Bertrand Russell’s Humour

A great man’s 147th birthday is by no means significant. Ending in neither five nor ten, it does not suggest a milestone. Yet, being odd, it at least affords the occasion to broach a rather odd subject for well-deserved appreciation, and is all the more significant for being unexpected. Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell.

I wish him well not just for his devotion to great causes, often at the cost of his liberty and reputation, and neither for his arguments against Christianity, which has made him known on YouTube. The best of Russell is to be found in his writing. The best of his books, which are only a handful – and he wrote a great deal of them – are invaluable to the autodidact, the late-comer. Like George Orwell, he wrote in plain language as a matter of principle, and in an intelligent conversational manner accessible to a large readership. But writing this way, for Russell, is something to be earned. ‘I am allowed to use plain English’ he once wrote, ‘because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose’. Plain language is the prerogative of the learned speaking to laymen; the prerogative of the teacher, with his specialisation well established. And Russell, if not a great philosopher, was a great teacher.

To sum up the life of a man whose span crosses several epochs is to leave out so much. Bertrand Russell, like Winston Churchill, was a Victorian by the time he was in his mid-twenties; by the time of his death, he had lived long past the mid-point of the twentieth-century (and the naming of those epochs tells a lot about the upheavals of the intervening time). His mother and father, the Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, radicals, freethinkers, and friends with John Stuart Mill, both died when he was a baby. According to his Autobiography (1975), they both contributed evenly to his person a share of characteristics. Mother was ‘witty, serious, original,’ while father was ‘philosophical, studious, unworldly’. After their deaths, the Russell boys were for a time under the guardianship of his brother’s free-thinking Darwinian tutor, D.A. Spalding. Pious grandparents soon intervened, and Russell’s most memorable portrait from his childhood years is of his grandmother, a Puritan in the traditional sense: forbidding, yes, and reactionary, but fearless, dutiful, and indifferent to popular opinion and convention. One of her favourite quotations from the Bible was ‘Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil’. For Russell, this became a guiding principle.

From a young age he excelled at mathematics, which he took all the way to Cambridge on a scholarship, and graduated seventh in his year. In his early thirties, he published Principia Mathematica. On this, he says, he worked ten to twelve hours a day for a three-year period. The work was so vast, and so delicately wrought, that ‘every time I went out for a walk I used to be afraid that the house would catch fire and the manuscript get burnt up’. The manuscript survived, was published, and made Russell known around the world as a premier in his field.

Perhaps because of his early and intense devotion to the purer realms of mathematical logic, his life is often punctuated by sudden, irrational spasms. For example, the Autobiography is notorious for its account of his decision to divorce his first wife: ‘I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys’. Elsewhere, he describes being overtaken by a ‘mystical illumination,’ instilling in him a love of beauty and an interest in children, and converted him from Imperialism to pro-Boer pacifism.

These developments had occurred prior to the great events of the twentieth-century, by which time Russell was already in his forties. Two subsequent political events within the first decades of the century would serve as a test for intellectuals of that time. Russell passes both of them. At the prospect of the First World War, he was filled with horror, especially at the public’s eagerness for carnage, eradicating any Victorian notions one had of liberal progressivism. ‘I had supposed that most people liked money better than almost anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better’. This is from the chapter of his autobiography’s second volume, and is in many ways the best in an uneven (and unreliable) account of his own life. It might be one of the most important chapters of an autobiography from that period. Suffice to say, his account of that time is moving and heartfelt: ‘I became filled with despairing tenderness,’ he writes, ‘towards the young men who were to be slaughtered, and with rage against all the statesman of Europe’.

Out of this war Russell became a political man of action. He expended energy and money and reputation, and then his liberty, in order to prevent it. His courage, acted without vanity or bravado, in the face of jeering pro-war mobs and a reactionary government, makes him seem like someone from the future, or as he puts it, ‘like a ghost dropped by accident from some other planet’. He presented himself as a man of reason, viewing his fellows with either pity or an arched brow, for they were hopelessly irrational. For this reason he had an ear for anecdotes about the strange behaviour of his acquaintances, such as the friend who berated cars for the racket they made, and who always read him the work of poets that was ‘not their best’ for amusement. At other times, he is the lone voice of reason in a world of tragic stupidity and waste. Here he recalls his love affair with Colette during the war:

‘The first time that I was ever in bed with her… we heard suddenly a shout of bestial triumph in the street. I leapt out of bed and saw a Zeppelin falling in flames. The thought of brave men dying in agony was what caused triumph in the street. Colette’s love was at that moment a refuge to me…’

Russell’s way of putting things, particularly in that third sentence, makes his own personal surmises appear almost as fact. It is an effective but sometimes deceptive style. Were the cheers of triumph really caused by bloodlust, as he imagines, or by the relief at seeing a threat to their homes averted?

More often, however, Russell’s style is on target. He demonstrates its efficacy none more so than in his first important book, still worth reading: The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920). This book, pamphlet-sized and available cheaply, constitutes the passing of the second test that intellectuals faced early in the century, which is the Russian Revolution. To this day his book is still regarded as one of the best critiques of the Bolshevik regime from a leftwing vantage, borne out of his visit to the Soviet Union in its earliest years. Although Russell believes that one must ‘enter with sympathy or imagination’ into the spirit of the revolution, he cannot regard it as anything other than a failure. ‘I cannot share the hopes of the Bolsheviks any more than those of Egyptian anchorites; I regard both as tragic delusions, destined to bring upon the world centuries of darkness and futile violence’. Once again, Russell speaks as if he were that ghost dropped from an alien planet. His comparison suggests a sense of detachment, as if he is regarding things with an objectivity of scientific rigour. In the end, Russell came to the conclusion that the revolution and its regime were the result not of a scientific worldview but a religious and dogmatic one, and was therefore doomed to fail.

Even still, conservatives might object to Russell’s brave and early scepticism; they might reply that Bolsheviks were not paving the way to Hell with good intentions, but with wicked ones. But Russell had Lenin’s number from the start, sensing his narrow-mindedness and dogmatic snobbery. ‘I think if I had met him without knowing who he was,’ he writes, ‘I should not have guessed that he was a great man’. There is a beautiful frankness in this rather plain and casual observation. It is once again simply Russell’s opinion, but written without emotive language it appears as fact. For this reason it is tinged with humour, because it has almost the simplicity of a child telling the truth about something that adults have kept quiet about, were it not for the underlying sarcasm which suggests that a man’s greatness is largely a matter of reputation. Added to that is its provocative indifference to idol-worshippers and the party line. Russell would always write this way about ‘great’ men.

In his autobiography, Russell acknowledged that his political philosophy leaves him a rather lonely figure:

‘I have imagined myself in turn a Liberal, a Socialist, or a Pacifist, but I have never been any of these things, in any profound sense. Always the sceptical intellect, when I have most wished it silent, it has whispered doubts to me, has cut me off from the facile enthusiasms of others, and has transported me into a desolate solitude’.

He returns again and again to this loneliness as a theme, and more than once in his life he was truly outcast, socially and financially. And yet, Russell would have a multitude of grateful readers, particularly for his greatest book, to be discussed in the second part of this article: History of Western Philosophy.

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