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Autobiography by Bertrand Russell

13 May 2008

I actually finished this book almost two months ago, but tackling the review for it was more difficult than I thought it would be. Partly because of the book’s length and scope, but also because it’s tricky to review an autobiography without simply summarising the author’s life. I think I’ve done well enough out of this one, for the most part.

Autobiography by Bertrand Russell

Mathematician, philosopher, social reformer, conscientious objector, writer, lecturer, anti-nuclear protestor — Bertrand Russell’s life is remarkably difficult to summarise in a few words, not least because it spanned nearly a century of constant political and social change. His grandfather was Lord John Russell, later the first Earl Russell, two-time Whig prime minister in the mid-nineteenth century and a son of one of the most well-connected aristocratic families in Britain. His parents, Lord and Lady Amberley, held radical views on atheism, birth control, and other moral values which were not far short of a scandal in the socially conservative late Victorian era. This mixture of orthodox and unorthodox influences formed the background of young Bertrand Russell’s life, and at times appeared to surface in the few scandals he managed to produce alongside his publications and lecture tours.

Russell’s parents died early in his childhood, and he and his older brother Frank were raised at their grandparents’ estate in Richmond Park. Like many well-to-do young men of his age, he was educated at home by a series of tutors, who encouraged his natural aptitude for the study of mathematics. Yet Russell also spent much of his adolescence fighting off depression, worries about his sexual desires and the loss of his religious faith, and suicidal thoughts — indeed, he admits that the thought of not being able to learn more mathematics was one of the few things that kept him from taking his own life. He passed the entrance examinations for Cambridge and began to work on mathematics at Trinity College, soon expanding his work into philosophy and eventually taking a philosophy fellowship at Trinity shortly after he graduated. The connections between mathematics, logic, and philosophy formed the basis of much of Russell’s work for the rest of his life, and his influence appears in the writings of later logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers such as Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Even after he became the third Earl Russell upon the death of his elder brother in the early 1930s, he carried on much as before, though he wryly notes in the autobiography that he found the title occasionally useful for securing hotel rooms. He published numerous essays, articles, and works of short fiction; worked on sweeping surveys of the history of social thought and Western philosophy; and maintained an exhausting lecture circuit. And in 1950, his contributions to ‘humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought’ were considered of sufficient merit to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Apart from his academic career, Russell became more and more involved in political and social causes as he grew older. He was an active participant in the markedly unpopular pacifist and conscientious objection movement during World War I, a cause that alienated him from formerly close friends and colleagues and eventually ended in a six-month stretch of imprisonment in 1918. He was interested in the mechanics of socialism and communism, though he became one of the more strident critics of the Soviet Union, something which did not endear him to other left-leaning associates like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. He was an advocate of women’s suffrage, contraception, sex education, and homosexuality and divorce law reform, all of which feature prominently in the pages of his autobiography — particularly in the sections in which he frankly and unashamedly describes the ups and downs of his various marriages (a total of four, of which three ended in separation and divorce) and occasional affairs with other women. After World War II, he became associated with the world government and nuclear disarmament movements. In 1957, at the age of 85, he served as the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and participated in marches and demonstrations for several years afterwards. Well into his 90s, he worked on his autobiography, and continued to write public letters and editorials almost up until the day of his death in early February 1970, at age 98.

Covering more than 700 pages, Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography is an expansive text that is as much a work of social history as it is an individual’s life story. Each chapter contains a selection of personal letters, notes, and short articles that round out the written recollections. Although Russell writes engagingly of his adventures and travels, and is willing to admit his own faults and failings in retrospect, he does not always come across as an easy person to know or to live with — as a friend and colleague, he could be warm and disapproving, generous and chill, caring and frustrating by turns. Yet the book quite clearly presents the human being behind the careful mathematician, introspective philosopher, and active elder statesman, a life lived fully and as best as anyone might be able to live. In the end, it is unsurprising that Russell would preface the account of his life by saying, ‘This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

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