Today’s world could use a philosopher of Bertrand Russell’s caliber—a grand-scale thinker and champion of ideals. An advocate of hope for a better future, he could speak to the masses. Since no such person looms on the horizon—hopefully, just for now—the time is ripe to recall the wisdom of the dead master.
Born in 1872, Bertrand Russell lived a long and fascinating ninety-eight years. He was a giant by the standards of his era—a time of great societal breakthroughs and fantastic ambitions. For this reason, studying his biography, work, and beliefs leads to worrying conclusions. It seems difficult to imagine such a titan being born today; even if they were, they would not be taken seriously. His unwavering hope in ethical progress would be ruthlessly torn apart by armchair philosophers on social media. His deep faith in facts and their meticulous analysis would have fierce enemies among peddlers of conspiracy theories. His ideas delineating humanity’s common and noble tasks would meet with a calculated shrug of shoulders among the pragmatists running the global corporate economy. Even his moral progressivism and enthusiasm for freedom in marriage and sex would have to face the conservative bulldozer, which has been zealously reversing, from Asia to the US, the gains won only a few decades ago. Despite his lively mind, curiosity about all spheres of life, and readiness to tackle dilemmas in the spheres of mathematics, religion, and love, today Russell would remain an outsider. Some would respect him, but others would choose unabashed ridicule. This, however, speaks more to today’s triumph of irrationality and cynicism rather than to the lasting value of the British philosopher’s heritage.
In the Name of Self-Suspicions
Russell was the intellectual and spiritual child of an era marked by large quantifiers, yet he undermined all attempts to rigidify humanity and its place in the world. Today humanity is engrossed in fragmentation and individualization. The contemporary reality of bubbles and ideological tribes on the internet would not accommodate Russell’s unifying and universalistic ideas. This certainly does not mean that there is no need for his sweeping theses. The problem lies instead in the fact that today’s intellectual climate inclines one to reject universal authorities and question institutions.
Conflicting socio-political trends have developed in the West. One is the flight from collective values in favor of a belief in the separate and free voices of individuals, for whom expressing their own perspective constitutes the highest value. The other is putting reason and science on hold in order to disappear into a safe crowd led in a commanding manner, with ideology leveling doubt. Neither of these tendencies dovetail with Russell’s approach, who was advised in early childhood by his aristocratic and enduringly strict, moral grandmother to reject following the crowd in doing evil.
Russell warned against being wedded to solitary worldviews and regarded the excessive belief that there is only one correct position to be humanity’s greatest weakness. He encouraged developing critical skills as well as nurturing doubt and self-examination. These claims, made from the position of many decades devoted to intellectual work recorded in countless publications, also imply that the legacy of science is above all an abyss of ignorance. After all, there is only a limited scope of things and phenomena in this world that one can be sure of. This constitutes the philosophical memento of the giant who straddled two centuries: I know how little I know. In other words—beware of certainty, as there is no convincing evidence for it. And so Russell, who contributed to the advancement of 20th-century science, reached the same conclusion as ancient philosophers.
Philosopher and Celebrity
An example of how the modern world treats its intellectual heritage (not just Russell) is the ease with which one can go online and buy cheap T-shirts with bits of wisdom in the vein of: “It is worth occasionally questioning the things we take for granted.” There is something emblematic in such transformations of knowledge into merchandise. Russell was, after all, a pop thinker with a mass audience, who wrote accessibly and prolifically. According to biographers and critics, his literary talent, the light and engaging style, earned him a multitude of fans despite intellectual inconsistencies or even errors in his argumentation. Still, his ability to address all issues facing the world with profound humanism and literary prowess earned him the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature. His most widely-read work—A History of Western Philosophy—is not free from simplifications or controversial arguments, yet became a world bestseller, enabling an entire European generation to discover their intellectual roots while popularizing philosophy, making Russell a proto-celebrity in his field.
Always willing to engage in conversation with the world, Russell would perhaps embrace entering mass culture in its gaudiest form—a mass produced T-shirt designed for all, regardless of size, gender, nationality, or creed. The sentence on the garment may look like a cliché, yet upon closer inspection seems a well-timed call for intellectual autonomy in an age of rampant ideologies and the secretive, hardly-decipherable technological mechanisms that promulgate such content. It’s hard homework for 21st-century people who struggle to verify all the information they are flooded with. And so they live in accepted ignorance, against which the philosopher led his intellectual efforts since around the age of four.
Orphaned as a toddler, he was brought up under the care of a strict and reserved grandmother, who would never sit in a comfortable armchair before eating dinner, which was always served at 8:00 p.m. Although the family was wealthy, owning a lot of real estate in today’s London and occupying a residence gifted by Queen Victoria, gourmet food was never served and the children were protected from sugar and fruit, which were considered harmful. In his three-volume autobiography Russell recalls that although there were eight servants in the house, everyday life was conducted with modesty and discipline, something quite unheard of among the elite of the time. He did not indulge in luxury—once in a blue moon the adults would have apple pie and Bertrand would be served rice pudding. Oranges remained his unattainable childhood dream, which seems ludicrous considering that his grandfather, born at the beginning of the French Revolution and able to visit Napoleon on Elba, was twice prime minister during the period when the British Empire was flourishing.
Russell’s parents were of high social standing—his father was Lord Amberley—but were also progressive in their views, supporting access to contraception and women’s suffrage. They befriended some of the era’s brightest minds, including John Stuart Mill and other prominent philosophers, who visited them frequently. Not afraid to practice what they preached, they suffered the consequences—the father lost his parliamentary seat, while the mother was banned from more than one home for regularly attending suffragist meetings. Moreover, they were in what today would likely be called an open relationship.
Russell’s mother lived a short life—diphtheria killed her only three years after he was born. His father died one year later, succumbing to severe bronchitis. In his will, he left both of his sons (Russell’s brother Frank was a few years older and later introduced him to mathematics) in the custody of non-believing teachers, but this was legally challenged by the grandmother.
Three Great Passions
Thus the boy found himself at his grandmother’s residence, Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, from where his earliest memories come. It was 1876 and four-year-old Russell would sit in the servants’ room, drinking tea under the watchful eyes of the housekeeper, cook, butler, and his grandmother’s personal maid—the aristocracy among servants. Although his grandmother exerted the greatest influence on his early upbringing and had a commanding presence, the grandson was not afraid to challenge her authority. Without formal education, her power was titular and symbolic. The young Russell would ask her questions and whenever she did not know the answer, he would retort that she should find it. Clearly, from an early age he was hungry for knowledge and this passion—one of the great three he describes in his autobiography—never left him.
Already as a child and adolescent, Russell was prone to melancholy and had recurring suicidal thoughts. He was saved by long walks and a passion for mathematics. His brother Frank instilled in him a keenness for mathematical dilemmas, which Russell nurtured so much that after years of homeschooling he entered the prestigious Trinity College at Cambridge (from where Isaac Newton, among others, graduated). Even though university proved to be a disappointment for Russell (he majored in mathematics for three years, turning also to philosophy in the final one, but later said he did not learn anything important there), studying had a salutary effect on him, It brought him into contact with his peers, enlivened him socially, and taught him to laugh. Before he had been gloomy, but being a student brought out a cheerfulness, lightheartedness, and hopefulness in him. He emerged as a young man able to express his thoughts with exceptional clarity and deeply curious about matters that were no longer laughed at.
In Cambridge he embarked on a quest to answer one of the fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge itself: Can one be certain of anything? Russell wanted to understand the human heart, learn why the stars shine, and study the “Pythagorean power” that manifests in the eternal value of numbers in a changing world. Many years later, he wrote that he had, in fact, been able to realize some of these ambitions.
Russell’s third passion was a longing for love, which it seems he did not experience at Pembroke Lodge. The budding philosopher craved love as a source of ecstasy and was not afraid to call it by its name. He would relinquish anything in exchange for a few hours of rapture, seeking love intensely and unapologetically. He had four wives and practically all of these relationships were unusual, challenging the period’s mores and established models. One of his marriages was open since Russell—devoted to freedom, including sexual freedom—practiced what he preached. However, contrary to what his adversaries argued, he was not an uninhibited scoundrel. On the contrary, he applauded restraint and clearly set the limit of freedom at where it might become harmful to someone or deprive an individual of being useful to others.
He sought love primarily because it was the only thing that fended off loneliness. He must have known this well, because he described it as a precipice beyond which lies a cold, unimaginable abyss. In love he found what various poets and saints describe as paradise. Thus, he treated it as entirely real, concrete, and experiential. Even though science only rose to some of his expectations, Russell described love as enabling complete fulfillment.
The Essence of Everything
Russell soon began to think independently; he was not content with math being merely a tool for solving numerical problems, because they were only theoretical. He wanted to discover what the number three truly is, whether it can exist in reality, and what it corresponds to in the world. He thus approached mathematics by applying the rules of logical analysis. In his view, if math were to help tackle the biggest questions regarding the nature of things and phenomena, if it was to provide certainty, it would need to be subjected to strict rigor. Russell sought to minimize the number of mathematical axioms, to create the simplest and most precise formulation of theorems, and to solve the paradoxes of which mathematical logic was rife in his time. He summoned the same forces later when he started to work on language. For every concept or arbitrary value, he sought, through meticulous examination, a convincing proof, set, category, or representation in reality. Russell rejected knowledge based on theoretical constructs, untested and assumed without explanation.
Here, incidentally, a curious relationship between science and faith is revealed in the philosopher’s life and work. He studied faith using the scientific method, but at the same time he was willing to depart from science if it embraced inflexible and unproven truths, such as religion. On the other hand, it could also be argued that his profound conviction about scientific and ethical progress is characteristic of deep faith.
Searching for God
Russell sought a logical test for axioms. Math was the first field he challenged, the first discipline where he sought to break down age-old scientific dogmas. From today’s perspective, his greatest achievement consists precisely in this wrestle with math. The fruits of this project, developed with Alfred North Whitehead, is contained in the multi-volume Principia mathematica. It was the first step towards what is now called analytical philosophy and continues to dominate philosophy in Great Britain. Still, wider audiences found Russell’s other reflections fascinating and meaningful, despite the fact that his evidence-seeking method remained unchanged.
In this way, for example, he wanted to prove the existence of God. The desire to examine religiosity was one of the reasons he took up philosophy in the first place. Quickly disillusioned, he took an almost militant attitude to religion, regarding its driving force to be fear, which can only stoke hatred and cause conflict, also requiring an institutional framework that preys on negative instincts. In response to religion, he advocated tolerance, arguing that life in an increasingly technically complex world—and therefore amid increasing interconnectedness—requires humanity to love its neighbors deeply, not only as a moral imperative. It would become a matter of survival, Russell foresaw, and the only way to avoid deadly conflicts.
Whatever issue he addressed, he focused on facts and the verifiable. He also used logical analysis to examine the language with which the world is described. He believed and proved that many classical philosophical problems would have been solved or invalidated a long time ago if they had been studied with precise scientific concepts and methods, instead of language devoid of clear definitions and boundaries.
At the Threshold of Emancipation
It could be said that Russell led a one-man assault on the era in which he grew up, deconstructing its dogmatism in science in parallel with its ongoing disintegration in other spheres. The British Empire and its dominant rule over the seas was coming to an end as the forces of modernity overcame once inflexible beliefs about fixed borders and geopolitics. The corset of accepted and long-unquestioned views was also being untied by women and all independently thinking individuals. Finally, the rise of education beyond Europe was questioning global social hierarchies as new countries became independent, emancipating themselves.
Russell became part of a transformation that seemed unthinkable when he came into the world. According to the philosopher, his grandmother once quipped to the Russian Ambassador: “Perhaps some day you will have a parliament in Russia.” The diplomat retorted: “God forbid, my dear Lady Russell!” The exchange was a manifestation of the certainty that sooner or later the whole world would follow the path of democracy embodied by liberal parliamentarianism.
This idea crumbled in Russell’s lifetime, with Europe plunged into its first war fuelled by mass killing techniques. Soon after it ended, in 1920 the philosopher embarked on a journey to Bolshevik Russia—which was heading towards totalitarianism—to meet Lenin and assess firsthand the progress of socialism, which he was sympathetic towards at the time. It only took a single visit and an hour-long walk with the revolutionary leader for Russell to write a plethora of texts expressing horror at what he had seen and heard the revolutionaries doing. He was certain that he had come across blind dogmatists, who would only get worse once in power.
When asked about the most influential philosopher of the 20th century he pointed with typical curtness to Marx, whom he did not seriously regard as a philosopher. Russell thought him a liar who declared a desire to make the proletariat happy, but in reality was only interested in making the aristocracy unhappy. Practical socialism disappointed Russell and made him ever lonelier, because leftwing European thinkers were the only circle that had supported him after he openly spoke out against World War I, abiding by his pacifism despite accusations of undermining and subverting the state.
On this one issue Russell remained intransigent, although he liked to emphasize that throughout his life his views changed many times while his hopes remained constant. He regarded World War I as a calamity and a grave mistake. Indeed, it bred revanchism and ultimately led to another global confrontation, this time carrying anxiety about nuclear conflict, which Russell acutely felt for most of his life. His attitude to the wars that followed was more complex, but his declared pacifism had already confirmed his ability to swim alone against the current. Discussing his three great passions many years later, Russell enumerated not only his desire for love and the pursuit of knowledge, but also a yearning to improve the lot of humanity. He considered opposing war, which brings only evil and destruction, as a duty and a matter of fundamental humanity.
A Thinker Behind Bars
Russell the individualist was more than a witness to the end of a world—one that was Victorian, colonial, Eurocentric, sectarian, and dogmatic. He actively participated in this change, becoming a bright star of transformation and a maverick mind who was only adopted later by various progressive movements as a spiritual father figure. In his lifetime, he remained a free spirit, who was popular and listened to, but followed his own path. Just like his parents, he was ready to face the consequences, like being dismissed from his lecturing post at Trinity College or being arrested for his anti-war position. Russell was imprisoned several times, the last time as an eighty-nine-year-old protesting (together with young people) against nuclear weapons and war. The prison guard who locked the cell door allegedly remarked patronizingly that he should know better at his age.
Critics accused Russell’s anti-war philosophy of inconsistency because he regarded World War II as necessary in light of Hitler’s rise to power and the rise of fascism across Europe. He saw this war as morally justified up to the point when the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb, making military action synonymous with total destruction. The aforementioned visit to Russia made Russell relinquish all hope in socialism as the only possibility of saving the suffering masses—he saw in ideology the same danger as in religion of building a world on the foundation of fear. Over time he focused on defining pacifism in a way fit for the era of globalization and rapid technological advancement.
In 1955, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein published a manifesto in which they pointed out the threat to human survival arising from atomic weapons, issuing a grave warning about “universal death.” This text inspired the establishment of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs—an ongoing series of meetings fostering collaboration among scientists, including American and Russian ones, who are determined to work for peace and speak out against the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Russell also lobbied (with moderate success) for the first treaties banning the testing of nuclear weapons. Moreover, he argued for a world government that would regulate only key global matters, leaving as much freedom as possible for states and individuals. He wanted such a government to have all existing weapons under its protection. In his view, this would limit the possibility of war and make it nonsensical. Otherwise, he observed, every scientific and technological advance would also in practice serve the military.
Russell accurately diagnosed the new problems facing a world that had ceased to be static (like the one he was born into) and had become dynamic—changing and ever-more complex. He spoke about the urgent need for a more sustainable global economy, noting that it was the only way to guarantee that the impoverished and underprivileged citizens of the Global South would not migrate to Europe in search of a better life. If people want peace and progress, Russell argued, they must embrace tolerance and mutual love despite differences. Finally, he maintained that the safety of the world requires population control. He regarded the sudden growth of Asia and Africa as a threat and a potential source of conflict. Perhaps this was an expression of the spirit of the age and its fear of bloody revenge on Europe for the centuries of colonial injustice it perpetrated. So far, the Global South has not declared war on Europe, but migration to the Global North and the desire for a European quality of life have become global phenomena, while inequality is only deepening.
An Epoch of Privilege
After World War II Russell did not abandon hope for a better world, although he acknowledged that building it would take longer than he’d thought. However, he never relinquished the belief that ahead lay an epoch better than any previous chapter in human history. If he was not shaken by the 20th-century’s violent conflicts and ideologies, it can be assumed that he would not change his mind because of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the climate crisis. His answer to the darkest moments was to analyze the facts and in them seek causes and possible solutions. Indeed, the facts suggest that both the quality and length of life are increasing, while poverty and the number of war victims are declining. On a global scale, humanity has confirmed Russell’s hopes.
Importantly, the British philosopher had a knack for looking on the bright side. When advised that smoking a pipe would kill him, he replied that he had been smoking with great pleasure every day for seventy years and so far he only had evidence that his love of tobacco had saved his life. He once chose a smoking seat on a plane that was forced to make an emergency landing in a Norwegian fjord; upon hitting the water, the passengers in the non-smoking section all died, while Russell escaped unscathed. Ultimately it was not the pipe habit that caused his death much later, in 1970.
He lived life to the full, worked in many intellectual fields, published prolifically and on a huge variety of subjects. It was already during World War I that he decided, after losing his job at the university due to his pacifism, to write for newspapers and thus engage a wider audience, paying attention to clarity and lucidity. One might say that Russell was not just philosophizing but truly embodying his views. He did not stand aside from the world, watching it from a safe distance—instead, he threw himself right into the vortex. For this reason, his work endures both in academic life, marking a turning point in 20th-century philosophy, and in everyday life, delivering an abundance of maxims that anyone can wear with conviction.
Translated from the Polish by Grzegorz Czemiel
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