Bertrand Russell: Autobiography.
London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
xv + 742 pp. (Initially published in three volumes,
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, 1968, 1969.)
I'm not sure when or where I first heard of Russell. Some years
ago, circa 2000 I think, I read his History
of Western Philosophy. I must admit that philosophy is not
a very favourite topic of mine. I've read the Presocratics, a bit of Plato,
Spinoza's Ethics, Seneca's letters to Lucilius, and more or less
nothing else. I often felt, to borrow Fitzgerald's phrase,
that I “came out by the same door where in I went”. Philosophy
is all right if one enjoys abstract speculation, wrangling with words,
pointless bickering about their meaning, etc.; but the word is supposed to mean
‘love of wisdom’, and I certainly rarely felt any wiser after
reading some work of philosophy. It turns out that Russell's approach
to writing the history of philosophy is absolutely perfect for a person like me.
He has a robustly critical opinion of many famous philosophers,
and never hesitates to admit it when he feels that some philosopher
has been guilty of introducing muddle-headed notions or that his
works and ideas are confusing. He is very good at explaining things in
an intelligible way; his prose is remarkably clear; it also includes
many amusing and funny passages. I enjoyed that book immensely, and heartily
recommend it to anyone interested in the history of philosophy.
Not long afterwards, I noticed that Russell also wrote an autobiography,
and encouraged by the good experience with his History of Philosophy,
I bought the autobiography and started reading it. Unfortunately I got
hopelessly bogged down somewhere in the sixth chapter, about 200 pages into the book.
I put it back on the shelf and watched it with a vague sense of disgust
for the next four or five years. Then, last December, I started reading it again
on my daily bus-rides to work and back; that's a splendid opportunity for
reading less-than-ideally-interesting books, because there's nothing else for
you to do, and willy-nilly you will end up reading one or two dozen pages per day.
Having now waded my way through the book, I must admit that much of it is actually
fairly interesting, but there are also many boring passages where I found it
preferable to read quickly and not bother too much with the details.
Each chapter is divided into two parts: first the narrative of that period of his
life, and then a selection of letters (both to and from him) and other documents
from that period. Most of the boredom comes from the letters, although many
of them are also interesting.
Russell had a long and active life,
with the result that this autobiography touches on a number of different topics,
he encounters a great number of people from various walks of life, etc.; I think
this is where the main interest of the book lies. He was from a famous aristocratic
family, and his grandfather
had served as the British prime minister in the mid-19th
century. Russell's parents died when he was very young, so he was mostly brought
up by his paternal grandmother (p. 17). A number of 19th-century notabilities
make their appearance in the first chapter. “Turgeniev once gave her
one of his novels, but she never read it, or regarded him as anything but
the cousin of some friends of hers” (p. 16).
Gladstone comes to tea on p. 29,
and for dinner on p. 51.
Russell in his youth apparently met Robert Browning several times (p. 38).
A bizarre anecdote from his childhood: “I was not allowed an orange as there was an unalterable conviction
that fruit is bad for children” (p. 23).
His maternal grandmother: “ ‘Don't you know,’ she said, ‘that you
should never talk about any fractions except halves and quarters? — it is pedantic!’
‘I know it now,’ I replied. ‘How like his father!’ she said, turning to
my Aunt Maude.” (P. 27.) In general, few of the adults among whom he grew
up had any appreciation of his emerging intelectual skills and interests (pp. 17, 39–40),
and in this respect it was a great relief for him when he started studying at Cambridge
and became friends with other bright students:
“the discovery that I could say things that I thought, and be answered with neither horror
nor derision but as if I had said something quite sensible, was intoxicating.” (p. 60).
The professors, however, were largely useless, although they do provide a few curious
anecdotes on pp. 62–4.
His acquaintances at Cambridge later also included
J. M. Keynes and
Lytton Strachey (pp. 67–9).
“It is surprising how great a change in mental climate those ten years had brought.
We were still Victorian; they were Edwardian. We believed in ordered progress by means of
politics and free discussion. [. . .] The generation of Keynes and Lytton
did not seek to preserve any kinship with the Philistine. They aimed rather at a
life or retirement among fine shades and nice feelings, and conceived of the good
as consisting in the pasisonate mutual admirations of a clique of the élite.”
Other notable people he knew:
the Fabian socialists (pp. 73–6);
Jane Ellen Harrison
(pp. 165, 223);
E. D. Morel (p. 261);
T. S. Eliot (pp. 220–1);
Wittgenstein (pp. 329–31).
His first wife, Alys, had been a good friend of Walt Whitman (p. 72).
Alys's older sister later got married to Bernard
Berenson (p. 129). Alys's brother was an essayist and critic named
Pearsall Smith, who “indoctrinated me with the culture of the nineties — Flaubert,
and the rest. [. . .] I learned to make sentences full of parentheses
in the style of Walter Pater. I learned the right thing to say about
who were in those days what
Picasso were at a later date” (p. 77).
Russell's family was not very enthusiastic about his engagement to Alys;
his grandmother even got him to accept a diplomatic job in Paris for three months
to “to see whether separation would lessen my infatuation” (p. 83);
it didn't, and they got married immediately after his return.
Alys and her family were Quakers. In their letters to each other, Russell and Alys
adopted the Quaker custom of addressing each other as ‘thee’ rather than
‘you’ (p. 134). The bizarre thing about this is that they always use ‘thee’,
even in the nominative case where one would expect ‘thou’;
and that they always combine this ‘thee’ with
the modern third-person forms of the verbs:
“Thee may read what thee likes of this” (p. 99).
I really don't see the point of that. If you must go for archaic
forms, why not ‘thou may'st’ and ‘thou likest’ and so on?
Perhaps the motivation here is that ‘thee’ is always an object,
with some unidentified and unnamed ‘it’ as the subject (which
accounts for the third-person forms of the verbs), analogous to the construction
that gave rise to the word ‘methinks’.
But why? Were the Quakers trying to imply that a person's actions
are really inspired by some external entity, e.g. by god or fate or something like that?
“ ‘I don't quite understand your not liking Frenchmen — is it simply
because they're unchaste? It is very disgusting — all the ones here from
instance fornicate pretty regularly from 16 years old [. . .] — but it's merely
a matter of education, and one can't object to individual people because they
behave in the way they've been brought up to.” (Edward Marsh,
1894, writing from Heidelberg to Russell in Paris, p. 112.)
“Leibniz wished to be well thought of, so he published only his second-rate work.
All his best work remained in manuscript. Subsequent editors, publishing only what
they thought best, continued to leave his best work unprinted.” (P. 136.)
The first part of Russell's career was mostly devoted to rather arduous work
on the foundations of mathematics. This culminated in the famous three-volume
which he and Whitehead
published in 1910–13 (“in the end the work was finished, but my intellect never
quite recovered from the strain”, p. 155). “The University Press estimated that
there would be a loss of £600 on the book, and while the syndics were willing to bear a loss of
£300, they did not feel that they could go above this figure. The Royal Society
very generously contributed £200, and the remaining £100 we had to find
ourselves. We thus earned minus £50 each by ten years' work. This beats the
record of Paradise Lost.” (P. 155.)
Regarding Paradise Lost, I found this in the Wikipedia article
on Milton: “blind and impoverished he sold the publishing rights to this work on April 27th that year for £10”.
In the early years of the 20th century, he started becoming more and more interested
in political questions. He supported free trade and opposed the protectionist
policies of Joseph Chamberlain.
He supported the female suffrage movement and even stood for parliament in 1907 (p. 156).
“When, in later years, I campaigned against the first world war, the popular
opposition that I encountered was not comparable to that which the
suffragists met in 1907.” (P. 156; even quite a few women opposed it, p. 158.)
He occasionally had bouts of profound pessimism, and even contemplated
suicide. “Although I denied it when Leonard Hobhouse
said so, philosophy seems to me on the whole a rather hopeless business.”
(Letter to Gilbert Murray, December 28, 1902; p. 166.)
“[T]he only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder
as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness
in the world.” (To Murray, March 21, 1903, p. 167.)
“All's well that ends well; which is the epitaph I should put on my
tombstone if I were the last man left alive.” (To Lucy Donnely, April 22, 1906,
p. 190.) But later, during his serious illness in China: “I had always
iamgined until then that I was fundamentally pessimistic and did not greatly
value being alive. I discovered that in this I had been completely mistaken,
and that life was infinitely sweet to me.” (P. 364.)
“What a monstrous thing that a University should teach journalism! I thought that
was only done at Oxford. This respect for the filthy multitude is
ruining civilisation.” (On hearing that it was going to be taught at Harvard,
in a letter to Lucy Martin Donnely, July 6, 1902, p. 168.)
“But a life in books has great calm and peace — it is true that a terrible
hunger for something less thin comes over one, but one is spared from
remorse and horror and torture and the maddening poison of regret.”
(Letter to Lucy Donnely, September 1, 1902, p. 170.) I suppose I should
take heart from this, as I after all also have ‘a life in books’
(or at any rate I have no life outside books). But I'm not quite sure if
Russell is right here. How well does he know a life wholly in books, after all?
His life was quite active; four marriages, numerous friendships, political work,
activism, copious correspondence, etc., etc. Sure, in a bookish life one
is spared certain kinds of remorse and regret. But surely there is also
a very terrible sense of regret which attacks specifically those that
have withdrawn into a ‘life in books’: the regret that you are
missing all this splendid, fascinating, vigorous life out there, the life
of the world, all happening just outside your doorstep, so seemingly close
to you and yet so completely beyond your reach. There is the feeling that
the life in the world is so much better, so much more real, so much more
worth living than the life in books. Well, he does sort of acknowledge this problem,
by mentioning the “terrible hunger for something less thin”.
‘Thin’ is a very apt word, I think; and I can't help wondering
if he didn't underestimate how terrible this hunger really is.
“Only in thought is man a God; in action and desire we are the slaves
of circumstance.” (To Lucy Donnely, November 25, 1902, p. 172.)
This quote forms an interesting contrast with
the famous sentence
Hyperion: “Man is a god when he dreams, a beggar when he thinks.”
I guess this is the difference between a rationalist and a romantic outlook.
But there is, I think, some truth in both.
Of a certain Werner, a South African millionaire: “a fat, eupeptic German with an equally fat gold watch-chain and
a strong German accent (characteristic of all the finest types of British
imperialists)” (letter to Lucy Donnely, February 8, 1905, p. 181).
This reminds me of this splendid cartoon.
Russell became good friends with Joseph Conrad,
thanks to their mutual acquaintance, Ottoline Morrell
(pp. 216–19). Russell even named one of his sons John Conrad
in his honour (p. 218).
Russell was dismayed by the outbreak of the first world war,
and “what filled me with even more horror was the fact that
the anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety
per cent of the population” (p. 240). He became
one of Britain's leading pacifists.
His opposition to the war led to a curious short-lived friendship with D. H. Lawrence:
“Pacifism had produced in me a mood of bitter rebellion, and I found Lawrence
equally full of rebellion. This made us think, at first, that there was a considerable measure of agreement
between us, and it was only gradually that we discovered that we
differed from each other more than either differed from the Kaiser.” (P. 243.)
“I was a firm believer in democracy, whereas he had developed the whole
philosophy of Fascism before the politicians had thought of it.” (P. 244.)
“He had a mystical philosophy of ‘blood’ which I disliked.
[. . .] This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently,
though I did not then know that it led straight to Auschwitz.” (P. 245.)
I don't know much about Lawrence (I read his Lady Chatterley's Lover in great
haste some ten or so years ago, and remember almost nothing about it except that I rather
enjoyed it; I also tried to read some of Lawrence's Italian travel writing, but found
it immensely boring and well-nigh impenetrable); this is the first time I hear about
these proto-Fascist leanings of his. Perhaps I should find some book on this topic and
add it to my to-read list.
He had an affair with the actress Colette
O'Niel. “At Christmas I went to stay at Garsington, where there was
a large party. Keynes was there, and read the marriage service over two
dogs, ending: ‘Who man hath joined, let not dog put asunder.’ Lytton Strachey
was there and read us the manuscript of Eminent Victorians.” (P. 250.)
He attended a meeting in support of the February revolution in Russia.
A mob broke in. “Two of the drunken viragos began to attack me
with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one
defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us
went up to the police and suggested that they should defend me. The
police, however, merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is
an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged.
‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued.
The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an earl’ she
finally cried. At this, the police rushed to my assistance.” (Pp. 254–5.)
During the war, he was imprisoned for six months due to an article he had
written in favour of the peace. On arrival, the prison warder “had
to take particulars about me. He asked my religion and I replied ‘agnostic’.
He asked how to spell it, and remarked with a sigh: ‘Well, there are
many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.’
This remark kept me cheerful for about a week.” (P. 257.)
As part of his pacifist efforts, he had also campaigned for the rights of
conscientious objectors. “The military age was raised in 1918,
and for the first time I became liable to military service,
which I should of course have had to refuse. They called me up for
medical examination, but the Government with its utmost efforts was
unable to find out where I was, having forgotten that it had put me in prison.
If the War had continued I should very soon have found myself
in prison again as a conscientious objector.” (P. 326.)
In 1920 he travelled to Russia as part of a Labour party delegation.
Unlike some of the other members, he was not favourably impressed by
the new communist state. “Cruelty, poverty, suspicion, persecution,
formed the very air we breathed. [. . .] There was a hypocritical pretence
of equality, and everybody was called ‘tovarisch’, but it was amazing how differently
this word could be pronounced according as the person addressed was Lenin
or a lazy servant.” (P. 333.) “Yet I think it the right government
for Russia at this moment. If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky's characters
should be governed, you will understand.” (Letter to Ottoline Morrell,
25 June 1920, p. 354.)
Soon after his return, he was invited to China, to lecture for a year (p. 341).
During the voyage to China, a group of English businessmen
asked him about his impressions of Russia. “In view of the sort of people
they were, I said only favourable things about the Soviet Government, so there was
nearly a riot” (p. 358).
On his interpreter in China: “His English was very
good and he was especially proud of his ability to make puns in English. His name
was Mr Chao and, when I showed him an article that I had written called
‘Causes of the Present Chaos’, he remarked, ‘Well, I suppose, the
causes of the present Chaos are the previous Chaos.’ ” (P. 358.)
His impressions of China and the Chinese were quite positive.
“I had not realized until then that a civilised Chinese is
the most civilised person in the world.” (P. 359.)
He praises their sense of humour (pp. 362–3).
“Apart from the influence of Europeans, China makes the impression
of what Europe would have become if the eighteenth century had gone
on till now without industrialism or the French Revolution.
People seem to be rational hedonists, knowing very well how to obtain
happiness, exquisite through intense cultivation of their artistic
sensibilities, differing from European through the fact that they prefer
enjoyment to power.” (To Ottoline Morrell, 28 October 1920,
pp. 371–2.) “They are like a nation of artists, with all their
good and bvad points. Imagine
[Augustus] John and
Lytton set to govern the British Empire,
and you will have some idea how China has
been governed for 2,000 years. Lytton is very like an old fashioned
Chinaman, not at all like the modern westernised type.” (To Ottoline
Morrell, 1921, p. 374.)
He was severely ill for a time during his year in China, and some Japanese journalists
spread the news that he was dead. “It provided me with the pleasure of
reading my obituary notices, which I had always desired without expecting my
wishes to be fulfilled.” (P. 365.) Later, travelling through Japan
after he left China: “As the Japanese papers had refused to contradict the news of my
death, Dora gave each of them a type-written slip saying that as I was dead I could
not be interviewed.” (P. 366.)
He tried running a school for some years, so that he'd be able to
raise his children according to his own principles (pp. 387–90).
It was, however, a difficult business. There's an interesting exchange
of letters with another progressive schoolmaster, A. S. Neill.
Neill wanted to employ a Frenchman to teach French, but the ministry of labour
refused to issue the necessary permits for the Frenchman unless it could
be proven that no British citizen could do the job competently enough (pp. 420–6).
When the second world war approached, he felt he could no longer adhere to the
same pacifist principles as he had in the WW1: “I had been able to
view with reluctant acquiescence the possibility of the supremacy of the
Kaiser's Germany; I thought that, although this would be an evil, it would not be
so great an evil as a world war and its aftermath. But Hitler's Germany
was a different matter. I found the Nazis utterly revolting — cruel,
bigoted, and stupid. Morally and intellectually they were alike odious to me.”
At the outbreak of WW2, he decided “I must support what was necessary for
victory in the Second War” (p. 430).
(He mentions in his letters from the early years of the WW2 that he feels
like in the fifth century, “the previous occasion on which the
Germans reduced the world to barbarism”; pp. 485, 493.)
He has some very reasonable
thoughts on the policy of non-violent resistance, which he used to support
quite strongly and which had worked fairly well for the Indians trying to
free themselves from British rule: “When Indians lay down on railways,
and challenged the authorities to crush them under trains, the British found
such cruelty intolerable. But the Nazis had no scruples in analogous situations.”
Non-violent resistance is reasonable “only when the holders of power
were not ruthless beyond a point, and clearly the Nazis went beyond this point.” (P. 431.)
I quite agree with this — against an opponent such as the Nazis, a policy
of non-violent resistance would be quite useless. I wonder whether it could have been
used against the pre-WW1 German Empire. Suppose that the Entente powers had been
unwilling to go to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary; Western Europe would
have remained at peace (perhaps the Germans would occupy some French fortifications — at
some point, they promised not to attack France if she remained neutral in the war between
Germany and Russia, and if she handed over those fortifications as a guarantee of neutrality),
but in the East and in the Balkans, Germany and Austria-Hungary would likely
annex a lot of territory or convert it into satellite states (as suggested by the
treaty of Brest-Litovsk).
What would the course of events be like following such an outcome of the war?
If the war had been over quickly enough, the Tsar's regime might have remained in
power in Russia; likewise, of course, the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies
would have been preserved, and indeed would have grown in prestige and power.
Austria-Hugary would not have disintegrated — bad news for its small nations
that had been trying for decades to get more autonomy. Without a revolution in Russia,
communism would not have became the important force that it actually was throughout
much of the 20th century; thus the capitalists of the western countries would not be
motivated to support the creation of the welfare state; in Eastern Europe,
industrialization would be slower due to the absence of the obsession with
heavy industry that was so typical of the capitalists. The German princelings
occupying the thrones of the puppet states established in the wake of a German WW1
victory in the east would be content to lord it over the largely peasant populations
of their new monarchies in quasi-feudal style, and would not be much motivated
to encourage industrialization. I wonder how long the non-democratic character
of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian monarchies could have maintained itself;
would the Kaisers and the Tsars eventually be forced to accept democratic reforms?
How many decades would it all take? Well, at least there would be one good thing
about this scenario: no Versailles treaty means no
‘stab in the back’ myth,
no war (or a short war involving Central and Eastern Europe only) quite possibly
means a considerably less ruined post-war European economy, thus perhaps no roaring
twenties in the U.S. but also no great depression,
all of which almost certainly means no Nazi regime in Germany. But it doesn't necessarily
mean no WW2; Germany, having grown in strength after its successes in the first war,
might eventually become embroiled in a war against Britain and France after all,
perhaps over the colonies. As for the colonies, their emancipation would
almost certainly come about much later than it did, as without the great blood-letting
of the two world wars, Britain and France would be in a much better position to
oppose the liberation movements in the colonies (nor would their prestige among the
colonial population have suffered as much as it actually did).
Well, all of this makes for a very fascinating topic — maybe I really
should read some what-if book; or at least browse the archives of
“I find I can only understand Wittgenstein when I am in good health,
which I am not at the present moment.” (Letter to
G. E. Moore,
May 8, 1930, p. 439.)
“I do not believe that science per se is an
adequate source of happiness, nor do I think that my own scientific
outlook has contributed very greatly to my own happiness, which I
attribute to defecating twice a day with unfailing regularity.”
(Letter to W. W. Norton, the publisher, 27 January 1931, p. 440.
I'm not sure if this is the same thing he refers to in his next
letter, 17 February 1931, p. 441, where he says: “My method of
achieving happiness was discovered by one of the despised race of philosophers, namely, John Locke.
You will find it set forth in great detail in his book on education. This is his most important contribution to
human happiness; other minor contributions were the English, American, and French revolutions.”)
There are several other very sober and reasonable thoughts in that
letter. “I think people who are unhappy are always
proud of being so, and therefore do not like to be told that there is nothing
grand about their unhappiness. A man who is melancholy because lack of exercise has
upset his liver always believes that it is the loss of God, or the menace of Bolshevism,
or some such dignified cause that makes him sad. When you tell people that happiness
is a simple matter, they get annoyed with you.” (Pp. 440–1.)
“I shall keep [a manuscript] by me until the end of May for purposes
of revision, and adding malicious footnotes.” (Letter to W. W. Norton,
17 February 1931, p. 441.)
After the death of his brother Frank, Bertrand Russell inherited the title of earl
(but nothing else, as Frank Russell had died in bankruptcy).
“A title is a great nuisance to me [. . .] There is, so far as I know,
only one method of getting rid of it, which is to be attainted of high treason,
and this would involve my head being cut off on Tower Hill. This method seems to me
perhaps somewhat extreme” (Letter to Norton, 11 March 1931, p. 442.)
He spent the years 1938–44 in America; he was there as a lecturer
when the outbreak of the war made return to England difficult, as well as
dangerous for Russell's children. His life was made difficult by the protests
mounted by a considerable segment of the public as well as of the academic world
protested against his supposed immorality (due to
his writings in support of such things as atheism and free love).
“For example, I was thought wicked for saying that very young infants
should not be punished for
masturbation.” (P. 461.)
Then there was the question of where to educate his children while they
were staying in the U.S. He considered sending his daughter to a secondary
school: “But I found that there was only one subject taught that she did
not already know, and that was the virtues of the capitalist system. I was
therefore compelled, in spite of her youth, to send her to the University.” (P. 460.)
On thinking: “I haven't the vaguest idea either how I think or how one ought
to think. The process, so far as I know it, is as instinctive and unconscious as
digestion. I fill my mind with whatever relevant knowledge I can find, and just
wait. With luck, there comes a moment when the work is done, but in the meantime
my conscious mind has been occupied with other things.” (Letter to Gilbert Murray,
January 15, 1939, p. 491.)
I was surprised to learn that he didn't understand Greek; I would have naively
thought that in the late 19th century Greek would still have been routinely forced upon everyone
who wanted to study anything even remotely resembling philosophy. See his letter
to Gilbert Murray, 18 January 1941, p. 494.
“Shaw is writing a book — What's What to the Politicians.
He has been writing it for many months and would have gone on writing a longer
and longer book if he had not been pulled up by the shortness of paper.”
(Letter from Beatrice Webb, 17 December 1942, p. 503.)
When Russell and his family were finally about to sail back to England,
there were some complications with the bureaucrats at the British
embassy. “ I went to Washington to argue
that I must be allowed to perform my duties in the House of Lords [. . .]
I said to them: ‘You will admit this is a war
against Fascism.’ ‘Yes’, they said; ‘And’, I continued,
‘you will admit that the essence of Fascism consists in the subordination
of the legislature to the executive’. ‘Yes,’ they said,
though with slightly more hesitation. ‘Now,’ I continued,
‘you are the executive and I am the legislature and if you
keep me away from my legislative functions one day longer than necessary, you are
Fascists.’ Amid general laughter, my sailing permit was granted then and there.”
During a visit to Norway, he was involved in a seaplane accident,
but fortunately survived unscathed. “Everybody plied me with
questions. A question even came by telephone from Copenhagen: a voice
said, ‘When you were in the water, did you not think of mysticism
and logic?’ ‘No’, I said. ‘What did you think
of?’ the voice persisted. ‘I thought the water was cold’,
I said and put down the receiver.” (P. 512.)
During a visit to Alice Springs, Australia:
“I was shown a fine gaol where I was assured that the cells were
comfortable. In reply to my query as to why, I was told: ‘Oh, because
all the leading citizens at one time or another are in gaol.’ I was told that,
expectedly and regularly, whenever possible, they stole each other's sheep.”
[To be continued in a few days.]