Sunday, January 29, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Eleven

“Some of My Contemporaries at Cambridge,” pages 67-74

“From the moment that I went up to Cambridge at the beginning of October 1890, everything went well with me [p. 67].” Russell quickly made the acquaintance of many people who became intimate friends. The opening paragraph of this chapter provides a sketch of Charles Sanger, whom Russell met that first week in Cambridge and with whom he remained close until Sanger’s demise in 1930. “I have never known anyone else with such a perfect combination of penetrating intellect and warm affection [p. 68].” The description of Sanger is followed by admiring stories of the brothers Theodore and Crompton Llewelyn Davies. (Russell doesn’t note it, but these brothers were uncles to the boys who served as the inspiration for Peter Pan.) Theodore, in the midst of a thriving career in government, died at the age of 34 in 1905. Crompton “was one of the wittiest men that I have ever known, with a great love of mankind combined with a contemptuous hatred for most individual men [p. 70].” Next up for Russell is J. M. E. McTaggart, whom we met in "Chapter" Two. McTaggart was a shy but respected Hegelian. McTaggart broke with Russell due to Bertie’s views on WWI, and worked (successfully) at revoking Russell’s lectureship. [Russell refers to Sanger and McTaggart, incidentally, only by their surnames.]

In his third year at Cambridge, Russell met the first-year student G. E. Moore, “and for some years he fulfilled my ideal of genius [p. 72].” Moore was purity personified, and was virtually incapable of lying. He would repeatedly burn his fingers trying to light a pipe, because he would be distracted by argumentation after he struck the match but before he lit the pipe.

Charles, Bob, and George Trevelyan became friends of Bertie’s, especially Bob. “Bob Trevelyan was, I think, the most bookish person that I have ever known [p. 73].” Bob preferred books to virtually all non-reading pursuits. Bertie names but says little about some other friends, including Roger Fry, and the somewhat younger E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Maynard Keynes. Life was fun and friend-filled. “It was a generation that I am glad to have belonged to [p. 74].”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Ten

“Some Cambridge Dons of the Nineties,” pages 60-66

Some of them were quite mad, it seems. Others were vain and obsessed with royalty. Many of the oddest characters existed only in university folklore by the time that Russell arrived at Cambridge, alas.

Despite the tradition of eccentricity, “The great majority of Dons did their work competently without being either laughable or interesting [p. 62].” They were generally esteemed by Russell and the other students.

Henry Sidgwick’s faith became shaky; he ceded his Cambridge fellowship that required, at its initiation, that he sign the standard Anglican oath – even though he was sincere at the time of his signing. His resignation helped speed the demise of the religious requirement. “In philosophical ability he [Sidgwick] was not quite in the first rank, but his intellectual integrity was absolute and undeviating [p. 63].” Russell also expresses gratitude to, and high regard for, his main philosophy teacher, James Ward, despite academic disagreements.

Many of the Dons, including those in the main administrative posts, lived to ripe old ages. One ancient Senior Fellow was a leftover from the system where you received a lifetime post at an early age – a post whose only duty was to collect your pay. “This duty he performed punctiliously, but otherwise he was not known to have done any work whatever since the age of twenty-two [p. 66].” The tenure system had these sorts of flaws, but also allowed intellectual freedom, even for those whose intellects were questionable. (Recall how refreshing Russell found Cambridge to be following his repressed upbringing.) “In spite of some lunacy and some laziness, Cambridge was a good place, where independence of mind could exist undeterred [p. 66].”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Portraits From Memory, End of the First Period

Portraits From Memory lends itself, as did Education and the Good Life, to tripartite division, so we will adopt again the ice hockey approach of two intervals. The first period opens with an autobiographical essay, and “chapters” two through nine offer expansions on themes introduced in that initial chapter. These themes include Russell’s lonely existence as a youth in a repressive atmosphere, the liberating power of Cambridge and mathematics, a trio of turning points, constancy in many matters of opinion, and constancy, too, though at times wavering, in an optimistic outlook on humanity.

The three key moments seem to have been an intellectual epiphany in 1901, the onset of World War I, and a visit to Russia in 1920. We don’t learn anything about the precipitating events for the 1901 turnabout, but the others arise in part through Russell’s personal observations of a pathological public war lust and a hatred-motivated Bolshevik leadership. The common problem is dogmatism; Russell would prefer not to be a contrarian, but the global conditions often have demanded that he be out of step with public opinion. World War I cements Russell’s commitment to improving society through means of political activity, though he is also at an age (over 40) when most mathematicians have already seen a marked decline in their creative powers. (The Prospero-like abandonment of his mathematics books in the early twentieth century was perhaps a bit premature, though it didn’t prevent Russell from co-authoring Principia Mathematica.) The literary public intellectual side of Russell then takes center stage, though it had long been extant: his first book, published in 1896, was German Social Democracy.

Those elements of Russell’s political outlook that remained constant are ones that I still find admirable: the anti-dogmatism, the commitment to personal liberty, the unwillingness to bend to power. One must be realistic, facts cannot be ignored. “But it is also a bad thing to assume that whatever is in the ascendant must be right, that regard for fact demands subservience to evil [p. 47].” I also sympathize with his inability to align himself wholeheartedly with any of the standard political parties.

The fact that Russell laid out an intellectual work plan when he was nineteen, one that he essentially stuck to for the rest of his life, is pretty amazing. And those books that he feared would have no impact – well, they are still being read some seventy years later, alongside only a tiny percentage of the productions of his contemporaries. But we already knew he was remarkable.

Finally, Russell’s praise of Wittgenstein is such an encomium it makes me want to learn more about Russell’s student and colleague: “…at the time when I knew him well he was immensely impressive as he had fire and penetration and intellectual purity to a quite extraordinary degree [p. 24].”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Nine

“Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday,” pages 54-59

Russell’s long term goals have been to learn if anything can be known, and to make the world happier. His early life was primarily devoted to the first of these missions. As he noted in Chapter Two, he thought that mathematics might be the route to certainty, but when he tried to demonstrate this, he found himself constructing more foundational tortoises, all the way down. As he also noted in Chapter Two, the First World War diverted him into examining human folly, which he still harbors hope can be overcome before extinction ends the human experiment.

So Russell remains optimistic, but his optimism is not of the wild-eyed sort. We can see what have been, and remain, the causes of suffering; these causes include war and pestilence and poverty. “And there have been morbid miseries fostered by gloomy creeds, which have led men into profound inner discords that made all outward prosperity of no avail [p. 55].” But all of these root causes of suffering are avoidable.

Russell’s life after World War I broke out has been lived in an age when previous gains are being relinquished. The adjustment from Victorian optimism to facing Twentieth Century realities has been painful. “New thoughts, new hopes, new freedoms, and new restrictions upon freedom are needed if the world is to emerge from its present perilous state [p. 56].”

Russell’s Devil’s Advocate of Chapter Seven implicitly returns, questioning his influence on public affairs. People who adopt “a dogmatic and precise gospel [p. 56]” can influence society, but theirs is not a beneficent influence. Russell also eschews the fanatic’s panacea, whether it be improved institutions or better character. These elements are complementary, so progress has to be made on multiple fronts simultaneously, and diverse approaches must be nurtured.

Russell reveals that sixty-one years earlier, he had resolved, while walking in the Tiergarten, “to write two series of books: one abstract, growing gradually more concrete; the other concrete, growing gradually more abstract [p. 57].” He has now written those books, but has not produced the final synthesis of these two series that he then intended. The books have been a success, influential and praised. But this success is countered by failure, some outward, some inward. The outward failure is symbolized by the current (1956) plight of the Tiergarten itself, in divided (though not yet enwalled) Berlin; the ideals of the democratic victors in World War Two are being compromised in their battles with ideological opponents.

One inner failure has been Russell’s need to jettison his youthful belief in certainty and in the ability of mathematics to locate that certainty. The second concerns how someone who had such faith that love could lead to global progress “ended by supporting a bitter and terrible war [p. 58].”

Nonetheless, Russell ends on a characteristically optimistic note. He was right to seek truth, and he was right to try to work for a gentler world, one that lives in imagination yet, “where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them [p. 59].”