Bertrand Russell in 1876
There is little doubt that Bertrand Russell represents the foremost quintessential philosopher and all round savant of the 20th century. Russell burst from the womb in 1872 and had the good fortune to be born within the British nobility and consequently thrived- good for him. He received an early liberal education and eventually graduated from
in 1893 with a
First Class degree ( BA) in mathematics. Cambridge
Russell’s mind was exceedingly dynamic and far reaching and he exemplifies the popular notion of the polymath; a man of prodigious and exceptional intellectual gifts. Throughout his long and mentally active life (d. 1970) he contributed majestically to analytical mathematics, logic, historical research and most areas of philosophy, except aesthetics.
He was considered a Socialist and a Pacifist during his life, although his views did waver between extremes during various geo-politico calamities. Prominent in his opposition to the Great War, for which he was rightly imprisoned, some of his latter writings suggest the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike on a Post Second World War
After 1949, when the USSR
developed a nuclear retaliation potential, this sort of thinking became
unfashionable, even amongst pacifists. USSR
Russell was fervently involved in politics and various protest movements throughout his life. Despite, or perhaps because of his early views, he became a prominent activist for the nuclear disarmament faction and a dabbler in national and international affairs/politics. It is an observation of mine: men of profound intellectual gifts are moved to meddle in internal and international politics. It is all well and good that they should hold private opinions and views; however, they are often unfit, due to their mental temper, to interfere in matters that should be left to the second rate intellect which is the hallmark of the career politician. Alas, due to their intellectual status they gain an influence all out of proportion to their private citizen status. And in addition receive a high degree of protection and accommodation from the State. Russell’s pacifistic stance during the Great War should have earned him an appointment with the hangman, for treason (he was not tried for treason), or mayhap he should have been shot for grave naivety. I’m sure the world of philosophy, subsequently, would have been a poorer place from a pure intellectual standpoint however, justice would have been served.
His private life was erratic and quite scandalous for the time even amongst a class of Aristocrats noted for their loose morals. Aristocrats have always remained unfettered from the mores of the plebeian, regardless of intellectual attainment. One of his wives begat children from another man and he fathered a child to a woman who was not his wife of the time. He engaged in many affairs sometimes simultaneously. The man's mental stamina was formidable and only matched by his physical prowess.
Unlike many professors, Russell's prose is not pedantic and intelligible unto a few. Reading Russell is an absolute delight. His clear exposition of complex technical issues is sprinkled with a heavy dose of wit and laconic humour. As a matter of recommendation I suggest a close reading of his book: 'The Problems of Philosophy' published in 1912. This deceptively slim volume attempts to introduce the educated reader to the core questions of philosophical thought which have resonated with thoughtful men and women down the centuries. And in this regard Russell is eminently successful.
There are a few books I’ve read which have changed my intellectual perspective. If I were of a pretentious nature I would say that they changed my life, but I wont, cos that would be silly, wouldn’t it? Anyway, ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ is one of those books. This highly acclaimed and ambitious project was completed in 1945. Tis a mighty tome indeed and runs to over a 1,000 pages. It covers a span of over 2,500 years from the earliest pre-Socratic philosophers to the analytical philosophy of the early 20th century. An extremely difficult synthesis and a book that could only have been completed by Russell. On reading this great book I was struck by the depth and breadth of knowledge possessed by the man; it truly staggers the mortal intellect. What he manages to do, and do exceedingly well, is provide historical, social and cultural context to his philosophers. Each is considered within the framework and milieu of his time. For instance, it is impossible to consider the nationalistic tone of the late18th/early 19th century German philosophers without a consideration of the despoliations of Napoleonic France upon the German states. Or the role of 'The Enlightenment' on the developing theories of the British Empiricists. Past influences on the development of ideas concerning individual philosophers are brought forth to form a chain of advancing intellectual thought. To understand Aristotle you must first read Plato. Anyone thinking of entering into the murky waters of philosophy would do well to read this book as a primer.
On a mundane and practical level, I’ve used the book as a springboard into areas of philosophy which have piqued my interest, in particular the philosophy of the British Empiricists. The sublime philosophy of David Hume struck a chord and strangely enough I am able to apply the basic tenets to my personal and professional writings. Therefore, I must revise my initial opinion that Russell should have been hanged/shot. Perhaps a lifetime in prison would pass as sufficient punishment. And at least it would allow Russell to continue writing and produce works for future generations to read and experience wonder. Would Russell have been happy in gaol to peruse a life of quiet contemplation, far away from the drama of life, so long as he was not billeted with Bubba from ‘B’ Wing? But here is the rub: Russell being famous and an Aristocrat to boot would have languished in his own apartments. In fact during Russell’s first incarceration in 1918, the man wrote thusly: " I found prison in many ways quite agreeable. I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, "Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy"... and began the work for "Analysis of Mind". Bertrand Russell (1998)." The First War". Autobiography. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415189859.
Methinks he protests too much. Russell was of an amorous nature and unlike some philosophers, was not divorced from the pleaures of the flesh. Mayhap, over time, he may have become extremely restless without a women's caress. And who can blame him?
So there we have it: Russell, a man of high genius, high humour, high treason and perfidy. What more do you want in a Great Man?