Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921–1970
Volume I of Ray Monk’s admirable biography of Bertrand Russell, subtitled “The Spirit of Solitude,” ends in 1921, precisely at the high point of Russell’s purely intellectual life. Although he published several works of academic philosophy in later years—the last of them, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948), was written in his seventies—none was an exciting and enduring contribution to the subject, not even An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1938), which was the best of them. Monk describes how Wittgenstein totally and finally destroyed Russell’s confidence in his philosophical program, and in effect expelled him from his own Garden of Eden, which was mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics. Wittgenstein had argued that there could be no complete foundation for human knowledge, whether in mathematics or in other domains.
Russell never seriously tried to return to philosophy until the 1930s, when he thought that he needed a reliable income to help to pay for his children and also for the alimony owed to his second wife, Dora. Philosophy had no interest for him if it could not be the exhibition of knowledge placed on its secure foundations. If this architectural metaphor was dead, and was shown to be merely a trap and a trap presenting an illusion, then philosophy was for him dead too. There is a depressing story told in this new volume that Gödel, perhaps the greatest logician since Aristotle, and always accessible in Princeton, was hoping to prepare a discussion with Russell, both on paper and in person, on the reality of mathematical objects. When there were practical difficulties to be overcome, it emerged that Russell was simply not interested: it was for him too late, with all his mathematical passion spent long ago, in the first two decades of the century.
So Volume II is largely a story of decline and unhappiness, and Monk dwells rather heavily on both. If you happen to have read two outstanding biographies of two men of genius in quick succession, Robert Skidelsky on Keynes and Monk on Russell, both emerging from Cambridge, England, both essentially formed by that place, both contributing extensively to the intellectual climate in which those who are now old grew up, you would be tempted to a Plutarchan comparison. How is it that the life of John Maynard Keynes, as now recounted, presents a model of active virtue, public and private, and of almost ideal happiness and fulfillment, in an Aristotelian sense? It was a balanced and controlled life of multiple activities in many directions, all duly recognized and rewarded, a life lived among family and lifelong friends and in marriage, and one that is now piously, but not too piously, commemorated.
Turn now to Russell, at least as his life is chronicled in detail by Monk, and the story has the very opposite features. He is quoted as repeatedly saying that he has wasted his abilities and that he deeply regrets devoting his energies to philosophy. Beatrice Webb in her diary commented, “‘Wasted gifts’ is writ large over Bertrand Russell’s life,” and this I remember as the common view in the Twenties and Thirties. Between 1921 and 1939 he earned money as a popular sophist by proposing, in a succession of now largely forgotten books, and in American lecture tours, a reformed way of life which would replace conventional and Christian morality in the education of children, in free-wheeling marriage, and in sexual customs. Monk recognizes that he had several years of intense family happiness with his second wife, Dora Black, a socialist libertarian, and their adored son and daughter. This was followed by the collapse of the marriage in infidelities and in a horribly bitter divorce and by Russell’s withdrawal from the ultramodern Beacon Hill school that he and Dora had founded.
Peaks and troughs characterize Russell’s personal experience throughout his long life, and the deepest trough is his relentless inhumanity in his later dealings with Dora and with their son, John. When writing to her after divorce he did not begin “Dear Dora” but with “Dear Madam,” and when Dora delivered the children during the holidays, she and he pretended not to see each other. Monk in his turn is unrelenting in recording the cruelty and hardness of Russell in his legal maneuverings at the expense of his former wife, and ultimately at the expense of his unhappy son. Monk’s disillusionment and disgust pervade the last three hundred pages of the book, and many readers will feel that the long account of all the legal squabbles within the family is wearisome and excessive. Russell knew that he had totally failed as a parent when John became estranged and finally went mad, and when his second son, Conrad, the present earl, was forbidden by his mother, the former Peter Spence, to speak to him after a divorce. In Monk’s family history the final horror came when Russell’s granddaughter, Lucy, who was first loved and then neglected by him, burned herself alive after recording in detail the stages of her despair.
Is there any explanation for these disasters? D.H. Lawrence had told Russell that he was consumed by hatred and contempt and only passed as a man of peace. Lawrence wrote early in the war:
You are really the super war-spirit. What you want is to jab and strike, like the soldier with the bayonet, only you are sublimated into words…. You are simply full of repressed desires, which have become savage and anti-social…. As a woman said to me, who had been to one of your meetings, “It seemed so strange, with his face looking so evil, to be talking about peace and love. He can’t have meant what he said.”
It is not the hatred of falsity which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood…. Why don’t you own it?
Russell, believing entirely in Lawrence’s insight and therefore inclined to suicide, wrote, “In my despair, I realized that I shall never again be in close touch with anyone.”
The quiet and supremely intelligent Gerald Brenan wrote to a friend after Russell’s death, “I never cared for him as a man. Like Milton he was unloveable because he had no warmth in his personal feelings and too much hatred and rancour.” Very often, he noted, Russell said in conversation how much he despised people. Mrs. Brenan’s words, quoted here, very exactly correspond to my own experience:
It’s queer that I can never really like him…. His guiding forces are vanity and love of power, and to gratify them he wasted his amazing talent for Mathematics and took to writing books on happiness and marriage…. But in many things he shows great integrity of thought and character. And I admire him, only I can’t really like him. I never quite know why.
So many others felt.
It is not true that the now unreadable books he wrote on “happiness and marriage” were entirely a loss and entirely a waste. One of the elements of Russell’s genius was his extraordinary ability to lure very large audiences into abstract reasoning on large issues and to make them altogether delighted by the unfamiliar experience. He knew that he had this gift, and like any other virtuoso he took pleasure in the exercise of it. Crowds attended him wherever he went on his American lecture tours, and they stopped traffic in New York when he spoke at Columbia University; in Oxford they overflowed the lecture halls every week in a series on philosophy delivered before the last world war.
The students at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, chosen for their lack of sophistication, were delighted by him. I remember that when the BBC chose him as the first Reith lecturer on authority and power, a series intended to be immensely distinguished, his mastery at the microphone was instantly evident and no subsequent Reith lecturer over many years equaled him in stirring interest and even affection. The mastery was a matter of style rather than of content, which was sometimes rather platitudinous. The short, sharp, declarative sentences, uttered without caution or qualification, strengthened by his splendid old-fashioned diction, easily imitated, made him a household presence in many British homes, whether as friend or as enemy, but always as a unique figure, quickly recognizable.
It has to be admitted that notwithstanding countless lectures and magazine articles and books he made no further serious contribution to political theory or to social thought. Keynes had an elegant explanation of why this happened:
Bertie held two ludicrously incompatible beliefs: on the one hand he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other hand that the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally.
This witticism is true, but perhaps more is required for explanation. Russell had the narrowest two-track concept of rationality, which included only mathematical deduction and calculation of means to ends, and nothing else. He never considered how a principled judicial mind works, or how a political situation is analyzed by a careful statesman or by a student of politics. Therefore he could not acknowledge the actual irrationality of his repeated pleas for a world government. The impossibility of a world government in his lifetime could have been inferred from the very nature of modern government if he had considered again what the actual and day-to-day nature of government was. Monk thinks he was simply too impatient to attend to any detail in this imprecise domain, and it is true that if one happens to see one of his book manuscripts, there is scarcely an erasure or correction within hundreds of pages: he had no second thoughts.
There is another and more positive way of looking at Russell’s politics, which is otherwise such a depressing topic. With R.H. Tawney, and G.D.H. Cole, he was one of the very few authentic intellectual socialists of the far left in Britain who, from 1921 onward, despised Soviet communism and all its works and who never for a moment considered that it could be in any respect a model for socialists elsewhere. Having met Lenin in Russia, he knew that Soviet communism was an unvarnished tyranny held together by violence and terror, a new barbarism, not a new civilization. He was never tempted to follow Dora Russell and her socialist contemporaries in either denying or excusing the manifest evils in Russia. Therefore most intellectuals on the far left in Britain had a recognized moral base outside communism which saved them from the intellectual disgrace that overwhelmed the intellectual left in France, notably Jean-Paul Sartre and his followers. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who had conspicuously attended to detail in the study of politics, and who had always despised Russell’s socialism, were not saved from the folly and final discredit of their book Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?
Russell was entirely guided in his political attitudes by his ethical intuitions and convictions, which were untainted by any form of moral relativism. At the same time he twisted and turned all his life under the misery of thinking that his absolute moral values reflected only his own subjective emotions, as, according to Hume, with all men and women. He was trapped in this quasi contradiction because he had never questioned a perverse (as it seems to me) epistemology, which makes the dichotomy of either reason or emotion applicable to all human judgments with no exception. As the Cambridge philosopher F.P. Ramsey famously expressed this point, there is science with its verifiable results and there is “the exchange of notes,” as when (not Ramsey’s example) at a dinner party we earnestly discuss the value of the latest films. What then is the Russellian notion of the rational, as opposed to the emotional? It is the notion of that which you must agree with, in the sense that you must agree with the propositions of elementary arithmetic.
But suppose that in ethics, as in law, necessary agreement, hence rationality, resides in the recognition and methodical management of expected and necessary disagreements. So Russell might have reflected that his pride in his aristocratic lineage was in evident conflict with his genuine democratic aspirations. But, as a rational man, not blinded by passion, he might have acknowledged that he should somehow balance and reconcile these contrary emotions, or sets of emotions, giving each an appropriate place in his life. In other words, in a universe not designed for harmony, “rational,” in at least one of its uses, should be the name of a higher-level and reflexive concept appropriate for the management of conflict both in nature and in culture.
Russell might also have relieved his lifelong fear of subjectivism in ethics by reflecting that, although there may be no good things that all men and women everywhere in all societies desire, there certainly are evils that all men and women in all ages and all climates want to avoid: for instance, starvation, loss of family and friends, imprisonment, deformity and disablement, terror, and other afflictions which could provide an arguable and objective foundation for Russell’s pacifism. Even though the things we most admire and value may change with changing individuals and social orders, the universals of evil reliably recur in history and they remain independent of the varieties of human sentiment. But the negative aspects of morality were not understood in Russell’s Cambridge, which was dominated by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and the relics of utilitarianism.
In following Russell’s less than successful attempts to deal with politics, most readers of Monk’s biography will probably want to give up before they reach the Bertrand Russell Foundation of the 1960s and 1970s and its posturings, which came at the end of an immensely long and stormy life. Monk evidently thinks it his duty to persist with a detailed account of Russell’s anti-American exploits, although without concealing his distaste for them.
Among several personal memories of Russell, one public event stands out in my memory as supremely illustrative of Russell as a man. Russell was seventy-six years old in 1948 when he was due to give a lecture at Trondheim in Norway. The seaplane carrying him from Oslo to Trondheim blew over in a gale just as it touched the water on arrival, killing all nineteen passengers in the nonsmoking compartment. Russell, together with the other passengers in the smoking compartment, was able to swim to a rescue boat, probably carrying his usual pipe with him through the icy Norwegian waters. When he finally arrived at his hotel, he found himself besieged by reporters, one of whom asked him what he was thinking of when he was in the water, no doubt hoping for some deep reflection on death and on philosophy. “I thought the water was cold,” replied Russell.
This Spartan saying of the famous philosopher was immediately flashed around the world. Some editors had previously heard that Russell had been drowned and were bringing out their obituaries, much to Russell’s amusement. We analytical philosophers and other free-thinkers were, I remember, immensely proud that we had this prodigy in nature, this septuagenarian survivor, in our midst, and proud that he could be counted as one of us. Walking great distances in the mountains of the American West and in his beloved Cornwall he had long ago shattered the stereotype of intellectuals as physically weak. Whatever God had intended, it had been shown that Russell, contrary and tiresome as he might be, was not to be drowned easily. In fact there is a certain glory about the fullness of Russell’s life and about his person, a glory that ought not to be whittled away.