Bertrand Russell (1892-1970)
It is always amazing to see how the biographies of great men determine much of what would become their world-views and, in the case of philosophers, their life’s work. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) is no exception.
Bertrand Russell was born into a family as aristocratic as they come. His godfather was one of the founders of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill. The Russells have been involved in the highest ranks of British society for centuries before Bertrand was born. His grandfather had been a prime minister. At the end of his first marriage, he had an affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, famous social figure in early 20th-century Britain, and perhaps also with the first wife of poet T. S. Eliot. Despite his aristocratic roots, Russell had a keen sense for social justice and he was an activist for peace. Refusing to participate in the first World War, he was sent to prison for six months. He wrote about the experience:
From quotes like this one can immediately see Bertrand Russell’s attitude towards life: distanced, cool, haughty even. But also, at the same time, sympathetic towards those who did not have his own privilege. And also another thing: whenever something went wrong in his life, Russell turned to mathematics as a way to escape.
This began early: his mother died when he was two years old; his father when he was four. His grandfather two years later again, so that Russell had to be raised by his paternal grandmother. He wasn’t happy living alone with her and he often contemplated suicide as a boy. In his books, he states that it was only his fascination for mathematics that kept him alive. When he was eleven years old, his brother introduced him to the work of Euclid. Russell wrote later that this was for him like falling in love for the first time.
So here we have the main strokes that form the picture of Bertrand Russell’s life — and what underlies his life’s work: a deeply rooted feeling of unhappiness with the world, despite the recognition of his own privilege; an interest in mathematics and logic that is as strong as for others first love would be; and, finally, the overcoming of personal unhappiness through this love of mathematics.
It is no surprise that Russell himself became most famous with his work in logic and the foundations of mathematics — trying to build up mathematics from a set of axioms, just like Euclid had done for geometry. This moment of love that the eleven-year-old experienced never really left him and became the driving force for his greatest scholarly work, the three-volume “Principia Mathematica.”
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But his unhappiness despite his own privileged position in society also showed him that outward status and riches are not necessary or sufficient for happiness. Bertrand Russell himself had had it all in terms of worldly status. At a time when Britain ruled the world, he was one of a handful of people who were next in line to rule Britain. But still, he had lost his mother, his father, his grandfather. He was unhappy and felt that his life was worthless. What better demonstration could there be of the futility of worldly rank? But then: what saved him from this fundamental unhappiness? What could give a young man the meaning that power and social rank could not? Intellectual interest. Euclid, mathematics, the riddles of logic, the eternal world of philosophy. Just like Plato, Russell was in love with eternal things, a prime example of someone climbing Diotima’s ladder to escape from himself.
As an older man of 58, already a world-famous philosopher, Russell wrote his book “The Conquest of Happiness” that we will be discussing here. It is not a work of abstract philosophy, but a collection of personal notes. It is the experience of one man who was an unhappy child and who, through luck, talent and hard work in equal measure, managed to become not only famous but also, in his own evaluation, a happy man. And in this book, he gives us the keys to this happiness.
So let’s dive in! Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will come this Friday on the mailing list.
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