimilate himself to the prigs and the bourgeois.
At Cambridge Russell had emerged from his solitude into a society in which emotional relationships could be founded on common beliefs. The external world and his private world had come together. The letters and memories of this time have a wonderful ease and assurance, and one is relieved, as one reads, to come into the light after the gloomy splendors of Pembroke Lodge and of high Victorian society. With G. E. Moore, Whitehead, Keynes, George Trevelyan, and, later, with Gilbert Murray, he immediately belonged to another peerage, the peerage of genius. These were all men who knew that they were born to intellectual power, and who knew that they would make great tracts of intellectual territory their own. Their letters and the remembered exchanges between them have a well-sustained stateliness, as if they were diplomatic exchanges between reigning houses of the mind. When Russell is on a walking tour in the West Country and stays alone in a country hotel, he seems in the letter he writes to be like Harounal-Raschid descended among ordinary men. While living in London, he disdains the scurryings and agitations of the crowds in the streets, who are, or seem to be, unconcerned with eternal truths. This was, but probably no longer is, a Cambridge tone. It is not surprising that Russell’s friend Wittgenstein, a Tolstoyan by conviction, was unwilling to become an apostle or brother, that is, to be received into the secret Cambridge society going back to Hallam and Tennyson, which constituted a body of the elect, bound together by mutual admiration, and renewed in each succeeding generation.
IN SPITE OF, or because of, this justified sense of superiority, no one has equalled Russell’s power to address the scurrying man in the street on philosophical issues. Just because he had himself first turned to philosophy when he urgently needed a firm foundation of belief, a Weltanschauung, and a remedy for his emotional uncertainties and isolation, he has always had a point of contact with those who expect from philosophers, and from intellectuals generally, the old consolations of philosophers, and particularly a sense of purpose; these consolations academic philosophers are usually incompetent to supply. To Russell, as to Mill, Bradley, James, and Wittgenstein, it had always been inconceivable that one should think of philosophical problems without also thinking of a superior form of life, a fundamental re-direction of interest which would answer to a need for perfection and remedy a deep-seated discontent. He has had no use for the discontinuities of consciousness, which are encouraged, or at least permitted, in academic thought no less than in academic painting and literature, and which give a pejorative sense to the word “academic.” Like Hume, but for a much longer period, he had that sense of the emptiness of all human effort and of the instability of all opinion which is a natural source of philosophy. The surprising thing is that this almost religious sense of the vanity of human achievement, and of the worthlessness of everything imperfect, contingent, and perishable, persisted in spite of his discovery of his mission in mathematical logic, and of his partial fulfilment of his mission. Some of the moving story of his extraordinary discoveries in logic, and of his periods of defeat and discouragement when he could not solve his problems, is briefly told here.
The reader is given some faint idea of the concentration of creative energy over many years which was involved in the completion, with Whitehead, of Principia Mathematica. But the undertone of deep pessimism, of a metaphysical melancholy persists and is felt as a threat, and has to be resisted before it is engulfing. A very similar mood lies on the surface of Bradley’s writing, which exploits a fin-de-siècle satiety and despair, felt as a reaction against the hopes that had been tied to material progress, and as a reaction against utilitarian philosophies. That there was this far-from-obvious affinity between Bradley and Russell beneath the strong intellectual opposition is shown in letters which Russell prints: letters of mutual respect, as from men who had felt the same discontent and strangeness in their time. The later academic followers of Bradley and of Russell might despise each other, as epigones will, and there were philosophers at Oxford in the 1930s who, supposing themselves to be following Bradley, tried to tell their pupils that Russell was a logician with no understanding of metaphysics. Liberated by Moore, Russell very soon passed through his early Hegelian phase. But it is now easier to see why he sometimes wished that he had been a contemporary of Spinoza, and had been able, with a good conscience, to construct a metaphysical system. In the early years of the century, and before the new positivism of the Vienna circle had been formulated, he had the suspicion that systematic philosophy might now be “hopeless.” But his own intellectual temper was incurably philosophical and not at all scientific. He needed to find, or at least to look for, very general truths which he could certify by his own powers of argument and which would give a rational structure to his emotions. It is worth remembering that Wittgenstein, who became Russell’s pupil, as a young man looked for the source of morality, not in a prohibition against murder, but rather in a prohibition against suicide. The disenchantment and lassitude, sometimes turning into disgust, which were so common among European writers in the decade before 1914, at the high tide of liberal and bourgeois culture, do not appear in Russell’s public personality, and appear only fitfully in his writing. He overcame them; and his marvelous vitality carried him forward into public causes even before 1914, and even while he was refounding his study of logic. But he had felt an immediate sympathy with the shades of pessimism, and with the distrust of progress, in Conrad, Bradley, and Wittgenstein.
MUCH OF THE MATERIAL of this first volume, which ends in 1914, has appeared in various forms elsewhere in Russell’s many confessional writings. One central episode is new; the story of his first marriage. The story is harsh and rather chilling, because of the abstract prose in which it is recounted, as if a report or a judicial summary is being rendered; the lessons of experience are given, but the experience itself escapes. The empty space is filled by fine writing about ecstasy and love, rather in the manner of “A Free Man’s Worship.” This fine writing seems to serve the same purpose as the conventional phrases which less gifted men use to divert strong feeling into harmless channels; it buries the past. Nothing is visualized, and one is left without detail and without the means of imagining the events. There is a curious mixture of willed frankness and instinctive reticence in the narrative, which has a stoic nobility.
Russell seems often, as an autobiographer, to see his own life as a journey of moral exploration, a pilgrim’s progress. So strong was his need to find an objective justification for his emotions that he seems to have been continuously writing his life while he was living it. So his autobiography has a startling clarity and an absolute honesty of one kind. But nowhere is there the smallest gleam of unconscious memory, and therefore of imagination, which might enable the reader to feel the past as it was experienced, and to catch the quality of some experience in love or friendship or intellectuai excitement. The remembered people, most of whom bear famous names, are briskly described and their views are characterized, but they have a two-dimensional reality only, like the members of some Cabinet thirty years ago. There is a sense in which he does not really remember his past at all; he has turned his emotional energies toward planning his future, and these plans include drawing lessons from the past. He has developed for this purpose a hard, glittering, and imposing style, which is like a beautiful screen, intensely enjoyable in itself.
As one comes, too soon, to the end of this volume, one realizes with wonder that three or four men’s span of experience and activity are waiting to be included in the next volume. He has already written the lectures on German Social Democracy for the opening session of the London School of Economics, one of his first books and among the first adequate discussions of Marxism in English; but the classical investigation of Russian Bolshevism is in the future. He has already discovered the Theory of Descriptions, but logical atomism is still to come. He has already discussed our knowledge of the external world in the Lowell lectures at Harvard, dictated in one draft, as he reveals; but the bulk of his work in epistemology is still to come. He has still to go to prison, to China; he has still to found an experimental school, to write books about marriage and happiness, which are a kind of moral fiction, related to moral philosophy as science fiction is related to science. The beginnings of all these interests are recorded here; and the eloquence of some of his letters in 1897 is scarcely distinguishable from the eloquence of statements that he has made in 1967. It is an ageless eloquence, a tone of voice that will never be forgotten.