Sunday, October 23, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" One

“Adaptation: An Autobiographical Epitome,” pages 1-12

Portraits From Memory opens with a remarkable and lengthy paragraph, describing Russell’s background and the atmosphere in his home when he was a child. “My parents died before I can remember, and I was brought up by my grandparents [p. 1].” Granddad was the former British Prime Minister John Russell, the first in the line of Earls Russell (of which Bertie was the third), and himself the son of a major British political figure. (Later in Portraits From Memory, Russell will devote a chapter to his grandfather.) The political leanings in the Russell household promoted parliamentary supremacy with a grudging toleration for a benevolent monarch, while global progress towards democracy – a democracy tempered by the inclination of the masses to follow the lead of the aristocracy – was the assured future fate. British global supremacy also was part of the presumed path to come, though the supremacy would not involve the continuing domination of Asian and African subjects. “The atmosphere in the house was one of puritan piety and austerity [p. 3],” manifesting itself in the form of morning prayers, cold baths, plain food, and the acceptance of alcohol and tobacco only to the point that was requisite for sociability.

Young Bertie’s interest in mathematics and philosophy was not championed by his grandparents, whose exclusive attention to virtue implied some hostility to such questionable pursuits. Matriculating at Cambridge was a liberating experience after the repression of home. “I had been compelled to live in a morbid atmosphere where an unwholesome kind of morality was encouraged to such an extent as to paralyze intelligence [p. 4].” [Russell indicated the importance of finding a congenial setting for one’s beliefs in The Conquest of Happiness.] Cambridge, where he studied first mathematics and then philosophy, brought an end to young Bertrand’s agonizing loneliness. Bertrand hoped to find some certainty in the truths of mathematics – though he was unimpressed with what passed for the proofs that were offered. Over the next two decades he learned that his hopes for certainty were less than fully realizable.

Bertie’s genealogy ensured that there was a ready-made political career in the offing. Against family objections, he chose to pursue philosophy instead. Following the career-choice tempest, he had a period of personal calm up until World War I. His opposition to that conflict and British participation in it isolated him from many friends and from British society more generally. (He notes that he is not against all war, and that he viewed the Second World War as necessary.) WWI and its aftermath – including the conditions that engendered WWII – have brought untold horrors. These horrors, including Nazism and Bolshevism in power, would have been avoided if Britain had remained neutral in the conflict.

Russell’s isolation deepened after WWI, especially following a visit to Russia in 1920, when he emerged (in part from a meeting with Lenin) as an opponent of the liberty-trampling Bolshevik regime. “I came to the conclusion that everything that was being done and everything that was being intended was totally contrary to what any person of a liberal outlook would desire [p. 8].” So by and large, the few people who could still stomach Russell following his World War I stance were put off by his anti-Bolshevik views.

Russell’s proclaims the Russian visit to be a turning point in his life. “The country seemed to me one vast prison in which the jailers were cruel bigots [p. 8].” Yet Bertrand’s friends supported this vile regime, and Russell had to decide whether he was mad, or they were. Fortunately, he was used to trusting his own judgment, thanks to the crucible of WWI.

Russell spent a happy year in China, returning in 1921 and turning his attention to education – as Reading Bertrand Russell has already noted (along with his views on the Bolsheviks). Russell started his own school to try to address what he saw as the shortcomings of the existing models. “But a school is an administrative enterprise and I found myself deficient in skill as an administrator [p. 9].” The school failed.

Freedom has its limitations, and in education, it must be limited to ensure sufficient discipline to acquire knowledge. Russell follows his godfather on the main principle of individual liberty: “The broad rule is a simple one: that men should be free in what only concerns themselves, but that they should not be free when they are tempted to aggression against others [p. 11].” The specific applications of this rule are complex, of course.

Russell views himself as an abstract philosopher much given to precision in thought – for which he often is mistakenly considered unfeeling. And although philosophy has not answered all of Russell’s needs, during his lifetime much that used to be vague and a matter of opinion has become precise and scientific; his own efforts to effect this progress are a source of self-satisfaction.

Optimism, easily imbued within his youthful milieu, is harder to support now. “But I remain convinced, whatever dark times may lie before us, that mankind will emerge, that the habit of mutual forbearance, which now seems lost, will be recovered, and that the reign of brutal violence will not last forever [p. 12].” Kindness and clear thinking will help us find the right path, and the future for humanity, Russell contends, will be brighter than its past.

[I haven’t yet read Russell’s three volume Autobiography, published well after Portraits From Memory, but this chapter has reminded me, rather profoundly, that I need to do that.]

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