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Perfect introduction to a great mind
on July 14, 2011
My first introduction to Bertrand Russell was somewhat odd. It actually consisted of one sentence which I came across while browsing a catalogue for chemicals (I forgot the company) which its compilers had sought to enliven by including here and there aphorisms and epigrams from great people, mostly but not only scientists. Many of these made strong enough an impression on me as to jot them down, and the words of Lord Russell are among the ones I most often recall:
"Most people would rather die than think; in fact they do so."
Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970)
Then I said to myself that this fellow must be worth checking out. Years passed. Now and then I happened to read an essay by Lord Russell - online or in Somerset Maugham's anthology "Traveller's Library" - that confirmed my initial impression that he is indeed worth reading, but it was not until this volume that my real introduction to Bertrand Russell commenced. It's been a stimulating and transforming experience such as I have not had for quite some time. For now I can safely say that I will be reading Lord Russell again; I can already even put him in the list of my favourite writers without the slightest hesitation because I am fully convinced that his huge oeuvre is worthy of a much closer scrutiny. Obviously, I am the last man who could tell whether the selection of Messrs Egner and Denonn was well done or not; on the other hand, I am one of first to judge whether it is useful to the perfect newcomer to Bertrand Russell. I venture to suggest that for a perfect dilettante in the field of philosophy, such as a myself, this book seems to be an excellent place to start the exploration of a world of frightening complexity and scope.
"The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell" is a formidable book, a little too big to be handled comfortably in paperback indeed, but beautifully organised and compulsively readable. First published in 1961 when the 89 years old Lord Russell was still quite alive and productive, the daunting task to compress his enormous output in a single book fell on the shoulders of Messrs Egner and Denonn. Since the former was a professional philosopher and the latter was a passionate philosophy buff, and of course both of them were Russell enthusiasts par excellence, these fellows did a superb job selecting 81 essays, chapters, articles, lectures, speeches and what not, thematically organised into 17 different parts and altogether amounting to some 700 pages or so. There is no reason to suppose that the editors did not achieve the best possible approximation of their aim, which is obvious from the table of contents but nonetheless stated in their preface as well, namely to give a comprehensive overview of Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers, most prolific writers and most controversial thinkers that the XX century, if not the whole history, has ever seen. Of course Russell buffs will cry out that such and such sections are inadequate, others will lament the omission of an epoch-making essay like "On Denoting", but the Russell layman will no doubt immerse himself in the book unconcerned by such troubling notions. Last but not least, the preface by John G. Slater, written for the first Routledge edition in 1992, must also be mentioned. It is a fascinating piece which manages in just a few pages to give an admirably succinct but comprehensive overview of Russell's multifarious interests and views, how they changed through his long life and even which are some of his major works where he expressed them. I am much obliged to Mr Slater for this compelling preface and will peruse his short biography of Bertrand Russell as soon as possible.
The longevity and productivity of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) are quite amazing. He lived for more than 97 years, from late Victorian times until the wild 1960s of the hippies, his wits remained with him until the very end of his life and so did his writing: the third and last volume of his "Autobiography" was published in 1969; his first book had appeared 73 years (!) ago, "German Social Democracy" (1896). His principal works only make a list stupendous enough to make one dizzy. But the variety of subjects on which Bertrand Russell wrote is downright bewildering, not to mention their scope in time too: from the suffragettes, through two World Wars and the rise of Communism, until the assassination of Kennedy and the Vietnam war. Primarily, Lord Russell was mathematician by education and philosopher by vocation. As nicely pointed out by Mr Slater, just about the only branch of the traditional philosophy he never wrote about was aesthetics which he considered a nonsense - rightly so. But he did write a great deal about logic, epistemology, metaphysics as well as about philosophy of language, mathematics, history, psychology and education. Many of these areas overlapped with his voluminous non-philosophical writings which also encompass just about everything there is under the sun: politics and international affairs, economics, science, culture, religion, morals. By far the most impressive thing about Bertrand Russell, however, is that he had something interesting, often fascinating and not seldom profound to say in any of these areas.
Aside from whatever contributions to human thinking Bertrand Russell may or may not have made, his prose alone surely secures him a place among the greatest writers of the XX century. I can immediately see why Somerset Maugham himself admired Russell's style so much that he once expressed a desire that modern philosophers should use it to learn how to write. Though Maugham and Russell were worlds apart as personalities, and their subjects hardly overlap at all, their writing styles are singularly similar. Bertrand Russell, too, hates wasting or mincing words. His prose has clarity, lucidity and precision to an extraordinary degree. His thesis and his arguments are expressed succinctly and with truly admirable sense of proportion. He virtually never rants or rambles, nor is he keen on stating anything without solid argumentation. His knowledge and erudition are formidable. And there is of course Bertrand Russell's tremendously amusing sense of humour which efficiently saves his prose from the dryness his subjects might otherwise have conferred upon it; indeed, in some of his most serious philosophical pieces they sometimes do. But the matter, indeed, is the most severe test for the manner; and here Lord Russell's record is nearly perfect, too. Even when he discourses on such monstrously abstruse subjects as epistemology and metaphysics, he somehow manages to preserve a delightful simplicity and remains eminently readable as well as easy to understand. Politics, economics and mathematics are all subjects which I dislike quite a bit; yet, Bertrand Russell consistently holds my attention. Occasionally, he may well be somewhat superficial, a trifle long-winded and far from profound, but he always expresses himself honestly and with distinction. He is seldom dull and never pretentious.
There is, however, one important exception of this excellence of style and content in the writings of Bertrand Russell. These are his early pieces, written before the First World War, which are surprisingly disappointing. Now this is to be expected of course. "The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell" range in time from 1903 to 1959 and they were written by at least two largely different men. Lord Russell himself was quite aware that in his early years he was given a bit too much to flowery rhetoric. Small wonder that later in his life he came to dislike even so famous a piece of his as "A Free Man's Worship" (1903). I quite agree. It is beyond me what makes this essay so irresistible for compilers of anthologies. Somerset Maugham saw in it a "tragic beauty", but I see only pompous affectation and affected pomposity, both completely missing from Russell's later works, at least as far as I can judge from this one book. It is indeed tragic, and though it may also be beautiful, it is hardly worth reading. Another example is his essay "On History" (1904) which starts excellently, making some valuable observations about the value of history, but gradually degenerates into mindless ranting. Much the same is the case with "The Essence of Religion" (1912); it has a good deal of substance in it, but it is unfortunately diluted with a fair amount of useless junk. Switching from the rhetoric, pathos and confused arguments of these early pieces to the exemplary structure and lucidity of the later ones is like playing with the tuner of a radio until you suddenly find a station to substitute for the annoying noise.
Fortunately, "The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell" contains only a minor fraction of such youthful experiments; most of the 81 pieces date from after the First World War. As early as the early 1920s Bertrand Russell had already found his own style and everything he wrote since then, whatever the quality of the content, was written in the most admirable style that I can imagine for a rather serious non-fiction literature in English to have. Paradoxically, despite the extraordinary directness of his style, Lord Russell has been as misunderstood and misrepresented as few others. Is it a coincidence that the same was, and is, true of Somerset Maugham too, another great exponent of lucidity, simplicity and readability of style? Be that as it may, Bertrand Russell was notorious during his lifetime for his highly unorthodox views on many subjects, especially religion and morals. Not only was he often criticized, but sometimes he was indeed ostracized: in 1910 his nomination for Parliament failed because of agnostic views; in 1918 he spent six months in jail because of unhealthy pacifism; and in 1940, most notoriously and to America's everlasting shame, he was judicially declared unfit to teach in the College of the City of New York. Why? Because he dared doubt the existence of God and immortality, he made no bones about the evil nature of religion in general and Christianity in particular and he - oh, what a scandalous thing to do! - advocated that sex is a very natural thing for which mutual affection, not marriage and children, is perfectly sufficient reason and that the whole thing is indeed a private matter the state should not concern itself with. In our thoroughly irreligious and sexually loose times these observations may seem tame and trite, but when one remembers that Bertrand Russell defended them vigorously back in the 1920s, one cannot but be struck by his courage. It must in those virtuous times have wanted a real bravery to be so outspoken with regard to such matters.
If "The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell" has any faults, they are minor and insignificant. I will not claim that I have read every single piece in the book, but I venture to claim that, with exception of the early pieces which are tedious and the parts of "Principia Mathematica" which are so technical that are all but unreadable, everything else is well worth reading. Here is a direct communication with a great and fascinating mind whose multiplicity and power are staggering. Of course not all of the essays or chapters reprinted here are of the same quality, but a great deal of them are immensely stirring and thought-provoking stuff. Speaking of that, Russell's controversial, but so persuasive, views on religion are well expressed in his lecture from 1927 "Why I am not a Christian", perhaps his single most well-known essay; it is justly famous, or notorious if you like, and it is well worth one's time. So is the pamphlet "What I Believe" (1925), concerned with the place of man in nature, the essence of good life and, of course, the harm that Christianity does to both. Especially absorbing is "What is an Agnostic?" (1953) which is actually something of a questionnaire Russell filled for a magazine. His pithy and thoughtful answers to many a difficult question can hardly fail to be of interest for anybody interested in the subject. As for Russell the scandalous (anti)moralist, here is "The Place of Sex Among Human Values" (1929), a beautifully written chapter which must have the greatest amount of common sense per page I have ever seen. Another long and stupendously well written essay is "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" (1943), a maliciously sarcastic and extremely delightful tribute to the many incarnations of human folly. The examples are numerous. It is not stretching a point too much, perhaps, to suggest that even in the slightest of Russell's late pieces, or in the most artificial and affected among his early ones, there is something of interest for a reader who does his or her best to think about the world around.
Since thanks to this book I have become an ardent fan of Lord Russell, I may safely say that "The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell" is just about as perfect an introduction as it is possible to be compiled in a single volume dedicated to so vast and varied a subject. I wish Routledge and Mr Slater had taken the trouble to update the chronologies of Russell's life and works for the years after 1961, and I also wish the editors had organised the pieces in the separate parts in chronological order, but that's surely a senseless nit-picking. It is also irrelevant that that Russell himself wrote quite a bit after 1961, because we can safely assume that in the previous six decades he wrote quite enough to get an excellent idea what kind of man he was. To put him briefly, a great man in possession of an extraordinary intelligence, wit and common sense, a complex and compelling personality, an indefatigable, candid and exquisite writer. I look very much forward to reading him again, and again, and again, and again...