|Oh, Dear Bertrand,
||[Jul. 2nd, 2009|10:38 pm]
Do you remember the excitement of discovering someone who shocks you, inspires you, makes you laugh in wonderment, makes you nod in agreement? Someone who is cleverer than you, who says things you know but do not understand. Someone who vocalises sketchy thoughts that you believe you believe but could never explain. When I was younger it was always rock stars I felt this way about. You find friends who make you want to say “yes – what she said!” Then I added on historians who wrote about people in centuries past in a way that made me see life on a very long timeline. History gained me a sort of consciousness that touching the lives of people who are long buried is in some way possible. People who have gone before us are not irrelevant but actually congregating behind the door of the room you just walked out of. It matters. None of it matters. It doesn’t matter.
I have found that man, that absorbingly fascinating man, who I want to ingest. I wish I had the brain capacity to read every word he wrote and understand it as he did – I feel if I did then I would be infinitely better off in ways I can’t even contemplate. But that is not my life, it was his. Mine is to read his words and say – yes! Yes I think like him, I admire him, I want everyone to listen! I can no more understand everything he understood than I would be capable of knowing how to fly a space shuttle later this evening, but it does not stop me from appreciating him, and learning what I can from him. Great ideas may come to those who have a special talent at receiving them, but they almost always require the cooperation of thousands of clever people to make a reality from the ether. People who are perfectly mentally capable feel that some levels of philosophical thought are only open to the geniuses amongst us. We feel we mustn’t stick our necks out and dare writing our opinions on a man whose genius was astounding, because we should not comment on anything we do not know from inside out. It is this horrible pedantic culture that has made grammar more important than thought and ideas. I dispute this. If there were not a population full of thinking, competent people to be inspired the world would not need and produce a man like this. The man is Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell. How I wish I knew him, and in so many ways. This was a man, born in 1872 and died in 1970. The year he was born was a leap year, Queen Victoria still had 29 years left in her reign, Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States, and the invention of radio had not yet taken off but was being avidly studied. The year of his death Nixon was president, Bowie released The Man Who Sold The World and we’d been to the moon and back – yes, I am a believer. Within those years we had the Boer War, two World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Korean War. Women were given the vote and the Civil Rights Movement had been won, through bloody means and peaceful ones. And all through this amazing time, nearly a century of rapid development, we had the good fortune of having a person of Bertrand Russell’s calibre able to think and speak freely. And all of these events have in their turn participated in giving me the ability to contemplate it all, and speak my mind as well. I was not born into an elite group, I have not been brought up with great financial means, I have not been overly educated. But I have been able to self-educate, I’ve had adequate if not fantastic access to information, but importantly, I have not been hindered by laws and social norms.
What strikes me so deeply about Bertrand Russell is how utterly modern he is. Yet he came from a very long and well respected line of aristocracy. What he thought about and wrote about is so incredibly relevant today. His method of thinking was a very modern one, he said, “I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.” He was sharp, and able to ruthlessly express with a few words some home truths, “I will never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” He was a true non-conformist, saying my current mantra, “One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” This coming from a man who did indeed serve time in prison, for his activism against Britain’s participation in World War I. He had a sense of humour, and did not take himself too seriously, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.” He beat Morrissey to taking the piss out of the legal system saying, “It is obvious that ‘obscenity’ is not a term capable of exact legal definition; in the practise of the Courts, it means ‘anything that shocks the magistrate’.” He is in fact like a potent mixture, a little of Morrissey, a little of Einstein, a little of Euclid, a little of Mozart, but all of himself, his own mind.
Name some issues that face us today. How about the tension and threat from North Korea? It is nuclear; it is something we all face in our day to day reality. Lines are being drawn and the world’s leaders are making their stands, for or against. And hanging in the balance are the unwilling, unknowing Us. We do not attend meetings of war, or influence the Powers That Be, but we are the ones who will pay with our lives in a nuclear conflict, so make no bones about it, this is our reality. Russell was amongst the few who understood the consequences of a nuclear attack back in its infancy, he and Einstein issued the Russell-Einstein Manifesto highlighting the extreme dangers of nuclear weapons, and calling on world leaders to seek peaceful resolutions to international conflicts. Yet he was not, by his own admission, a pacifist in the strict sense of the word. He believed that in some cases a war was necessary to prevent an even greater atrocity. In 1940 he agreed peaceful negotiations were no longer possible, and Hitler needed to be defeated by force. And here is an example of his genuine open mindedness. He did not prescribe to a way of thought that each of his subsequent actions would have to accommodate. He had morals, ethics, ideas, base convictions to work from such as human rights, and he went from that point with each new issue presented to him. And so we see we are still within the dilemma he was attempting to solve in 1955.
Take the conflict continuing between Palestine and Israel. We hear about it on the news on an almost daily basis, and he was trying to see it resolved in 1970, the year of his death. He issued a statement saying “The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was “given” by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their numbers increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? […] We are frequently told that we must sympathise with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. […] What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy.”
The arguments over certain ethical questions which face us today, such as abortion and stem cell research are brought to mind when I read, “The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.” Which leads very nicely on to religion.
Religion, the bugbear of the world for all of our history is of course something that Russell thought and wrote much about. His “Why I Am Not a Christian” written in 1927 is a devastatingly clear portrait of following religious belief with logic and seeing where it takes you. In it he manages to compare the death of planet Earth with poor digestion, and takes a stand for the feelings of pigs & fig trees. His logic is thorough and well delivered. I love his way of thinking, he carries assumptions through to their logical conclusion and is not afraid to face what he finds. But he was no nihilist. He believed in kindness, in putting effort into humanity.
Russell said in The Analysis of Mind, 1927 “There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.” It begs the question if the Wachowski brothers were reading up on Bertrand Russell while creating The Matrix? A modern film, a modern idea, a modern concept, and Russell was casually saying it may or may not be the case in 1927.
In Russell’s private life, he was every bit as avant garde. He married four times, and had many mistresses, and all of the women he was involved with were every bit as opinionated and radical for their time as he was. Russell had three children, and I am in no position to comment on their happiness, but they all proved to be fascinating, thoughtful people in their own right. In reading the obituary of Conrad, Fifth Earl Russell I feel almost as if I were privileged to have known the man; I feel a warmth for a family who has for generations persevered in their efforts to improve things as they saw them. In that they are like many families who go unrecognised and unknown.
Bertrand Russell was an amazing man. I am grateful he managed to spend such a long time on this planet, which he thought so much about. I feel we would all be significantly poorer without having had him. And if indeed the world came into existence a mere five minutes ago, I am grateful that his story is part of my implanted memory. It gives me momentum and the will to endeavour to make sense of it all. I feel I know him, that he is just there, the other side of the closed door, slipping notes to me through the crack and fiddling with the keyhole.
I will leave this on Bertrand Russell’s own words, as he can phrase it so eloquently, “Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”