Personal Letters Reveal a Life Story
BERTRAND RUSSELL was a profoundly influential figure in 20th-century philosophy - and one of the most visible spokesmen for radical causes from women's suffrage to nuclear disarmament.
He was, moreover, an extraordinarily fecund correspondent. The letters chosen by editor Nicholas Griffin in "The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell" represent only a fraction of the material in the Russell archives, but well-represent Russell's brilliant, erratic personality.
A grandson of Lord John Russell, the champion of parliamentary reform who served twice as Queen Victoria's prime minister, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) continued in his family tradition of working for political progress while reinventing the foundations of philosophy.
Although his groundbreaking work in analytical philosophy is comprehensible to only a small number of people, Russell was known among his peers and students as a brilliant, pithy, lucid, and witty prose stylist, who made these all-but-incomprehensible concepts as comprehensible as humanly possible. Russell is one of the few philosophers ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1950.
In addition to such seminal works as "Principia Mathematica" (in which Russell, along with his collaborator Alfred North Whitehead, laid out the logical and philosophical foundations of mathematics through the use of symbolic logic), Russell wrote numerous popular books and essays on philosophy, politics, and education that eloquently addressed a more general audience.
Russell was often in the thick of political controversy throughout his 97 years. Free trade, social reform, women's rights, birth control, nuclear-arms control, and sex education were among his many causes. He was a courageously outspoken critic of British jingoism in World War I. In 1940, he was fired from a teaching post at City College of New York on the charge that his free-thinking views were a threat to student morals.
Ironically, in view of his lifelong devotion as a philosopher to establishing solid, incontrovertible groundworks for any system of thought, Russell was a man of many contradictions. In the period covered by these letters, we can discern his keen gift for analysis, his emotional volatility, and a pattern of abrupt changes in the way he perceived himself and the world in which he lived.
Young Russell initially supported his government in the Boer War on the grounds that the British Empire was a force for peace: A "war of defence," he calls it in a letter to French philosopher Louis Couturat in 1900. But as the war dragged on, Russell - as he later confided in a letter to Lady Ottiline Morrell - had "a sudden `conversion,' a change of heart, which brought with it a love of humanity and a horror of force, and incidentally made me a pro-Boer."
Sudden conversions were a hallmark in the emotional life of this supremely rationalistic philosopher. He fell in love with his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, at first sight, only to discover himself out of love with her seven years into their marriage. Nearly a decade later, Russell (still married to Alys) fell wildly in love with Lady Morrell, who would later gain fame as a political-literary hostess and arts patron.
Russell's adolescence, his long courtship of Alys, his attempts at formulating a "logical" foundation for mathematics, his intimate friendships with sympathetic, intellectual women, his increasingly troubled marriage, and his passionate love affair with Morrell are among the main events covered in these letters, aptly entitled "The Private Years."
Griffin, himself a professor of philosophy, has limited his selections (with the single exception of Russell's first letter to the German mathematician Gottlob Frege) to those that have not previously been published in full. Letters dealing with the more technical aspects of philosophy have also been omitted, leaving an astonishing collection of intensely revealing, self-scrutinizing, profoundly personal letters, which, coupled with Griffin's fine notes and lively commentary, unfold a life story with all
the psychological drama and detail of a Russian novel.
Those who are puzzled by the fact that wise and brilliant people often make foolish choices will find a great deal of food for thought in these letters, not the least of which is this observation by Russell himself: "I believe that it is impossible to apply theoretical ethics to politics, or even to private life, for the circumstances are so complicated that one would not know how to do the necessary reasoning. It is necessary, therefore, to appeal directly to common sense for middle axioms." But as Russ ell's letters eloquently illustrate, the search for common-sense solutions can sometimes be as arduous as the conquest of symbolic logic.