FEBRUARY 2020 MARKS the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bertrand Russell—someone many readers of this magazine will know already for the essay adaptation of a lecture he gave in 1927 called “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Or readers may know him for his bestselling books, most which are still in print today. The fact that he remains famous begs the question: How relevant is Russell today, and what should we make of his legacy?
Russell was a towering central figure among twentieth-century intellectuals, deeply connected to some of the greatest writers and scientists of his day. He counted as close friends Joseph Conrad, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Graham Greene, Jean-Paul Sartre, E.M. Forster, Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw, Niels Bohr, Maxim Gorky, H.G. Wells, and many more. He counted among his talented students Ludwig Wittgenstein and T.S. Eliot. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, his friend Albert Einstein was one of the first people to congratulate him.
Also called “England’s wisest fool,” Russell was sometimes reviled as much as he was celebrated—often both at the same time—for his political statements and activities.
When Russell won a teaching appointment at City College in New York City in 1940, an Episcopalian bishop in the city accused him of being a propagandist against religion and morality, a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled him unfit to teach, and the New York County registrar called for him to be tarred and feathered. All that vitriol was backlash for his call of support for temporary, childless “trial marriages,” which he said would improve university life—both intellectually and morally.
Russell was also anti-war but inconsistently so. He opposed Britain’s entry into World War I and was an organizer of the movement to protest the draft, eventually serving six months in jail for his activities. But he also said war wasn’t always wrong, and in fact he supported, albeit reluctantly, the war against the Nazis. After World War II, Russell advocated for dropping atomic bombs on the Soviet Union—and then later for nuclear disarmament.
Toward the end of his life he protested the Vietnam War, organizing and financing a war crimes tribunal in 1967 presided over by Sartre and Isaac Deutscher that issued indictments of US military practice. Though he was in his nineties, Russell was perhaps at his most outspoken in those days. He said John F. Kennedy was worse than Adolf Hitler and compared America’s presence in Vietnam to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. He called for a UN commission to investigate allegations of genocide by US troops. His statements at times were so outrageous that some of his good friends wrote him in the 1960s to ask if he had really said the things he was supposed to have said.
My own interest in Russell began a few years ago when I was conducting research for a book on the history of mathematics— yet another field in which Russell is famous. Here, he’s largely known for his work from the early 1890s when he finished his undergraduate studies at Cambridge to the beginning of World War I, a period during which he developed much of modern mathematical philosophy, which marries logical methods to philosophy.
For me, these early years shed the most light on his character and perhaps what should be regarded as his legacy.
An Aristocratic, Tragic Childhood
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, the third Earl Russell, was born on May 18, 1872, the youngest of three children, to Lord Amberly Russell and Katherine Stanley. His grandfather, Lord John, was the first Earl of Russell—a progressive member of Parliament and leader of the liberal Whig party famous for his work on reforming voting rights (for commoner men) and twice became prime minister in the mid-1800s.
Russell’s parents were passionate, politically minded liberals—slightly more radical for the time and both outspoken advocates of women’s rights. A few years before Bertrand was born, his father used his newly elected seat in the British Parliament to advocate for women’s suffrage. He also supported birth control—a particularly controversial topic in Victorian society that ultimately ended his short political career.
This early life was marred by tragedy. When Bertrand was two years old, while the family was returning from a trip to Italy, his brother Frank came down with a sore throat that turned out to be diphtheria. He was isolated, left to recover, and cleared to go home after several days. Even though Frank survived, he was still contagious and promptly infected his mother and sister—both of whom died within days. The losses crushed Russell’s father Amberly, who died himself some eighteen months later, apparently having lost his will to live.
Young Bertie was left to be raised by his grandmother, a Victorian in the strictest sense, who raised her grandson in a sheltered, home-schooled environment on a steady diet of religion and aristocratic elitism.
Fast forwarding to the 1880s, the decade of Russell’s teenage years, three profound things happened to him.
First, he lost religion. The change was recorded in a secret diary he began to keep, writing in Greek so his grandmother couldn’t read his thoughts questioning the foundations of his religion. By the time he left for college Russell had lost his faith in God entirely.
Second, he became fascinated with mathematics after his brother Frank decided to teach him some geometry. “I had not imagined that there was anything so delicious in the world,” Russell later wrote. Over the next few decades, he would throw himself into the subject, developing a new mathematical philosophy with an extraordinarily drive that came to define his character.
The third major event that happened to him in the 1880s was meeting his first wife. Love and the pursuit of love also came to define Russell’s life. He was married, divorced, and married again and again and again—having a number of affairs in between. He married his last wife (his fourth) at the age of eighty.
Alys Pearsall Smith, his first wife, was an American college student from a wealthy Philadelphia family who lived in England. When they met, Smith was twenty-two, five years older than Russell, and she was said to be highly intelligent and strikingly beautiful. Russell’s grandmother did not approve of the match and did everything she could to convince Bertrand not to marry Alys. When she failed to scuttle the marriage, his grandmother skipped the wedding.
If the union was rocky at the start, it grew much worse over time.
Nine Years Before the Math
In his autobiography Russell claims that a few years after he and Smith were married, he went for a long bike ride on a country road when he was suddenly hit with the revelation he no longer loved his wife. “I had had no idea until that moment that my love for her was even lessening,” he claimed.
They continued to live together in apparent misery for nine more years, during which time he flung himself into work. According to one of his biographers, mathematics offered him in those years a “temporary but glorious relief from the pain of being human.”
Those nine years were spent toiling away at a single work with his partner and fellow Cambridge colleague Alfred North Whitehead—a monumental tome called Principia Mathematica that attempted to establish the logical foundations of mathematics. Russell and Whitehead both believed mathematics should be founded on logic alone, and their book set out to do just that. In many ways the book is remembered as a success, one of the world’s great rationalist works. It launched Russell’s fame, had people comparing him to Aristotle, and ultimately inspired Alan Turing and John von Neumann to develop the theoretical basis of computing, helping lead to our modern information age.
But the price Russell paid to finish was dear. When they started the book at the turn of the century, Russell and Whitehead figured it would take them two years to finish. Five years later they had written 2,400 pages and thought they were less than halfway done. Russell entertained fearful fantasies of his cottage catching fire and the pages going up in the flames. He claims he contemplated suicide at times. When they finally finished on October 18, 1909, it filled three fat volumes.
Russell had poured everything he had into Principia Mathematica. While working on it, he would say mathematics was his chief interest and main source of happiness. After the book was finally finished, he barely touched the subject again. “My intellect never quite recovered from the strain,” he said.
The book was a financial flop. Its publication put Cambridge University Press in a difficult situation. Massive in size and complex in scope, its thousands of pages were filled with logical symbols, many of which had been invented solely for this work, and it required non-standard typeset letters that would have to be expensively hand-tooled by the printer. Proofreading was another problem. Few people had the requisite knowledge, patience, and perseverance to adequately review it. Fewer still, the publishers feared, would ever want to actually buy it.
Russell himself confided to friends he predicted no one would read it. He even said it was almost impossible to explain what it was about.
To hedge their bets, the publishers demanded half the cost of the production up front—some 200 pounds; more than $25,000 in today’s dollars. The Royal Society paid part, leaving Russell and Whitehead to pay for the rest. “We thus earned minus £50 each by ten years’ work,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Having finished the book, Russell seemed to have felt more remorse than elation. “Odd how much passion goes into a thing and how cold it is when it is done,” he wrote in 1912 after the second volume of Principia Mathematica was published.
By that time he had refocused his attention and become deeply involved in politics, something he had dabbled in for years, writing articles and op-eds and giving public speeches around England to advocate for candidates and causes. He was good, too—funny when he chose to be, resonant when he needed to be, and intellectual throughout.
Russell once said the main things that governed his life were the search for knowledge, the longing for love, and the “unbearable pity” for the suffering of others.
In 1910 Russell was approached by liberal organizers in the town of Bedford and asked if he would become their candidate for Parliament. In anticipation of doing so, he gave a speech on April 26 before the Bedford Liberal Association on subjects like taxation, reform, and free trade. The crowd loved it. Afterwards he was asked by the organizers if he was prepared for the necessity of politics. Specifically, would he consider attending church for the sake of appearances—even occasionally? No, he replied. He would not.
On the basis of that hard stance, Russell was ultimately passed over in favor of another candidate—though he later quipped it was a lucky break for he and Bedford both. Little did he know, however, that this brief turn to politics would have a profound effect on the rest of his life because it led to one of the most powerful relationships he would ever have.
Lovers, Protégés, and Times of War
On March 19, 1911, an aristocratic London socialite, married mother, and patron of the arts named Ottoline Morrell hosted a small dinner party with Russell as the guest of honor. They’d met some months earlier when Russell offered to help campaign for her husband Phillip Morrell, a liberal member of Parliament who was not actually present at the dinner. It was a lovely evening—food and drink, talk and laughter. The other guests left around midnight, but Russell stayed until four o’clock in the morning.
In the space of just those few hours, Russell fell completely. After nine years of loveless misery with Alys and cold, mind-numbing toil with Whitehead, he had met someone in Ottoline Morrell who truly inspired him. They began a love affair that would prove to be the most important of his life but one that quickly threatened to burn out and eventually settled into a strange relationship of distance.
A year after the monumental romance launched, he met his most important protégé, another cultured, aristocratic elite named Ludwig Wittgenstein, who spent two tumultuous years under Russell’s wing. Russell at first thought Wittgenstein would be the heir of his legacy and carry his work forward now that his energy was faded with the completion of his huge book. But by 1913 major differences had emerged between the two—just as they had emerged in his relationship with Morrell. In despair, Russell wrote to her in 1913, saying “Wittgenstein affects me just as I affect you—I get to know every turn and twist of the ways in which I irritate and depress you from watching how he irritates and depresses me.”
Suffering the personal low of sour feelings over the loss of these two relationships, Russell left for America. Harvard had tried to recruit him for years, and they managed to get him to agree, finally, on a visiting lectureship in the spring of 1914. When he arrived, they pulled out all the stops. He was dined, brought to teas and parties, theaters and art exhibits, lecture halls and private residences. He was given access to some of the most exclusive clubs and people in New England.
Russell, however, found the prospect of living in Boston intolerable and generally eviscerated the place in his letters home, saying it was filled with “rich, over-eating, selfish, feeble pigs.” He summed up his feelings in one letter by saying, “It seems to me Boston is the worst place in America.”
At the end of his trip, Russell took a tour of midwestern American universities to deliver some of his lectures. He stayed in Chicago with a Dr. E. Clark Dudley, whose daughter Helen he had met a few years before when she was a college student at Oxford. With remarkable speed and intensity, Russell fell for her. Would she come back to England with him? he pleaded. What did she think about marriage—assuming he could get a divorce from his wife, Alys?
When he left Chicago, everything changed. He wrote a letter to Morrell to give her the news, but when he returned to England, they fell back into each other’s arms as never before. Russell was left basking in a summer of love, spending his Tuesday afternoons in the countryside with Morrell and sleeping with her at night in his London flat.
Meanwhile, clouds were gathering over Europe as a whole. The same month he sailed back to England, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. The dominoes fell fast: Austria declared war on July 28; Russia on July 30; on August 1, Germany declared war on Russia.
Two days later, Helen Dudley—still so enamored by the possibility of marrying Russell—set sail for England to seal the deal. That same day, Germany declared war on France. Britain threw itself into the mix, and by the time Dudley showed up in London expecting to rush into her Bertie’s loving arms, the world was at war.
Major anti-German sentiment arose in Britain. The royal family changed its surname to Windsor. Schools stopped using the term kindergarten. Cambridge emptied its halls of undergraduates, who rushed to join the officers’ corps of the forces pouring into France and Belgium. At the same time, the city of Cambridge filled with troops who were using it as a staging area on their way to war.
“War is a mad horror,” Russell wrote to a friend. It strained his relationships. He was shocked to see people he considered to be close companions and fellow liberals become pro-war, and it drove a wedge between them. At the same time, he claimed the war rejuvenated him and shook him out of his prejudices.
He gave lectures, joined causes and groups opposed to the war, defended conscientious objectors, and opposed the wartime draft. He began a new career as a columnist, writing for The Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and other periodicals. He helped form and eventually led the Union of Democratic Control, an anti-war party that opposed the draft.
Voluntary enlistment into the British ranks soared at the beginning of the war, and all over the empire people were showing up at recruiting stations. By 1916 the government had to meet recruitments by passing compulsory conscription bills, something Russell’s group opposed. He was jailed in Brixton for six months for his part in writing pamphlets against the draft.
A Legacy of Hope
Half a century later, Russell was jailed again for his part in an anti-nuclear demonstration after he was arrested and a local magistrate asked that he pledge himself to good behavior. “No, I won’t,” he said.
“I cannot be a silent witness to murder or torture,” he later wrote. “Anyone who is a partner in this is a despicable individual.”
This brings me finally to Russell’s legacy, which for me has some personal meaning. Russell died four days after I was born, and my father, a graduate student in philosophy at the time, told me recently that he was considering naming me Bertrand Russell Bardi. (As you can see from my byline, My parents finally settled on the middle name of a different philosopher.)
Only five people stood at Russell’s funeral in Wales—a private ceremony, per his wishes. He was cremated and his ashes scattered. As the New York Times reported the day after Russell died on February 2, 1970, “he was at bottom a moralist and a humanist.”
A few years ago, the American Mathema–tical Society rolled out its new Bertrand Russell Prize. Given first in 2018, it’s awarded to “mathematicians or related professionals for contributions promoting good in the world and recognizing the various ways that mathematics furthers human values.”
I think AMS basically has it right. What defines Russell’s legacy, more than the words he wrote or the things he did, is his outlook—one I would characterize by three things. First was his uncompromising approach. His friend Beatrice Webb summed up his character, simply, as absolutist—someone whose faith was placed in an absolute logic, an absolute ethic, and an absolute beauty.
Second, his outlook was one of compassion. Russell once said the main things that governed his life were the search for knowledge, the longing for love, and the “unbearable pity” for the suffering of others.
Finally, his outlook was one of courage. He prized courage in intellectual matters—the daring to speak out against the prevailing opinion and the bravery to admit you were wrong. His own intellectual courage allowed him to hold fast to the twin pillars of objective truth and the ability to make sense of it through reason. Russell is said to have had a “defiantly positive outlook” that ultimately characterized his humanism. He had hope for humanity and hope for the future, a legacy whose relevance one could argue we need now more than ever.