How to Resist Power: Tips from Bertrand Russell’s Century of Humanism
One of the things you learn early as a humanist is that honesty does not heed comfort and that those who chase it ought not be under the delusion that happiness will be their lot as a result. We have the singularly grim task of facing up to the stark truths of existence and, in spite of that knowledge, of trying to weave together a dignified and globally committed life. For a very long time, role models in that quest were few— there were great atheists and agnostics in history, but their lives were so sharply circumscribed by society that there was little they could do but think and write by themselves in a book-cluttered room or sparse prison cell.
Those socially detached geniuses might have been inspiring and noble in a lone-wolf vein, but as freethought came into its own, it needed something more, someone who took the humanist’s theoretical love of humanity and the determinist’s stark assessment of the mechanical facts of existence and combined them into something that worked tangible, practical good in the world. And that’s precisely when the universe brought forth Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).
For nearly a century, Russell was the man on civilization’s highest parapet, looking out at the horizon and anxiously informing the rest of us below of what we might become. Even into his nineties, he was on the leading edge of civilization’s moral conscience, calming our moments of frightened recklessness by his words and example. While many intellectuals rest content arguing for the rights they considered important in their youth and dig their heels firmly in at any notion of further, Russell sought each new cause, each new advancement in personal liberty to be pried from the hands of society. He did this with an almost impish glee right to the day of his death.
To give a taste of his life’s scope, he advocated for women’s suffrage in the nineteenth century, conscientious objection in the midst of World War I, and civil disobedience during the Vietnam War. He spoke in favor of complete intellectual freedom, polyamory, agnosticism, world government, birth control, and socialism while warning against imperialism, nuclear proliferation, capitalism’s capacity to marginalize voices of dissent, communism’s capacity to shackle basic rights in the name of doctrinal purity, and the millennia-long blight of dogmatic religion on the body of Western thought.
Oh, and he also wrote the central text about mathematics’ logical structure, the sprawling three volume behemoth Principia Mathematica, which was the culmination of a massive effort to rigorously establish the fundamentals of mathematical practice stretching from the halcyon days of David Hilbert, Gotlobb Frege, and Georg Cantor. It was a work which, even if its basic mission was later substantially undermined by the discoveries of Kurt Gödel, was still massively influential not only in the development of analytic philosophy but in the rising science of computer programming.
Mathematics, philosophy, international advocacy, logic… when it came to matters of the mind and social conscience, Bertrand Russell was the hallowed, if often harrowed, master of his times. It would simply not be fair if that much achievement in one realm did not come at a price, and for Russell, that price was deeply personal. As brilliant as he was in thought, he was a fool in life, hopelessly pursuing meaningful, emotional connections with other human beings from disaster to disaster.
As a child Russell lost his sister, both his parents, and his grandfather by the age of six, leaving him and his brother in the care of his arch-Victorian grandmother, to whom social conformity and stifling religious belief were the very stuff of life. Russell learned early on to bury his intelligence and emotions deep down, to get by through a false facade of dutifulness and orthodoxy, all while churning inside with religious doubts and sexual impulses. For years he lived this false double life, deeply alone in his mind and body, unable to engage honestly with anyone until he moved at last to college.
The result was a young man desperate for intellectual company, devoted with an almost monastic fervor to the private delights of logic and mathematics, and bursting at the seams with sexual frustration and shame. It is no wonder at all that he rushed into a first marriage with an entirely romanticized and unrealistic notion of who his partner was and what he could expect from life with her. For not the first time in his life, he saw what he wanted to see in his prospective partner, got carried away with visions of shared bliss, and worked himself up to such a pitch of expectation that disappointment could only be his lot. That pattern repeated itself through three of his four marriages, all of his many affairs, and his tragic succession of friendships eagerly begun and dismally ended, including with philosophers G.E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein, novelists D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad (though Conrad died before he could become a source of disappointment) and nuclear disarmament activist Ralph Schoenman.
The intensity of those relationships, and the primal quest for personal understanding that lay at the base of them, could spur him on to much good but also lead him into labyrinthine complications and hopeless intellectual dead ends. His longest affair was with Ottoline Morrell, an aristocrat with strong anti-war feelings but fuzzily romanticized views about the importance of faith and belief as opposed to truth and reason. Russell nonetheless insisted upon seeing her as his ideal soulmate, somebody whom he felt must be exactly like him, if only she could be made to realize it. Of course, she didn’t and she wasn’t, but the years he spent trying to twist the both of them into a similar-ish shape and to invent doomed intellectual projects that they might work on together put a dead stop to his fundamental philosophical work from which he never really recovered.
Now, Ottoline fans will say that he was heading down that path anyway and that World War I and its aftermath was such a jar to his intellectual system that he would have made the switch from cloistered logician to popular activist even without her. Fair enough, but World War I didn’t force him to spend valuable time writing The Perplexities of John Forstice, now did it?
In any case, Russell realized from the outset that World War I was to be a disaster of continent-breaking proportions. While his fellow Brits cheered in the streets at the news of the war’s announcement, Russell and Ottoline walked in a cloud of disbelief that fathers and mothers might exult at the news that their children were soon to be sent deathwards in the name of imperial posturing masquerading as patriotism. Too old to be drafted himself, Russell threw himself whole-heartedly behind the right of conscientious objectors to not fight in a war they did not believe in, and he went to prison for six months in the name of their cause.
The world that emerged from that war demanded watching by somebody with a broad enough view of humanity to judge the gnash and tug of nations impartially. Though a socialist in principle, Russell’s trip to the Soviet Union, where he met with Trotsky and Lenin as they explained what they were trying to do with their new nation, chilled him for its mechanized cruelty. He came to see capitalism and communism both as simply two sides of the development of industrialism, different in approach but united in the goal of consuming human beings to produce goods, a view calculated to endear him to neither your typical bourgeois Western parliamentarian nor your firebrand Communist revolutionary.
It was not a wildly popular view, but it was a profoundly necessary one. Russell, for decades, represented the sage voice of self-criticism during an age that wanted nothing more than to break the world into us-them binaries. He was hounded as a free love-traditionalist-atheistic-orthodox-Communist-capitalist-peacenik-warmonger, decried by every side of an issue for refusing to say that any position was one hundred percent infallibly correct in all that it did. And that, more than his brilliant contributions to logic, more than his beautifully literary popularizations of the history of philosophy, is Russell’s great gift to humanism, the tradition of socially engaged, intellectual skepticism that publicly and persistently questions its own assumptions with as much vigor as it does those of its opponents.
Russell showed humanists how they could turn their gifts of analysis and ruthless honesty to public good—by becoming for the world what Socrates was to Athens, the gadfly constantly buzzing hither and thither, stinging and prodding and preventing anybody from getting too comfortable with themselves. Only Russell took the entire process one step forward by adding active participation in the world to his withering commentary on its shortcomings and optimistic appraisal of its potential.
The politically engaged humanist might not have been Russell’s invention, but he brought the identity unheard-of prominence, going to jail twice for his encouragement of resistance to bad governmental policies (the second time at the age of eighty-nine for protesting nuclear armament). He wrote directly to Nikita Khrushchev and Dwight Eisenhower, Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, urging them to reach out to the global community to make their positions approachably understood, and he succeeded in calming world tensions in the midst of crisis on a number of occasions thereby. He took up administrative posts and leadership roles in groups that organized resistance to nuclear arms and the Vietnam conflict, demonstrating that philosophy without activity was, in an age of mass destruction, no longer sufficient.
The world did not always reward him for his service. For every Nobel Prize or Order of Merit he received, there were decades of hard-scrabble existence, writing crates of pot-boiler articles and living a bare-bones existence to keep his family from starving, since no university would have a man of his reputation on its staff for long before priests and concerned citizens began the clamor for his removal in the name of public morality.
And he did not always reward himself. Tortured by his inability to connect with other people, by the piles of broken friendships he left in his wake, he could not help but think of himself as desperately alone and fundamentally sinister, with every day a fight to maintain his belief in himself, and in humanity generally, in spite of what he knew to be true about our darker instincts and deterministic drives.
The truth Russell acknowledged, with rigorous honesty, was that we are doomed. The days of the universe are numbered, and ours with them. Shakespeare and Einstein will someday mean nothing to a universe that has long since snuffed itself in gross concord with the brute laws of matter and energy. We are doomed. But we are doomed together, and the greatest crime would be to spend our brief time in mutual torment. It is the high task, the great calling, of those who can reason honestly to look about them, to see all sides impartially, and to step between any humans engaged in lacerating each other in the holy name of societal bias. You will get slashed at by both sides for your troubles. You might affect no change at all, but that is where you must stand for as long as you can stand, every bit of your strength at the service of showing the comfortable and righteous the perspective and humanity of their opponents. Thereby religions fall and bigotry stumbles and, if we become no less cosmically doomed as a result, at least we will have company for the ride.
There are a lot of choices for biographies about Bertrand Russell, and I haven’t nearly read them all. For an approach that balances worship with criticism, philosophy with social engagement, and personal drama with organizational impact, my suggestion would be to start with Ray Monk’s Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude: 1872-1921 (1996). It’s volume one of a two-volume biography and gives not only a deep accounting of his philosophical development, but also, by virtue of voluminous quoting from Russell’s correspondence, a very good notion of the desperate cycles of emotional dependence that Russell twisted himself into.
However, those cycles are so repetitive that eventually you crave not to be dragged through another round of Russell and Ottoline breaking up and then making up again, and so my advice is, at the end of volume one, to hop over to Ronald W. Clark’s classic The Life of Bertrand Russell (1975), starting at the third section, “A Long March Downhill,” which is roughly where Monk leaves off volume one, and reading to the end. Clark doesn’t go in for the personal minutiae and instead dwells on the political scene and Russell’s role in it, which is a welcome change. Of course, you could just read fellow philosopher A.J. Ayer’s slim 1972 Bertrand Russell, but why read 150 pages when you could read 950?