Frederic Raphael assesses the life of Bertrand Russell, the philosopher who, if he was close to being a genius, was even closer to being a shitby Frederic Raphael / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I first saw, and heard, Bertrand Russell when I was 11 years old. My grandmother then lived in a block of flats in Gloucester Place, which had a restaurant on the ground floor. In 1943, wartime regulations limited the price of a meal to five shillings, though there was a permitted supplement (2s/6d) for smoked salmon. Having dutifully visited my bedridden grandmother, my mother and I were placed, at lunch, at a table next to Russell and his schoolboy son Conrad (the second of that name), to whom he addressed himself, in a consonantal tone, as if he were an unfamiliar and slightly deaf intellectual coeval. When the boy asked him whether having learnt Greek would assist him in mastering Sanskrit, Russell said, “I have a fancy that Welsh might be more pertinent.” Since I was in the process of mastering the uses of ho, hee, to, I was rather dashed by this news.
My only other recollections of that distant day are of the zeal with which Russell spooned his carrot soup and of his philosophically dashing white hair. I have never discovered whether Welsh and Sanskrit do indeed have some formal affinity; it may well be that Russell was entertaining himself with fanciful facetiae (he was famous for laughing loudly at his own jokes). His erudition, however, seemed casual, precise and enviable. Perhaps as a result of that impressive midday proximity, I decided, ten years later, to read philosophy. When I went to hear Russell lecture in Cambridge, there were so many people in Mill Lane that there had to be an overflow meeting. Purporting to be unimpressed by his popularity, Russell observed that some of the audience was probably there “for the wrong reasons” and said that the next week’s lecture would be twice as difficult.
How did an evacuee rarely in London, and certainly no subscriber to Mind, know even in 1943 that Russell was a famous intellect? Although his voice was not as well known as that of another philosopher, CEM Joad, who-as a regular on the original radio Brains Trust-was renowned for insisting that everything depended on “what you mean by” this or that, Russell’s aura was more lustrous and more enduring. Following a loud period of fame, Joad was defenestrated by the BBC after being convicted of travelling on a train without a ticket. Poor Joad is now remembered, if at all, only for his part in the original Gamesmanship, in which Stephen Potter depicted him as a ruthless tennis player. Joad, like Russell, is said to have been an ardent pursuer of women, though he advertised that he had no time for them intellectually. (Would Mary Warnock’s recent Women Philosophers have disposed him to change his mind?)
Russell, too, had famous skirmishes with the law, but they never disgraced him. As Ray Monk tells us, he was first imprisoned, towards the end of the Great War, for publishing remarks likely to endanger British relations with the US. He had alluded, in a reckless polemic for peace (he did not always use honourable arguments in honourable causes), to the regular use of the American army to break strikes. The suggestion was that the doughboys might well be so employed in England. When nothing of the sort happened, and American soldiers died for European reasons, he did not retract; he rarely did.
In old age, as Monk’s second volume will no doubt recount, Russell once again managed to be put away, for a 1960s act of “civil disobedience” in connection with his anti-nuclear campaign. When incited to put Jean-Paul Sartre behind bars for a somewhat similar act of rejuvenating defiance, General de Gaulle replied: “One does not put Voltaire in prison.” As the general might have advised, Russell’s incarcerations only added to his glamour. Unswervingly belligerent in opposition to both the Great and the Vietnam wars, he was, by the end of his very long life, the most flagrantly dissident person ever to have been awarded the Order of Merit, an honour in the gift of a sovereign unlikely to have read any of his works. (Of Principia Mathematica, which established his credentials, he once said that only six people had ever read it through; three of them had probably died in concentration camps and he could not say who the other three were. The mixture of asperity and callousness was typical.)
Throughout his adult life, he made a point of upsetting apple-carts. Philosophy affects to be a common pursuit of the truth, but it is more often a heavyweight championship in which intellectual dominance is the Lonsdale belt and successful blows are low. Russell, like Hemingway, fancied his chances with all comers. As aggressive sexually as he was mentally, he could not get into the ring, or bed, quickly enough (cruelty was an acknowledged part of his method in both fields). In the guise of “moralist,” he employed sophistic arguments to subvert the idea of marriage and did more than anyone to give adultery a good name. Although a late starter (he first fell in passionate love, with Ottoline Morrell, when nearly 40) he was an erotic stayer.
Having abandoned the safety of academic tenure for the rougher rewards of freelance celebrity, Russell became more mercenary than Plato might have applauded. When asked why he had signed his name to some cheap newspaper article, he answered “$50;” it later emerged that he had almost certainly left it to his (third) wife to write it. A dazzling performer in grand circumstances, once off his pedestal he was capable of being as clay-footed as it was possible to be. Although he did not emulate Heidegger in endorsing the Nazis or writing flatulent nonsense about the nature of Being, he too could be heartless and self-justifying. He imagined that he always thought clearly and that what was clear had to be incontrovertible. Although he was often, if inadvertently, on the side of the angels in whom he did not believe, he was capable of appalling (and fallacious) conclusions. For instance, he once said that if it could be shown that humanity would live happily ever after if the Jews were exterminated, there could be no good reason not to proceed with their extermination. This was, to some degree, in line with his demand (later denied) for pre-emptive war-for the sake of peace-against Russia in 1945. It is by no means unarguable that murder is justified if the price is right and it is a measure of Russell’s moral perversity, which he took for clear- mindedness, that he could, even casually, have maintained that it might be. (Dostoevsky had canvassed the same ground, but came to a different conclusion.)
There was something brazen about Russell’s alternations of lofty sentiments and demeaning conduct. He was elegant in attaching noble motives to shabby behaviour, so long as it was his own. Affecting to despise snobbery (and to prefer to conceal his earldom under a commoner’s modest Mr), he found it difficult to believe that his mistress, the pro-Bolshevik Dora Black, did not fancy marrying him in order to become a countess. If he was very close to being a genius, he was even closer to being a shit. He was, however, a great intellect; and he never, so far as any inspector could show, travelled without a ticket.
Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein established him as a biographer who, unlike today’s exhuming fraternity of kiss-and-tellers, is more interested in what distinguished genius from other men than in what is unflatteringly common to both. Monk did not hesitate to confront Wittgenstein’s personal and sexual anxieties, and he was both forthright and sensitive in suggesting their (non-causal) links with his philosophy, but he also valued the purity of Wittgenstein’s thought and the-dare one say?-monkish singlemindedness of his vocation. In tackling Wittgenstein, he faced a task of prodigious difficulty. Monk’s unfussy prose and evident exhilaration, even when face to face with the snarling beast of the private language argument, proved that he had the wit and stamina for the long haul of intellectual biography.
No haul could be much longer than Russell. Born in 1872, at the height of the empire’s Victorian prosperity, he survived until his 99th year, by which time Britain’s power had dwindled and philosophy had, needlessly in Russell’s view, abbreviated its imperial reach. In his youth, Russell admired Spinoza, whose doctrine of the intellectual love of God combined stoic nobility with logical beauty. In old age, he could not forgive those who, if they continued to grind philosophical lenses, now promised that there was nothing of importance to be seen through them.
One of his “trouble-making” acts, late in life, was to supply a sour introduction to Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things, a 1959 assault on Oxford philosophers. One of its targets was Gilbert Ryle, whom Russell disliked and who, as editor of Mind, disdained to have the book reviewed. By the 1950s, Russell combined a strong conviction of his own centrality with spiteful resentment of his marginalisation by Wittgenstein’s followers-who believed that Russell’s “shilling shocker,” The Problems of Philosophy, published in 1912, was his most useful text.
Russell never went gently. “The later Wittgenstein,” Gellner quotes him as saying, “… seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary. I do not for one moment believe that the doctrine which has these lazy consequences is true.” The clarity of Russell’s prose remained undimmed, but was it always honest? Wittgenstein did not so much propound a doctrine as inhabit a method by which doctrines might be compared, classified and evaluated. It may be questioned whether his abandonment of even the possibility of “scientific philosophy” (Russell’s lifelong quest) was justified, but to accuse Wittgenstein of laziness was to put apparent high-mindedness to tendentious purpose.
What Russell could not forgive was not so much Wittgenstein’s late, lazy ideas as his precocious genius and, in particular, his posthumous domination of Oxbridge philosophy. He had old scores to settle with Wittgenstein, dating to 1913. Just as he supposed himself on the verge of a breakthrough in logic, his pupil’s succinct (and unanswerable) criticism had punctured his assurance. Although, on Russell’s account, senility had no compensations (least of all the abatement of sexual desire), it at least allowed him to have the last word: Wittgenstein died almost 20 years before his senior. Unlike so negligible a figure as Heinrich von Treitschke, Wittgenstein-to whom Russell had previously acknowledged his debt-was not mentioned in the bestselling History of Western Philosophy, published in 1946. Despite this inexcusable pettiness, the book remains an unsurpassed monument to Russell’s industry and brilliance.
How great a great man was he? And what is his significance today? Monk observes that the legacy of his grandfather, Lord John Russell, twice Queen Victoria’s prime minister, was “a potent fusion of national history, party politics and family pride.” Russell’s qualities were not the consequence of his lineage, but it is doubtful whether a classless society could foster such a formidably self-assured little prig. His talents were forced into premature flower by the early deaths of both his parents, as a result of which he was pampered into becoming his very Christian grandmother’s goody-goody little prodigy, but his singular self-assurance was, to some degree, a function of Britain’s Victorian ascendancy.
Philosophical advances may not be an automatic result of successful societies, but Greek philosophy “took off” after the defeat of the Persians and was never the same again after the death of Alexander. Russell’s qualities may have had a genetic provenance, but his prose style, like his lordliness, derived from a social situation which is hardly likely to recur. Heidegger was certain that philosophy could be done only in tortuous German; Russell proved that doubt could best be expressed in mandarin English. His quest for certainty began with the dread that it would not be found. And he was as noble in his gloom as he was vulgar in his sensuality. Malcolm Muggeridge once said of Gide that he was like a great cathedral in which something had gone wrong with the drains. There is something equally majestic and faintly in need of eau de Javel about Russell.
It was Russell’s privileged misfortune to belong to a world of giants. It was not easy to tower over Wittgenstein, DH Lawrence or Einstein, not to mention Keynes and Joseph Conrad, with whom he felt such an affinity that he named two sons after him, and TS Eliot, with whose wife Vivien he had, according to Monk, a long affair, supposedly undertaken in the interests of the Eliots’ conjugal happiness.
Wittgenstein said that Russell wrote two kinds of work, the serious stuff which should be bound in blue and be required reading, and the polemico-popular stuff which should be bound in red, as an awful warning. It is the latter for which he is remembered, although it would not carry its certificate of significance if it were not for Principia Mathematica and, perhaps, The Analysis of Mind .
Monk has written an admiring and damning account of a great mind in a satyr’s body. He elucidates the philosophy and untangles the amorous webs of a nobly nasty piece of work, whose like the England of level playing fields, collegial careerism and parochial myopia is scarcely poised to generate. Bertrand Russell: the spirit of solitude
Jonathan Cape ?25