Bertrand Russell at Ninety

Heir to a Radical Tradition

 

[This essay was first published in the June 15, 1962 issue of Commonweal]

"My grandfather," wrote Bertrand Russell, "whom I remember vividly, was born on the eighteenth of August, 1792, a fortnight after the poet Shelley, whose life ended in 1822. At the moment of my grandfather's birth the French Revolution was just getting under way." It was this grandfather whom Russell refers to as an aristocratic reformer—"a type now quite extinct"; but to look at the television screen and see some unfortunate interviewer transfixed by the unblinking stare of this aged eagle is to become certain that the type lives on—in the grandson . For four centuries Russell's family has been important in the public life of England, and in his person it still is. What are the qualities, besides sheer intelligence, which account for this continuing hold on British opinion?

At ninety, George Bernard Shaw was merely a grand old man, safe and senile on the shelf of public adulation. But Russell can still galvanize a police court, write books that are read for what they say, irrespective of the age of the person saying it, and be refused the use of the London Festival Hall for his ninetieth birthday party—in case the celebrations might lead to a breach of the peace. Yet in an age which prizes the false bonhomie of the television personality, Russell's crisp and emphatic answers have a Victorian manliness which is quite alien to the medium on which they appear.

In this respect, he reminds one more of a latter-day J. S. Mill than of any contemporary type. Nor is this a merely fanciful comparison. Russell has said that he is in complete agreement with Mill's values, especially in the emphasis placed upon the liberty of the individual; and one has only to recall the now celebrated broadcast debate between Russell and the Jesuit Fr. Copleston to see that what Russell has said of Mill can be said of himself: his intellectual integrity is impeccable. Until he went to Cambridge, Russell, like Mill, was "solitary, shy and priggish." But Mill was never a university man, whereas Cambridge fitted Russell like a glove; and he became a Fellow of Trinity in 1895.

If Mill can be described as having a joyless knowledge of the sources of joy, this cannot be said of Russell, whose sheer verbal exuberance has helped to make him the best-seller he so justly is. He admitted to Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he collaborated on Principia Mathematica from 1910-13, that he loved words; they seemed, said Whitehead, to satisfy his craving for expression. Yet beneath the wit is an edge of deep intellectual penetration. Of the Cambridge of his youth, he says, "incompetence, oddity and even insanity were tolerated, but so was real merit"—a description of the quintessence of successful academic liberty; and when, in his History of Western Philosophy, he says, "Kant was disaster," he means it.

It takes more than flippancy, however, to endear a philosopher to the British; and Russell likes to tell the story of what happened when, during a pacifist meeting in the First World War, he was attacked by a couple of drunken viragos. The police who were standing by would not go to help him. "But he is an eminent philosopher," remonstrated a friend—the police merely shrugged their shoulders. "He is famous all over the world as a man of learning"—still nothing happened. "But he is the brother of an earl." At this, says Russell, the police rushed to his assistance. He succeeded his brother as third earl in 1931.

Russell was not so much a pacifist in the First World War as a political objector, which he still is. He thought then that a negotiated peace was the right policy, much as now he favors unilateral disarmament. "Love of England," he says, "is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess"; and his is the very essence of the English temperament: its love of words, precision, fact and its suspicion of system building, pretence and verbosity. Flippant about what pompous people take seriously, and passionately in earnest about what, for example, many Catholics of the Latin tradition tend to pass over by invoking Rerum Novarum—social justice—Russell is splendidly at one with Mill, his ancestors, and the whole English radical tradition.

In company with the founding fathers of the American constitution, the English radicals held certain truths to be self-evident: that man was essentially rational and could be fulfilled only in a society which, by conceding g individual liberty, allowed him to live in conformity with his nature. Following Mill and Bentham, they could accept no received opinion, no existing institution as either true or just until it had been proved so; and since the only true authority is that imposed by our-selves, a regime is acceptable only if its authority runs "genuinely and spontaneously" through the great majority of its people, and if it concedes reasonable autonomy to minorities. Despotism is, of all political forms, the most detestable; and since war is the chief promoter of despotism, it is the greatest obstacle to responsible and just government.

The chief characteristic of this radical attitude to authority is its union of liberal education and moral earnestness, since authority must be understood before it can be accepted, and the proper education of the mind is at once moral and intellectual. This was the discipline that brought the British Labor Party to power. What enabled it to produce men of the stature of Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison was that the authority of its policies was derived from men working and arguing in community of purpose, not in the Oxford Colleges, but up and down the country in small groups meeting in draughty halls and welded into that university of the common man—the Workers' Educational Association—which had for its first tutors R. H. Tawney and a future archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. It is not surprising therefore to find that Russell himself ran a progressive school in Sussex from 1927-32, and that he has spent so much of his time in teaching throughout the world: the battle is lost or won in the schools, where, as he has said, freedom is the natural training for democracy, and autocracy the natural prelude to autocracy in the state.

It is against this background that we need to see his publication some five years ago of Why I Am Not a Christian, a book which the London Times reviewer thought ought to have been entitled Why I Am Not a Low Church Anglican of a type almost wholly extinct. And there is certainly a streak of theological naiveté in Russell: he seems rather easily put off by the failure of an early attempt to verify the existence of angels who did not, apparently, when he was a child, come when he called for them; and he thinks, following Mill, that the question "Who made God?" shows the simple fallacy in the argument from the First Cause. But his case does not really rest on grounds to which he is temperamentally antipathetic. His objections to religion are moral and political; and his collisions with the Church have been characteristically head-on: he does not stoop to insinuate.

Religious belief far from being necessary to morality produces fanaticism—"convictions which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence"—and this is the surest way to the sacrifice of all intellectual integrity, and therefore to all toleration and justice. The most dangerous of all Christian bodies is the Catholic Church, precisely because of the rigidity of its beliefs, any moderation in the fanaticism of which has been effected not by the Church but by its enemies. Thus not only is it the similarity between Christianity and Communism that makes them incompatible with each other, but religion produces the very attitudes which make war inevitable.

It is significant that Russell quotes with approval Mill's story of how his father rejected religion, not on intellectual but moral grounds; and it is clearly Russell's conviction that the practice of morality is harmed by its being related to religious belief. He told the Jesuit Fr. Copleston that good and bad are as self-evident to his feelings as blue and yellow are to his eyes; and he has said that to ground morals on religion is to confuse the philosophy of value with the philosophy of nature. At the age of eighty-seven, Russell published what has been accepted as a classic of its kind: My Philosophical Development. In it he makes clear that although Whitehead aroused him from his dogmatic slumbers, his philosophy of nature is based on the assumption that we cannot grasp the world as a whole: it consists of "events, short, small and haphazard. . . . order, unity and continuity are human inventions." He goes on to say that "the attempt to humanize the cosmos is displeasing to me quite independently of the question whether it is true or false”; and as far back as 1899, in an essay with the significant title Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is, he had spoken of religion as invented, and as a device by which to prove the future excellence of the world.

This was the root of his determination to question the work of those Idealist philosophers whom, in 1914, he accused of being "less anxious to understand the world of science and daily life than to convict it of unreality in the interests of a supra-sensible world." It is not surprising, therefore, that Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein ("my pupil and later my supplanter at Cambridge") should have at first devoted themselves to the digging up of what was obscured by irrelevant detail; the revealing of the basic logical particles or atoms which compose reality; and the possibilities of constructing a hierarchy of languages possessing increasing accuracy and simplicity. This was the birth of Logical Analysis.

Yet these more technical preoccupations are in keeping with Russell's other attitudes: the world of logical particulars may be distinct from that of moral particuIars, but each is structurally very similar and both relate to an underlying assumption that religion is invalid, because it makes a useless claim: that we can make sense of our world as a whole. To make such a claim is to commit what, for Russell, is a sin against the light. The description may have been repudiated, but the pejorative force remains: it is mysticism, and it was by that sin that Wittgenstein himself finally fell.

Russell the man, however, transcends the limit s of his philosophy. Time and time again he reverts in his writings to the First World War as the watershed in his life: it forced him out of a world of abstractions. "I felt," he says, "an aching compassion for the young men going off to battle . . . and found myself united to the actual world in a strange marriage of pain." He spoke out then as he speaks out now, like some modern philosopher king, unafraid to use his rank and prestige when he believes that the state is in danger.

Three years ago he backed an attack on the teaching of philosophy at Oxford by writing a preface to a book by Ernest Gellner called Words and Things. Russell has always dismissed the all-powerful Oxford philosophers as concerning themselves with what silly people mean when they say silly things, and in his preface he charges them with insinuating, by their methods, that the best thought is pedantic and dull, and that ideas are generally the result of carelessness and confusion. But what is worse, their cult of common usage conceals, he fears, a "curious kind of arid mysticism.

Russell has certainly not evaded his responsibilities as a philosopher: hence his preoccupation with the Bomb. He is president of the Committee of One Hundred which directs the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament; he has taken his seat in the Lords and among the squatters; and he has used all his powers of ruthless exposition and logical analysis to expose the evasions and confusions of his opponents. His latest book, Has Man a Future?, published only a few month s ago, summarizes the history of the nuclear debate, ranging from the unsuccessful efforts of the American scientists to persuade their government to anticipate the consequences of dropping the first atomic bomb, to his own initiative through the Pugwash conferences to bring scientists together from both sides of the Iron Curtain, not as delegates but as human beings, shedding their official status.

To regard this as the irresponsible behavior of a nonagenarian, as did the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, or of someone who is old enough to know better, as did the Judge at the Old Bailey in February, when Russell gave evidence on behalf of the Committee of One Hundred, is to show a dangerous misunderstanding of men and motives. We must surely admire the altruism of a man who self-confessedly believes that when he dies he will rot, and that nothing of his ego will survive.

Yet although he can thus face the great cry of Albany's: "It will come,/Humanity must perforce prey upon itself,/Like monsters of the deep," Russell' s grasp of human nature lacks a dimension that is always present in Shakespeare and the tradition from which he derived; so that when, after so clearly defining our dilemma and cogently charting our risks, he tells us what to do—"a solemn declaration," "a moratorium on provocative acts"—we feel let down . Such measures would succeed only if men were habitually reasonable in the best traditions of British radicalism, and were only occasionally moved to folly; but the deliverance for which we are all seeking can come only from a deeper and richer political imagination.

Russell remains, as he admitted on his eightieth birthday, an optimist, refusing to accept fatalistically that man is born for trouble; and this is precisely where he disappoints most deeply—in the vision of the Paradise, as he calls it, that man can and will achieve, if only he banishes the threat of nuclear warfare. No man's solution can rise above his analysis, and a distinct limitation is revealed by Russell's constant, even breezy, denial of that fuller understanding of human nature which dawned upon Mill when, in asking himself the question, "if all your objects in life were realized, would this be a great joy and happiness to you?, " he found that an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered "No!"

And to Lear's cry in his agony—"Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?"—Russell can only reply: "Your question is logically impermissible. It is like saying that since each son has a father, the human race must have a father; but since the concept of cause is being logically misapplied, your demand is meaningless."

Yet humanity insists on an answer; but an answer that can come only from a deeper apprehension of the human condition, such as was possessed by another Englishman who, although Mill's contemporary, elected to join an alien tradition: "Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against these giants, the passion and the pride of man."

Newman's is peculiarly a voice speaking to our own generation, whereas Russell's, that of an unrepentant liberal optimist, emerges from a tradition—temperate, rational and aristocratic—already obscured by the unforeseen consequences of its agnosticism. For us, mankind has a future only if he transplants his liberalism and his optimism to the soil in which they first were seeded.

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