Chapter 11 (pages 181-7), “Eminent Men I Have Known”
Though Russell met many famous people, he did not find that the ones who left the greatest mark on history were the most personally impressive. Russell saw little in Browning, for instance, and Tennyson was caught up in “acting the poet [p. 181].” Russell thought Ernest Toller was the most unforgettable of the poets he had known, “chiefly through his capacity for intense impersonal suffering [pp. 181-2].” Rupert Brooke (who looked like a young Hugh Grant) “was beautiful and vital, but the impression was marred by a touch of Byronic insincerity and by a certain flamboyance [p. 182].”
William James was the philosopher, among those no longer living, considered by Russell to be the most personally impressive. James had no apparent consciousness of being great, but was “a natural aristocrat, a man whose personal distinction commanded respect [p. 182].” Henry Sidgwick was distinguished by his intellectual honesty. Some scientists, like Einstein, combine immense intellects with an admirable disregard for how their actions or opinions will be received.
Of the seven prime ministers Russell knew (to that point), including his grandfather, Gladstone was the most unforgettable. The only other politician who could match Gladstone for impressiveness was Lenin. Gladstone inspired terror in those he met, including Russell, and Gladstone even was more than a match for the indomitable spirit of Russell’s grandmother. Lenin and Gladstone shared many features, including an absolute certitude of their own rectitude. But “Lenin was cruel, which Gladstone was not [p. 185].” The other differences also tended to favor Gladstone, and this helps to explain why Gladstone’s overall influence was beneficial, while Lenin’s was disastrous. But what if you had met these men on a train without knowing who they were? One would quickly sense Gladstone’s greatness, but with Lenin, narrow-mindedness and cynicism would be the observable traits. Lenin, Russell suspects, needed the unquiet times of 1917 to succeed as a leader. His religious-like conviction and the aura that science and logic were on his side carried the day during those upheavals.
Many unforgettable people are not eminent, and their memorable quality often lies in a type of “self-forgetfulness.” One (who did achieve eminence – RBR) was E.D. Morel, whom Russell praises for his “purity of heart [p. 187].” Morel learned of the horrors of King Leopold’s policies in the Congo, and sacrificed his means of livelihood to make those horrors public. Eventually Morel won this battle which he started virtually single-handedly, but then forsook his public esteem by embracing pacifism during World War I. [RBR: This story is reminiscent of Russell’s own: a friend to the British left for his WWI pacifism, Russell lost most of that friendship by returning from Moscow in 1920 firmly anti-Soviet. Incidentally, this short chapter is a prelude of sorts to Russell’s 1956 book, Portraits From Memory and Other Essays.]