Bertrand Russell’s Humour, Part II

Dr Johnson was only sometimes right when he said that nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for aught else besides money. He himself, on decent commission, compiled one of our language’s greatest dictionaries; Russell, with his History of Western Philosophy, compiled one of the most lucid introductions to western thought a layman can put his hands on. So perhaps such books can only be written by authors with a clear sense of public duty in mind. T.S. Eliot, for example, did not write ‘The Waste-Land’ for money, and neither was he a blockhead.  He wrote, like most writers of literature, to produce something wholly original, profound. But to write for the edification of the public, and to write well, requires no such vanity – requires, even, its suppression, in favour of a steady-hand and keen sense of an audience that is nothing like oneself.   

The book was written out of necessity: Russell needed the money. He was lecturing in New York, pre-war, and the mother of a student who attended the same college brought a suit against that college, successfully, for employing – in the words of her lawyer – a ‘lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fibre’. One example given by the complainant included Russell’s opinion that it is wicked to punish young children for masturbation. ‘A typical American witch-hunt was instituted against me,’ wrote Russell, ‘and I became taboo throughout the whole of the United States’. Regimes may change, but the pattern is familiar to us in our time. Russell was denied platforms across the country, or else he was kept out of the public eye through fear of being lynched by a ‘Catholic mob, with the full approval of the police’. Russell’s options were either to return to Blitz Britain, or to indulge friends and allies to keep his children in education. Fortunately, a Dr Barnes gave him a five-year appointment as a lecturer at his foundation in Philadelphia. Out of the lectures Russell delivered for this post he was able to produce his most commercially successful book.

The History is not without flaws. Critics have accused the book of biases, and it is true that Russell writes with an arched brow about the Church fathers and the saints, and about Friederich Nietzsche as if his significance is merely political. Specialists warn general readers against his review of Immanuel Kant, which they regard as misunderstood.

Russell responded to these charges by arguing that a good book is always held together by a point of view, and that it is humbug to pretend otherwise. And, indeed, nobody complains about Johnson’s lack of affection in his dictionary for French loanwords, or his snipes at the Scottish. They are part of the fabric of the thing. In the same way, aside from Russell’s deft, clear prose, it is his humour that makes the book still worth reading. It is one of the book’s chief delights, and the reader finds herself turning pages faster in order to find more of it. Here, for example, is Russell on Pythagoras:

‘He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. His religion was embodied in a religious order, which, here and there, acquired control of the State and established a rule of the saints. But the unregenerate hankered after beans, and sooner or later rebelled’.

Or, if you are not tickled by the placement of that word ‘hankered’, take this description of St Benedict’s monastic self-depredations in the sixth century:

‘He immediately acquired the power to work miracles. The first of these was the mending of the broken sieve by means of prayer… Abandoning the sieve, he went to his cave, unknown to all but one friend, who secretly supplied him with food let down by a rope, to which a bell was tied to let the saint know when his dinner had come. But Satan threw a stone at the rope, breaking both it and the bell. Nevertheless, the enemy of mankind was foiled in his hope of disrupting the Saint’s food supply’.

It is often a mistake to explain the joke, but the elegant variation on Satan as the ‘enemy of mankind’ makes his evil plot seem a little too, shall we say, provincial. Moving into our period, Russell cannot help taking a gentle swipe at Henri Bergson, in his account of the fateful division between ‘instinct’ and ‘intellect’ in the animal kingdom. ‘They are never wholly without each other, but in the main intellect is the misfortune of man, while instinct is seen at its best in ants, bees, and Bergson’.

Russell’s humour, as these jokes placed alongside one another begin to make clear, tell us something about his point of view holding the book together. It appears, at first glance, to express Russell’s scepticism, his atheism, since the targets, as elsewhere in the book, are in the main religious. Yet it also stems from a particularly English temperament that is suspicious of theory and prefers empiricism. Thus, Russell’s survey of Bergson’s thought here is slightly ungenerous, as if he feels it is a waste of time to explain something not rooted in scientific observation, but is merely a philosopher’s conceit.

Yet Russell’s humour is also a  Protestant’s one, rooted in his upbringing; it despises outward displays of devotion or virtue, or even enthusiasm. Readers are still surprised to find him critical of Socrates, but Socrates was fashioned by the Church as a kind of Saint: ‘His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable,’ writes Russell, ‘if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods’. Moreover, Socrates favoured his own ethical standards over scientific thought. ‘This is a treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins’.

The empirical approach of the Atomists, whom he rightly admires, begins one thread in the book, continuing through the work of Newton and Kepler, and in mathematics Leibniz, John Locke and David Hume. In another thread, favoured less by our guide, the Platonists instigate a tradition of thought – for instance, dividing mind and body, earth and heavens – which leads to Christianity. The rise and decline of that faith then makes way for the fervour of Romantics, in whom he identifies seeds of nationalism and totalitarianism, just now plunging his own world into carnage and mass-murder. Here, Russell’s grasp of the matter seems to be rooted in his own times. ‘If we could all live solitary and without labour,’ writes Russell, ‘we could all enjoy this ecstasy of independence; since we cannot, its delights are only available to madmen and dictators’. This response seems like fine common sense: we all need to do some work in this world. But it is misleading. The Romantics responded to a world which had been transformed – made uglier – by the rise of industry. Men were, to use a Marxist term, alienated from their labour. It was the dream of poets and philosophers that men may someday escape their fated drudgery. But it takes imagination, rather than common sense, to grasp what has happened, and what might become of it. Elsewhere, Russell describes Byron’s verse ‘poor’ and his sentiment ‘tawdry’; and this is a poor and unnecessary judgment from a cantankerous professor.

The final chapters, often thought to be the finest in the book, deal with contemporary philosophers, including the set to which Russell belongs: that of ‘modern analytical empiricism’ incorporating mathematics, ‘and its development of a powerful logical technique’ set out originally, all those years ago, in Principia Mathematica. In this, he says, philosophy is able finally to achieve the quality of science; the book thus points towards a happy ending for western philosophy. Logical analysis, he hopes, will mitigate fanaticism in our world. Science, at last, can be separated only from ‘matters of feeling’.

Matters of feeling are those about which Russell ultimately could not teach us. Having been raised by his prudish Victorian grandmother, and intensely devoted to pure mathematics from an impressively young age, not to mention a cold-hearted divorcee, Russell always made clear his diffidence towards emotion. All well and good in a century torn apart by fanaticism and rage, except that, unlike other great thinkers of his time, such as Sigmund Freud, he was not able to understand its true power in the lives of others. Consequently, he tended to trust the fate of the world to rationalism; and his public lectures, dealt with at tedious lengths in the final chapters of his Autobiography – lectures with titles such as ‘The Future of Mankind’ – now seem to us quaint in their grandstanding generalisations. Russell would in all likelihood be dismayed to see the resurgence of religious fanaticism in our time, as well as the renewed faith in political strong men. He had imagined a one-world state to have emerged by this time.

Nonetheless, he would not be paralysed by utter despair; he would not be drawn into sectarian fervour, on any side. He would, instead, attend to the problem with serene manners and a humane fair-mindedness, underwritten with deadpan irony. If we wish to learn from Russell, for our own sake, we should learn from his humour and not from his judgments, and we should begin by reading History of Western Philosophy.

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