The poorer half of a life

Bertrand Russell
April 6, 2001

Seated next to Virginia Woolf at dinner in Chelsea in 1921, Bertrand Russell, then nearing 50, reflected on his future. He still regarded mathematics as the "most exalted form of art", as Woolf later recorded in her diary, but it was not an art that he himself expected ever to practise again. "The brain becomes rigid at 50." He might write more philosophy, he said, but "I have to make money", and so most of his writing would be paid journalism. "The days when he could devote himself solely to serious intellectual work were over."

In one sense, it was Russell's misfortune to live so long after this point - he died in February 1970, aged 97 - and it is a problem also for Ray Monk. Monk's two previous books, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius and Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude , revealed the author's exceptional gift for intellectual biography, making ideas as exciting as events. In this book, Russell's battle with himself, to make what remained of his life interesting and relevant, is at times absorbing, at others wearisome, but - except in flashes - it is hardly the stuff of intellectual history. As Monk makes plain throughout, professional philosophers scarcely gave Russell a second thought after he turned 50.

I came to this second volume of Russell's life having just read Jerome Kagan's Three Seductive Ideas , in which the author, professor of psychology at Harvard, marshals evidence to the effect that several familiar concepts in his discipline, among them "intelligence", are misconstrued. Intelligence, Kagan insists, is not a unitary trait that we as individuals possess more or less of; instead, there are different forms of intelligence.

That certainly applies to Russell who, while undoubtedly a master mathematician and logician, did not show the same mastery in other areas of his life. As the 1920s passed, for example, and he became an itinerant journalist/ writer, he was reduced to the following: "It seems on the whole fair to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men"; "women are on the average stupider than men"; and this in particular: "One can generally tell whether a man is a clever man or fool by the shape of his head." Though such "ideas" were not uncommon in the 1920s, Russell, as a scientist and philosopher, should have been aware of the evidence, even then, contradicting these conclusions.

By the same token, Russell's ideas on educational psychology - inspired by the behaviourist John B. Watson - were based on the view that parenting could be given a scientific foundation. This was to backfire in Russell's case with his own children, who became bitterly estranged from their father. John developed schizophrenia, as did two of Russell's grandchildren. While he could not have known about the genetics of schizophrenia in the 1920s, by the time Russell died, enough was known for him to have been more understanding of his kin. For an educated man, who valued science so highly, Russell appears to have remained puzzlingly under-informed in areas that were of vital personal importance.

To his credit, Monk makes no attempt to impose order on these inconsistencies and paradoxes of Russell. He lets the evidence breathe and speak for itself and, as time passes, three related issues ease all others aside. One is Russell's remarkable about-face on America. In the 1920s and 1930s, Russell was convinced the future lay with the United States. He made strenuous attempts to go there to work and live, and despite a rumbustious time in America, he never wavered in his admiration for that country's intellectual vitality and social egalitarianism, at least not until atomic weapons arrived. When he did change, however, he changed utterly. Monk is entertaining on the tussle over Russell's appointment to a chair at the City College of New York in 1940. In several books, Russell had advocated open marriage and free love. In 1940, adultery was a criminal offence in New York and he was therefore denounced as "the professor of paganism", and his appointment rescinded by the courts before he had even started.

As described by Monk, there is something troublingly unsympathetic about Russell the family man, and this is the second theme that emerges. At the same time as Russell's relations with his children deteriorated, he fought to gain custody of their children. Seemingly oblivious to this conundrum, he wrote: "I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced." In the same vein, Russell could write that "the search for knowledge, unbearable pity for suffering and a longing for love" were the three passions of his life. How on earth could he say this? His indifference towards his children's suffering and his icy disregard for his three ex-wives, amply underlined by Monk, make one wonder at the erstwhile great philosopher's self-knowledge.

In his later years, Russell's growing vanity throws even that "longing for love" into doubt, and as for his lust for knowledge, this assertion too is continually punctured by Monk's assiduous research, showing how his subject recycled material, allowed others to write texts that were passed off as his, to the point where, when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, in November 1950, he was not just surprised, it crossed his mind that he was being mocked.

But it is the third theme, Russell's life in politics - or his version of politics - that comes to dominate the last half of this book. Russell's stature as a mathematician, and a philosopher of science, the apocalyptic role of atomic weapons in the cold war, the stark logic of the central issues, all coalesced to produce a popular movement, the peace movement, with Russell as a natural figurehead.

But Monk is no less devastating on Russell's political thinking than on his behaviour inside his family. Time and again, Monk shows that Russell was unable to theorise cogently about politics. In the 1930s, his articles about fascism were "politically blind and astonishingly oversimplified". Between 1945 and 1947 he advocated that America attack the Soviet Union with the bomb, apparently unaware that the US lacked the wherewithal to deliver such weapons, rendering his belligerence and his impracticality dangerously foolish.

With Russell portrayed in this fairly inept light, the arrival on the scene of the organised Ralph Schoenman, in 1960, promised an added layer of spice. An ersatz son (since Russell's sons, John and Conrad, were still estranged), an intense American student of philosophy and an energetic political activist, Schoenman was 24 in 1960 to Russell's 87. Under Schoenman's guidance, Russell was cast as the epicentre of counter-culture politics. This was the era of the New Left, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Committee of 100, the Pugwash movement, in each of which Russell played a prominent role.

But Russell - and Schoenman - had bigger aims. The last pages of this book, with Russell exchanging increasingly fatuous anti-American letters and telegrams (often scripted by Schoenman) with world leaders - Khrushchev, Castro, Kennedy, Macmillan, U Thant - are all the more remarkable because Schoenman's face-to-face meetings with other world leaders were so un propitious. Russell's later years were warmed by the glare of publicity and, in his vanity, he felt that this helped his interventions make a difference (for example, in the Cuban missile crisis). Monk concludes otherwise.

As a young man, Russell said he found mathematics as moving as poetry or the glories of nature, because it was "totally uncontaminated by human feelings". This is perhaps one quote of his that stands up to scrutiny. It certainly explains why his life had two so very different halves. Outside mathematics and logic, in the swamp of human feelings where we all wallow, Russell had nothing to say that was not ordinary. That was, Monk emphasises, Russell's tragedy.

Professional philosophers will find little to chew on here. Russell's attempt to get back into philosophy at the age of 63, after a break of more than a decade, while it showed that he could still juggle ideas, merely underlined how he had failed to keep up - by the late 1930s, younger philosophers were more interested in the theory of meaning than in his theory of knowledge, and no job was forthcoming.

Russell's shortcomings are instead the stuff of social history: the anachronisms of aristocracy, the marginalisation of scholarship, the vacuous and inexhaustible demands of celebrity culture. Monk's only fault, in what is otherwise an excellent book, is in giving us far more detail than we could ever want. By the time I had finished, I felt like I was 97.

Peter Watson is the author of A Terrible Beauty , an intellectual history of the 20th century.

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness

Author - Ray Monk
ISBN - 0 224 05172 5
Publisher - Cape
Price - £25.00
Pages - 574

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