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].”

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