Bertrand Russell (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A very British crank

Bertrand Russell is almost too familiar a figure to be worth remembering

Artillery Row

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Bertrand Russell passed almost unnoticed. This is strange. Granted, most men are forgotten 150 years after their birth. For most of us, this is probably a merciful fate. But what about this man?

Russell, undeniably, was a titan of philosophy and literature. He won the De Morgan Medal for his contributions to mathematics and the Nobel Prize for his contributions to letters. Principia Mathematica is widely acknowledged by more intelligent authors than myself to be an indomitable achievement in the field of classical logic. A History of Western Philosophy is lauded, even by its critics, as an enlivening tour through the realm of ideas.

Russell was ahead of his time intellectually and culturally. An opponent of institutional religion when institutional religion had teeth, he wrote Why I Am Not A Christian three quarters of a century before Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion. His Marriage and Morals challenged the premises of the nuclear family three decades before the swinging sixties. A passionate humanitarian, he protested, throughout the course of 97 years on Earth, against everything from the First World War to the invasion of Vietnam.

So, what happened? “Russell’s books should be bound in two colours,” said Wittgenstein, “Those dealing with mathematical logic in red — and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue — and no one should be allowed to read them. 

This was harsh but not entirely unjustified. The trouble is that this master of logic could be stunningly illogical. Every prescient and insightful point in his voluminous popular work is liable to be followed by another which is eccentric if not embarrassing.

Anyone who writes long and hard into their 90s will produce more than a few embarrassing quotes. (Some of us produced more than a few in our twenties alone.) What makes Russell’s damaging to his legacy is their place within a body of work which insists on the ambitious reordering of the world on rational grounds. Russell saw the world as being quite neatly split between the superstitious and dogmatic, and the sane and reasonable. His own intellectual record casts this into doubt.

Russell’s twinkly image has faded since his death

No one could dispute the courage and sincerity of his campaigns for peace, for example. He was, after all, arrested in the 10s and in the 60s for his anti-war activism. But his mind careered between different perspectives. He was for appeasement right up to World War Two, when he realised, quite suddenly, that Hitler occupying Europe would be intolerable. After the war, he suggested that the USA deploy the threat of nuclear weapons to pacify Stalin. When the Cuban Missile Crisis rolled around, on the other hand, he thought that Kennedy’s use of nuclear deterrence made him “worse than Hitler”. We look backwards with the benefit of knowing that Hitler was sincere and Kennedy was successful. Still, we can conclude that it is very difficult to know what is “rational” in complex situations.

Russell was too willing to believe that what was rational was whatever interested him at any given time. According to Ray Monk, in his fine critical biography The Ghosts of Madness, Russell’s interest in behaviourism led him to attempt to cure his son’s fear of water by dunking him in the sea. Somehow, this strategy was unsuccessful.

Russell’s twinkly image has also faded since his death. Few of our private lives could escape a rigorous biographer’s attention unscathed, so haughty disapproval is to be avoided, but Russell’s love life was exceptionally bleak. Seducing and then rejecting T.S. Eliot’s wife Vivienne, for example, humiliated the former and damaged the latter in an entirely predictable manner. Having treated marital commitment as a quaint superstition, meanwhile, Russell was tortured by jealousy when his wife Dora began to spend more time with another man than she did with him.

Still, Russell could be selfless, as in his support for the often downright hostile Wittgenstein. Despite his strong opinions, he was tolerant enough to be friends with very different kinds of people, having warm relations, for example, with the eccentric imperialist, explorer and spiritual writer Francis Younghusband. His personal and intellectual bravery and energy are beyond argument.

Even those of us who disagree with many of Russell’s political and philosophical opinions can take inspiration from man. As much as his mistakes should encourage us to be humble in the face of our capacity for failure, he was admirably willing to change his mind. Having sympathised with the Russian Revolution, for example, he was revolted by the dogmatism and authoritarianism that he found when he met Lenin in 1920. It took many other intelligent people decades, and millions of corpses, to realise their mistake. 

As much as Russell’s fear of nuclear warfare led him to behave unwisely, his attentiveness to the potential crises of the future was well-founded. Nuclear extinction loomed in the background of the politics of the twentieth century and looms in the background of our politics today. What other dangers lurk there? Our descendants will know, and to err in one’s perspective on how they can be dealt with might seem more intelligent than neglecting them entirely.

Beyond this, Russell was, as George Orwell wrote, “one of the most readable of…writers”. We can take that seriously given the source. His History, his memoirs and his essays sparkle with wit and elegant observation. In In Praise of Idleness, for example, he wrote:

Perhaps the most important advantage of “useless” knowledge is that it promotes a contemplative habit of mind. There is in the world much too much readiness, not only for action without adequate previous reflection, but also for some sort of action on occasions on which wisdom would counsel inaction.

It may be that Russell did not always remember this, but it is true nonetheless.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover