Bertrand Russell

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Caroline Moorehead provides an acute and entertaining biography of one of the most controversial figures in twentieth century culture. Given Bertrand Russell’s long life and many interests, she does an admirable job of surveying and assessing the highlights, judiciously noting his triumphs and failures and demonstrating how they evolved out of his character. Inevitably, a biographical narrative cannot do justice to the intricacy of his philosophical arguments, but the main points of his important books are introduced.

Russell was the descendant of an aristocratic family. The Russells were Whigs—members of the political party that fought for a constitutional monarchy and did much to establish England’s tradition of civil liberties and individual conscience. Bertrand Russell was expected to make his contribution to that tradition by taking a prominent role in politics. Although he eventually decided in favor of philosophy, he remained active in politics—running for Parliament twice—and he exhibited a fierce dedication to human rights throughout his life.

Russell discovered Euclid at the age of eleven during a school holiday, when his older brother Frank offered to teach him some mathematics. Russell was entranced with the elegance of algebra. In his autobiography he called it “one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love. I had not imagined that there was anything so delicious in the world.”

That Russell was virtually a born philosopher is suggested by the fact that he immediately wanted to know why Euclid’s axioms had to be accepted as true. How did Frank know they were true? Perhaps many inquisitive children would ask the same question, but Russell was persistent in his determination not to stop asking such questions. They are what brought him to his major contribution to philosophy, his Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), written in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead. This two-volume work, along with much of Russell’s other philosophical writing, attempts to show the connection between mathematics and logic—indeed to prove that logic and mathematics are virtually identical. This premise has not been accepted by either mathematicians or philosophers, but it is a measure of his brilliance that he made both rethink the basis of their disciplines.

Russell was born in the last third of Queen Victoria’s reign, and he attended the University of Cambridge while she was still on the throne of England. His early attitudes toward women and sex were Victorian: He regarded women as delightful companions but certainly of a lower intellectual order than men. He would later modify these attitudes and show himself remarkably adaptable to changing values and manners, but his early Victorian and aristocratic upbringing continued to inform his rather cavalier and sometimes cruel treatment of women.

Russell’s first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, was from a Quaker family. She seems to have appealed to Russell because of her combination of bold thinking (she was an advocate of free love) and submissive devotion to him. She did not succumb immediately to his courtship; in fact, he would woo her for several years before she consented to a marriage opposed by both of their families. His grandmother, Lady Russell, did not want him to marry an American. Her family, while charmed by English culture, rejected the class-ridden conventions to which their daughter would have to subject herself. Eventually, however, both families were placated after Russell and Smith agreed to a trial three-month separation to test the strength of their love.

Initially enraptured with Smith, Russell’s interest in her paled as he concentrated on developing a career and intellectual pursuits that he found difficult to share with her. She was not philosophically minded, although her accomplishments in campaigning for women’s rights were not negligible. The young Russell was gradually throwing off the mental and sexual restraints of his Victorian upbringing, putting into practice ideas of free love that his faithful wife preached but did not practice.

There is a passage in Moorehead’s biography that wonderfully captures the moment when Russell discovered his life’s work. The biographer’s words convey not merely the content of Russell’s vision but a peculiar and almost comic picture of the philosopher wrapped up in his vision. Russell and his wife are on their honeymoon in Germany:

Russell had one of his momentous flashes of understanding, when his entire life appeared to open out before him. Walking one day in the Tiergarten, thinking about Hegel and about the future, be suddenly...

(The entire section is 1913 words.)