Author: Phillip Jensen

Peace I Did Not Find

A review of the book Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude Ray Monk, Jonathan Cape, London,1996, from kategoria magazine Issue 7.

Bertrand Russell contributed greatly to the Christian cause by giving generations of preachers quotable quotes from his Why I Am Not a Christian. His work in the foundations of mathematics forms a standard part of many a philosophy and mathematics course. He was famous in his lifetime for his philosophy, his political views, his outspoken opposition to World War I, and his opposition to Christianity. He was one of the shapers of thought and society in this century, and so his biography deserves attention from all those who would understand modern life, if for no other reason than that in his own life, Russell lived out the consequences of the desperately pessimistic atheism which he preached.

That he did so, however, was little known at the time. While Russell was seen as the hero of non-Christian morality—he did, after all, resist war and fight for women’s rights—his own lifestyle was a vast travesty of morality. Public recognition of this was suppressed. It is telling that the biography written during Russell’s lifetime, with Russell’s help, had little personal detail, which Monk puts down to both lack of means (as that biographer did not have access to Russell’s unpublished work) as well as lack of inclination. Russell was, to put it baldly, a hypocrite. Now that society has changed so that revealing sordid details of personal immorality does not destroy a person’s reputation, the story can be told. One wonders what the effect would have been had it been told during the time his views were becoming so influential. It would most likely have destroyed his public reputation. Russell’s personal life was no great advertisement for this man who stood as a moralist, a crusader for sexual reform, and a public enemy of Christianity.

Monk’s massive beginning to the biography of Bertrand Russell is an impressive piece of work. It is well written but not easy to read casually, as its meticulous detail swamps any storyline. This is (apparently) deliberate: the author tries to give us enough of Russell’s own words to understand the man first-hand. Russell wrote voluminously, thousands of words each day, many in letters that he and others have preserved. There is a mountain of self-absorbed writing available on Russell’s almost-daily doings. This makes the work more a chronicle than a biography; what it tries to show of Russell’s character could have been accomplished in considerably less space. However, if the author is trying to give the definitive reference to which all future Russell studies can refer, he has certainly provided a wealth of material. In 612 pages of text and 73 pages of notes, references and index, the biogra­pher has only covered the period 1872 -1921.

Russell’s philosophical development

One of the strengths of this book is its pursuit of Russell’s philosophical development and reasoning. Russell’s claim to fame was as a philosopher, and to show little interest in this area would be to seriously distort our understanding of him. He was also a man of some social and political importance in his lifetime. He was introduced to Queen Victoria, spent an hour with Lenin, lectured to Mao, knew Prime Ministers personally, and lectured in the leading universities of the world. It is a life worth telling.

However, the book is not just a description of philosophy. It truly tries to understand the man from the events of his life. To do such a task well, there needs to be some intellectual accord between the writer and the reader about the nature of the man himself. It also depends upon the writer’s understanding of human nature. As regards the former, this book is a success, with its careful documentation. As regards the latter, it is striking how well Russell illustrates the Christian understanding of the nature of man, and the nature of sin and its consequences. Monk has no such perspective, however, and so avenues for understanding Russell which are obvious to a Christian mind are left out entirely. This is illustrated in the biographer’s failure to search out connections between the morality and philosophy of the philosopher, except in some vague psychological categories. It is also seen in the omission of reference to the kind of Christianity that Russell came into contact with. The author considers that Russell’s character was strongly shaped by the way in which he reacted against his pious grandmother while still seeking her approval, but there is no discussion of the particular nature of her piety—for instance, the fact that she was not an orthodox Christian, but Unitarian.

The thesis of the biography is that Russell was right when he said of himself that there were three passions that ruled his life: “the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind” (xviii). However to understand these three passions and their conflict with each other, it is necessary to understand that they were alternative answers to the same single problem that really dominated him: “the problem of his acute sense of isolation and loneliness, a problem that was for him com­pounded by his extraordinarily deep-seated fear of madness” (xix). The author quotes a poem of Russell’s, which begins:

Through the long years I sought peace,
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness.
I found the solitary pain that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find

(quoted p. xix).

This, we take it, sums up Russell’s life.

Perhaps to the reader’s surprise, this is not a secular hagiography; it has too much contact with the source material. The author states: “I am aware that the personality thus revealed is one that many will find repellent, but it has not been my aim to present him in an unfavourable light. There are many things for which I admire Russell greatly—his enormous intelligence, his commitment to philosophical clarity and rigour, his dedication to the causes of social justice and international peace, and so on. But the challenge to those of us who admire Russell for these qualities is to understand how they can coexist with a sometimes quite chilling coldness to those close to him, and a disturbing capacity for deep and dark hatreds” (xix-xx).

It is difficult to know what more to say of this book as a biography, given that it is only the first volume; it finishes with Russell aged 49 (he died at the age of 98). We wait for the second volume to see how the author completes his understanding of Russell’s life. Nevertheless enough of Russell’s character is presented to provide an illuminating example of a man struggling against despair. In many ways Russell is the picture of the intellectual who has discarded the Christian world view— which he deliberately rejected—and lives out the consequences.

Russell the person

Russell the person, as revealed in this book, is almost horrifying. Those who know him only as a philosopher, or even as the author of Why I Am Not a Christian, will probably recoil at the details of his personal life. Whatever pity we feel for Russell’s internal struggles and desperation is countered by the suffering he inflicted upon those around him. At times, Russell showed a twisted honesty in recognizing the implications of what he believed and deliberately mistreating others as a result. At other times he seems hideous in his self-deception. Either way, he is a chilling example of the deliberately godless life.

Russell’s romantic relationships make rather sordid telling. He married at the age of 22, desperate for a sexual relationship. It was a self-centred reason for marriage; he did not love his wife for her good (in fact by the time of his marriage he had let his wife know he was considerably attracted to her sister) but for his own benefit. When she no longer suited him he “fell out of love” with her. This led to years of an almost double life, as the Russells developed a strange relationship with Alfred North Whitehead and his wife, Evelyn. Russell allowed himself to fall in love with Evelyn Whitehead, who would not accept his advances, but he continued in unfulfilled passion for her for years, while working with and being friends with her husband.

The story has many strange episodes, which philosophy students studying the work of Russell and Whitehead would no doubt be surprised to hear. In 1901, Russell and his wife, Alys, moved in temporarily with the Whiteheads in Cambridge. While there, during the time that Whitehead’s wife was very ill, Russell went through what he called his ‘first conversion’; he was “filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and a desire almost as pro­found as that of the buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable” (p. 135). He said this brought him closer to other people, something that enabled him to feel other people’s suffering. However as the biographer says, “there was at least one person to whose suffering he became extraordinarily blind and indifferent after this experience, and that was Alys” (p. 138). Because of Evelyn’s illness, Alys was expected to take over the running of the household and the care of the Whitehead’s children. A close friend described Russell at the time as without sympathy and tolerance for other people’s emotions, even though these were the very things that Russell considered he had acquired through his conversion experience (p. 139).

Following this, however, Russell developed a bizarre philosophy based on the idea that dishonesty was the root of all evil and honesty the basis of all virtue. Since the highest good consisted in contemplating the truth, and truth cannot be achieved without pain and suffering, therefore to cause suffering was virtuous (p. 154). Russell put this into practice by deliberately causing his wife emotional pain and treating her with chilling indifference. Although he later repented of this and decided it was better to treat Alys decently, his bleak view of humanity remained. His only solace was mathematics. He saw math­ematics as sublime, the “chief means of overcoming the terrible sense of impotence, of weakness, or exile amid hostile powers, which is too apt to result from acknowledging the all-but omnipotence of alien forces…mathematics takes us still further from what is human, into the realm of absolute necessity” (p. 159). It was desirable to escape from what is human. The man who wrote, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know [1] also thought “the world which Science pre­sents for our belief is entirely purpose less and indifferent to the hopes and the sufferings of mankind” (pp. 162-3).

Russell’s first adulterous relationship was with Ottoline Morrell, wife of a political friend of Russell’s. His life thereafter was to include a string of (often simultaneous) relationships, in which he lied to his lovers, made promises which he later ignored, and seemed generally indifferent to anyone’s feelings but his own. After having been separated from Alys for several years, Russell admitted what he really wanted was a wife. “Since I quarrelled with Alys” he wrote in a letter to his lover Ottoline, “I have never found anyone who would or could take me away for holidays when I am tired or take care of me & now I find without something of the kind I am no good” (p. 543). He was in an emotionally drained state, it seems, having just helped another lover, Colette, get an abortion (which at this time was illegal) for a pregnancy from another man. The relationship that eventually led again to marriage was not long in coming; he met twenty-five-year-old Dora Black, and began an affair at this time, although his correspondence with Colette still insisted he loved her more than ever and she could trust him utterly (p. 557).

Russell’s self-centredness in his con­duct of these affairs, his deceit and hypocrisy, is breathtaking. His treatment of the young American woman Helen Dudley can only be described as inhuman degeneracy—and from the man who claimed to be the first to stand for parliament on the platform of women’s rights. He met Helen while travelling in America, and suggested she come back to live with him in England, eventually to get married if he could get a divorce from Alys. At the same time, he told Ottoline that he had slept with Helen only out of philan­thropy, to foster her creativeness as a writer (p. 356). After a few days back in England, Russell decided that the relationship with Helen was not so serious after all, particularly since Ottoline was not at all happy about it. When Helen arrived in England—having no idea of his change of heart— Russell refused even to see her. The biographer is able to show by a careful study of the correspondence that Russell’s own account of the affair in his autobiography is totally hypocriticalcal. Her final state—in an asylum—is pathos itself. Another one of Russell’s lovers to end in an asylum was (the married) Vivien Eliot. The biographer seems to have no sympathy for Russell on this issue, and seems to believe the worst about Russell’s responsibility for her final incarceration. Russell lied about the extent of the affair, disowned responsibility, and claimed to be helping the Eliot’s marriage by allowing Vivien to fall in love with him.

Russell was, in fact, an inveterate liar. He developed lying as a technique in his youth to protect himself from his grandmother, and used it consistently in his marriage, in the conduct of his tangled relationships, and in his professional affairs (e.g. p. 572).

Russell’s treatment of people is most disturbing, but other areas of his character also reveal a confusing personality. It is interesting to find that Russell was not a pacifist, even though he opposed World War I to the extent of going to prison as a conscientious objector. He did not, however, oppose war as such. His opposition to that war had to do with his friendship with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Joseph Conrad, love of German culture, dislike of Russia, the pointless destruction of civilization, and the diplomatic avoidability of the conflict. Russell approved of colonial wars such as those against Maoris and Aborigines (p. 383) where the purpose and effect were civilizing.

Russell was anti-Semitic, and considerably racist in his expressions of national and personal snobbery. “I find the coloured people friendly and nice”, he wrote to Ottoline from America, “They seem to have something of a dog’s liking for the white man” (p. 348). He had a very dark side to his nature, twice trying to murder somebody—once his poor wife Alys, the other time a friend, Edward Fitzgerald. He worried over the dark side of his nature, and his writings do talk of religion, sin and guilt. He likened himself to “the sinister embittered murderer” Rogojin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

Russell’s views on religion

Throughout this strange life, it is interesting to see Russell’s views on the importance of religion. He had an understanding of universal sinful- ness—he hated pacifists “who keep saying human nature is essentially good, in spite of all the daily proofs to the contrary” (p. 490), and agreed with Jeremiah 17:9 that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” which Russell said was “Freud in a nutshell” (p. 536).

More than that, Russell saw an importance in the ideas of religion or eternity. “If life is to be fully human”, he wrote, “it must serve some end which seems, in some sense, outside human life, some end which is impersonal and above mankind, such as God or truth or beauty” (p. 447). In other words, “Those who best promote life do not have life for their purpose…” (p. 447). These views emphasize the way in which Russell was a living contradiction, a tension he felt himself. He rejected the utilitarian pursuit of happiness (p. 446) and saw the benefits of religion and many of its truths; but he was an atheist, trying to live in a world of mathematical certainty, whose certainty his own philosophy had undermined.

Russell searched for meaning, which continually eluded him, and tried to escape the solitude of his own thoughts. “I care passionately for this world and many things and people in it, and yet…what is it all?” he wrote from prison. “There must be something more important, one feels, though I don’t believe there is” (p. 530). Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he could see that although he did not know God, the experience of life demanded and required there to be a God. For Russell, human affection “is…at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God” (p. 531). At the same time he desired intensely to depersonalize everything, to live with the abstract, not limited by particulars. This may have been the root of his hatred of mankind: “it is the human race that is vile. It is a disgrace to belong to it. Being busy is like taking opium, it enables one to live in a land of golden dreams—I must get busy again. The truth is not the sort of thing one can live with” (p. 490).

The biography ends with Russell just having become a father. It closes on a hopeful and yet ominous note:

“In their various ways, his early religious beliefs, his belief in the platonic realm of mathematics, his faith in revolutionary socialism and even the ecstasies of romantic love had all disappointed him; they had all turned out to be mere ‘phantoms in the dusk’, disap­pearing in the cold light of day. But fatherhood, the binding love and loyalty (as Conrad put it) between a man and his son—that, surely, was as real as any contact can be between one person and another. And in that contact, equally surely, Russell thought, he would find the lasting release from the prison of the self, from the feeling of being a ‘ghost’, for which he had longed all his life” (p. 612).

A tormented and lonely human, Russell treated others with inhu­manity. As such, Russell is an illustration—almost a self-acknowledged one —of the hopelessness and immorality of atheism. He was famous for his philosophy and his liberalism, his championing of women’s rights and his opposition to World War I. However, the public face of the hero could not be in greater contrast to the life of the per­ son. This person who stands as such a major figure in modern philosophy is hardly a positive advertisement of the practical worth of his own views. It is easy to shy away from telling such stories, for they make unsavoury reading. In telling the story of his life, however, the point is not merely to repeat scandalous stories, but to bring to the surface the hopelessness that stems from the views. Ideas have consequences in real life; Russell is a sad example of this.

[1] Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, Oxford University Press, London, 1935.

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