Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography

I recently finished reading Bertrand Russell’s autobiography.   I can remember picking it off my shelf many times and reading the preface, thinking to myself, “This has to be good.”

What I have Lived For …
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that the saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and thought it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography Of Bertrand Russell

I’m going to try to write out some of my thoughts from reading the book, but you’ll have to bear with me since I’m writing all of this from the top of my head.  There were many things which caught my attention throughout the book.

I enjoyed reading his letters and journal entries from his youth.  I’ve always felt alienated my entire life because I have been unable to talk with anyone about the things I think about.  He had a very similar experience.  My family members are all fundamentalist Christians and they’re not open minded at all.  I remember vividly my father coming into my room and looking at my books, telling me, “Grandma only read the Bible and that’s all she needed.  The reading of many books wearies the mind.”  Other times my mother and father would tell me that the devil worked through education, warping the mind.  Needless to say, I grew up in an environment which was far from intellectually conducive.  Bertrand Russell was raised by his grandmother and she was similar in many ways.  When he wrote home talking about his work in mathematical philosophy, his grandmother had little to no interest.

Russell’s childhood was happy but when he became a teenager he felt very alone.  If he brought up any of the things he was thinking about, his family members would grow angry and disappointed in him.  He developed a defensive wall which he struggled with his entire life to bring down.  He said that when people entered the room he would always close his book, and oftentimes hide the cover from them.  Growing up he never could let his grandmother or others see what he was reading.  In my late teens I always had to do the same thing.

I was particularly interested to read the Cambridge chapter, which told of his time there as a student.  It’s interesting that he never discussed any of his professors or his classes.  None of that seemed to be of any importance to him.  From how it sounded, he learned very little from class.  Of what he did learn, he said he had to unlearn a lot of it because it was wrong.  The entire Cambridge chapter was dedicated to a student society of which he became a member.  I can’t remember the name of it now.  His adviser, who I believe was Alfred North Whitehead, recommended he become a member of this group which consisted of the brightest members of the university.  Russell was surprised to find people he could talk to about his thoughts and who responded positively to the things he said.  He spent most of his time on walks with these members, discussing philosophy, economics, politics, and mathematics.

Russell spoke about his first time falling in love, which was interesting.  He was around my age when that happened.  Her name was Alys.  She was a Puritan/Quaker, but shortly after their marriage she gave up her religious beliefs because of discussions with him.  He said they rarely had sex, though this didn’t seem to didn’t bother him all that much.  She had beliefs stemming back from her religious days that sex was an evil thing only to be done for procreation.  He was happy with her for many years and she lifted him from the rather deep depressive feelings he had been having.

I was surprised at how he lost his feelings for her.  He was on a bike ride one afternoon and then realized that he no longer had feelings for Alys.  He hated Alys’ mother, and he started to notice those traits in her.  He told about his change in feelings, and though it caused a spat between them, he stayed married to her for a long time afterwards.  Something like nine years?  He slept in a separate room and grew more and more distant from her.

After seeing many people fall in and out of love throughout my lifetime (though I myself have never done so), I suppose I’ll admit that I get pretty pessimistic when I look at love.  Basing your entire life around those sorts of feelings seems foolish to me.  One day as you’re out on a bike ride, you suddenly realize, “Huh.  I don’t feel those feelings anymore.  Time to find someone else.”  I understand that people find great joy and happiness in love, but as an outsider looking at it, at times it can look pretty ridiculous.  People are always having to start over, like hitting the reset button on their lives.  Over and over and over.

As time went on, Russell became more and more miserable.  He talked about going for walks and oftentimes thought of laying down on the train tracks to commit suicide.  He lost himself in his work writing Principia Mathematica, which he found intellectually exhausting.  If you’ve ever looked at (or possibly read) it, you’re sure to sympathize.   He said he always wanted to contribute something of true intellectual worth to humanity and felt he had finally done so when he completed that work.

If I remember correctly, he was trying to work out what was going on with what is now famously known as Russell’s paradox.  It seemed like a trivial problem to him.  Even so, he didn’t want to publish the work without figuring it out, but he felt that a grown man shouldn’t waste so much time on something so trivial.  He would go for long walks with a piece of paper in hand, telling himself, “Alright.  Today I’m going to figure out what’s going on here.”  He’d return with that same blank sheet of paper, making no progress at all.

He later had an affair with a married woman, but she was unwilling to leave her husband because he was financially well off, and she enjoyed the material comfort.  Eventually that relationship broke off and became simply platonic, owing to a dental problem.  One of his teeth was rotting out and it gave him disgusting breath.  He was unaware of it at the time but she couldn’t find a way to point it out to him.

Later, as Russell was teaching mathematical philosophy at a university ( I think ), he met a female student who he liked.  They decided that they would marry, but then Russell wanted to run for political office and thought it may cause a scandal.  I can’t remember all the details.  He said she had a sharp mind but had a dark side to her.  I think she went insane after the rejection and then committed suicide.  I feel pretty certain about the insanity, but can’t remember if she committed suicide or not, but I think she did.

I was relieved to find out that I’m not the only one who enjoys those with a dark side to them.  Russell tried to stay positive and admired those with a positive outlook for humanity, but he also found many things absurd.  He enjoyed joking about the absurdities in life.  He’d talk with others about God being a cruel sadistic tyrant, who seemed to enjoy the misery and suffering of human beings.  I myself share this sentiment, and I find countless things in this life to be completely absurd.

It reminds me a lot of a scene from the movie Se7en.  Morgan Freeman’s fellow detective, Brad Pitt, got deceived into buying a home that well, had a little surprise.  They wondered why the real estate agent only gave them a five minute tour.  It turns out that a train passed by every so often, sending the entire house into a loud vibrating rumble.



My reaction to that situation would be similar. I imagined Bertrand Russell being the same way with his friends, talking about the world around them.  The more intelligent you become, the more vivid all of the absurdities will come at you. You’ll see them more clearly each day.  I can have a very dark sense of humor but it only comes to light when I’m with the right people.

It’s getting late.  I’ll have to write more about his biography at another time.

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