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libertines

Bertrand Russell

Of the great variety of essays written by the father of post-war Polish conservatism, why premiere with a translation of Henryk Krzeczkowski’s “Last of the Great Libertines” about Bertrand Russell? Two reasons: first, I trust the Anglo-American mind will appreciate a foreigner’s view of one of England’s principle British thinkers. Secondly, what becomes apparent as we read Mr. Krzeczkowski’s essay is just how limited the practical possibilities for a universal application of global liberalism are. Mr. Krzeczkowski, in point of fact, demonstrates that the liberal democracy Lord Russell advocated was only possible under English aristocracy and grew out of a British aristocratic culture. Needless to say, the universalism of such a liberal idealism is, as Henryk Krzeczkowski demonstrates, highly limited. In fact, one can (as I do) interpret this entire essay as not being about Bertrand Russell, but rather as using the case of Bertrand Russell to illustrate the truth of Wittgenstein’s maxim from which Mr. Krzeczkowski proceeds—and with which he concludes. —Peter Strzelecki Rieth

“Glaube nicht das alles Dummheit ist was Du nicht verstehen wirst.”—Ludwig Wittgenstein to Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was the grandson of a man who was twice the Prime Minister of Great Britain and great-grandson of the Prince of Bedford, one of the greatest of English magnates. He was, in the most banal manner, an aristocrat through and through. The index of names in his two-volume autobiography reads like the Almanach de Gotha, intermingled with a chronicle of culture and high society covering the second half of the XIXth and first half of the XXth century. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Everyone who one ought to have known, or who it was worth knowing. He was known by a far larger amount of people, but that is a different matter. He considered himself a true democrat and egalitarian, an enemy of all manner of conventions. Yet he felt more comfortable amidst the Royal Court than in the company of the common man. During an audience with King George V, he took note of the fact that the King was poorly acquainted with Russell’s family ties; something he mentions with some irony. When he met Joseph Conrad, Bertrand Russell recognized in him a kindred spirit, a “Polish aristocrat through and through.” Of his female friend who filled the romantic gap between his second and third wife, he wrote that they were united not only in great passion, but in their feeling of being members of the same class. This is not surprising; Lady Ottoline was sister of the Duke of Portland.

Pembroke lodge

Pembroke Lodge

Orphaned at age four, he was raised by his grandmother, in the house which was the sight of a famous meeting of the British cabinet. Famous, because some of the ministers snoozed peacefully at the table as the decision to go to war over Crimea was made. A grand, wild park was the boy’s oasis; his imposing and busy grandmother could never replace his parents. In Lady Russell’s residence, adults spoke only of those things which had receded into the distant past, about how Bertrand’s grandfather visited Napoleon on the Elb River, of one of his great grandfathers who took part in the defense of Gibraltar during the American war for independence, of another who was ostracized by the local landed aristocracy, because he concluded that the Earth came into being long before the year 4004 before the birth of Christ. His grandmother spoke a variety of languages fluently, she knew the English and Continental classics very well and could not stand the romantics, with the obvious exception of Byron (but not Shelley, who also lead the life of a sinner though he wrote maudlin poems). Her imagination on the subject of contemporary literature was vague. Once, Turgeniev presented her with one of his novels. She never read it. Turgeniev was merely her friend’s cousin, after all, and everyone writes novels.

Thereon, life passed by in the typical English fashion. And so it must have passed, though looked upon from below, from the perspective of “Continental” mortals, the long life of the future Lord Russell appears to be an interminable stretch of grand failures and small tragedies. Naturally, this is the view of people who do not have an adequately strong sense of the inalienability of the right to excessive eccentricity, the right of the well-born, or merely those born extraordinary, to behavior that at times runs drastically contrary to the accepted standards of behavior. A rebellion against these norms was not only, in the case of Bertrand Russell, the result of psychological predispositions nor of an unhappy childhood, but also of a deep, almost instinctive feeling of a state of privilege due to the children of the people who had established the aforementioned standards in the first place.

In history, a moment comes when a given sphere of a society is deprived of the right to be too sure of itself. In societies where this sort of expropriation does not take place too rapidly and is not combined with the immediate negation of the material sense of privilege, it is difficult to capture this moment, when the sense of self-confidence becomes a usurpation. I lean towards the view that Bertrand Russell, to the end of a life which was filled with the battle against similar privileges, did not recognize the passing of this moment. To his death, as one postmortem article had it, he was “eternally in a state of rebellion, an unhappy juvenile”—let us add, a juvenile from a good family.

I do not write, of course, of one of the originators of mathematical logic. Logicians and mathematicians do not give rise to such interest amongst the general public and, if they appear on the front pages of newspapers, it is only on account of some academic or personal misunderstanding. If all people who read newspapers really understood what was meant by Einstein’s “theory of relativity”, Einstein would have to remain content with the respect due to great scientists, yet would not dare dream of such publicity. If Bertrand Russell had merely been the author of some excellent works in logic and mathematics or even if he were only “the most readable and discussed philosopher of the inter-war years,” as Innocent Bochenski put it—”who did not ignore any area of philosophy in his work”, his death would have justified nothing more than a summary of his main scientific accomplishments, those being useful for a rather limited number of people.

limits of universal liberalismYet, Bertrand Russell was also a public figure, who spoke on issues about which—at least in theory—the common man decides, and it was to the common man that Russell directed his prophecies and beliefs. He demanded the attention of those both great and small, he freely propagated his worldviews and ideas on the proper rearing of people, as well as his concepts as to how to repair the world. It was in this role that he focused public attention on his person and it is this embodiment of Bertrand Russell which gives us the right to ruminate upon his personality and actions, on the source of his fame (so temporal and fleeting), and on his influence (which was probably rather fruitless).

It appears to me that Russell’s rather ephemeral popularity was above all a function of the fact that he was an anachronism. This statement, at first glance, is paradoxical, though essentially obvious, because it is the anachronistic comportment, like novelty, which is always regarded with greater fondness than all realistic attempts at struggling with the present moment. Antiquity and novelty reside in one house; a house ruled by the laws of adventure. The risk of such adventure is also its attraction and benefit—because it saves us from the sorry duty of thinking.

Russell, we may presume, did not ruminate upon the nature of his popularity and did not take care of it too much. He placed his faith in each of his subsequent truths and was likely honest in this faith. For this man of a different Time, the XXth century existed only as a conceptual reality. Quite surprisingly, we may apply to Bertrand Russell the words Namier used to describe Metternich:

“He was essentially a child of the 18th century, a pupil of Voltaire rather than Russ. Like his century, he believed in the unlimited power of the human mind, the embodiment of which was his own person…He considered society and politics in unchanging categories, abstract rights, and unaware of the inadequacy of the data we possess, he permitted banal, doctrinaire logic to suffocate psychological inquisitiveness. In a manner typical of the 18th century, he was interested in particular and amazing things rather than things basic and average…He remained a classic in an age of romanticism. He adored Reason, but was more of a reasoner than a thinker—’Je raissone sur tout et en toute occasion‘… For him, there were only States, never nations.”

If the numerous inter-war Polish flatterers and disciples of Bertrand Russell’s skepticism were possessed of a better understanding of his English and familial roots, they would have doubtless recognized the usefulness of his modes of living for a part of the world and a society that is not Polish. As such, his skepticism came to Poland in the form of a pâté, in which intellectual curiosity, agnosticism and pacifism were intermingled in rather strange proportions, a rather uncritical manner. Often this pâté was served uncritically, often in a reheated form, without considering the health of those meant to consume it. In Poland, there were not, after all, any green sports fields of the Eton and Harrow variety, nor do we have here the ivy covered walls of Cambridge and Oxford, the quiet of colleges, the cloistered and peaceful university retreats, where human thought, uninterrupted by history’s tumults, could calmly mature, free of the cares of daily existence. English words, torn from the context of their nation and its’ history, cannot be translated into our own. Thus did Lord Russell’s irony shrivel up to the proportions of an elegant aphorism. Along the way, English common sense, usually hidden under the shining surface of a risky bon mot, likewise managed to disappear. Amongst emancipationist circles, the lovers of a “conscious life” were anointed to debate Russell’s book, Marriage & Society, where Russell recommended “marriages of convenience and the life of sin”, while in England a critic generally friendly to the reformer’s work wrote that Russell’s book was ” naive theorizing, given that people who are inclined to sin need no advise on how to go about doing it.”

Russell wrote for the only world he knew, for people who were irritated by puritanical imperatives and prohibitions. He spoke to people who, in his view, were prepared to make independent intellectual and moral choices. In his ignorance of any other world, he never presumed that the ideas he espoused could be anything but intellectually provocative. He appealed to minds whose construction was similar to his own. He would most likely find it quite odd if someone told him that for some “foreigners”—people from a planet far from the consciousness of Victorian England—he was a prophet.

Things were likely similar with regard to Bertrand Russell’s pacifism. Relating his pacifist activity during the years of the First World War, he made little effort to muffle the ire of an Englishman convinced that England could afford not to participate in a “Continental” conflagration. Upon mention of violations of Belgian neutrality, he concluded that it was but a pretext exploited by dishonest politicians and fool generals. He juxtaposed the barbarity of the Germans to the not so humble behavior of their opponents. He was pained by the slaughter of British youth on French battle fields; pained by the thoughtlessness of friends who transformed, in a matter of hours, from neutralists into passionate advocates of teaching the Hun a lesson, but he underlines that he never opposed all wars. He considered this one evil and stupid, because it threatened the destruction of Europe, revolution and similar catastrophes.

Russell’s pacifism, seen in the light of his own recollections, had other limits, and perhaps even virtues. He never for a moment judged that his protests would halt the activity of the national instinct regulating British consciousness. He merely held that, given his gift of a rationality more sober than that of others, and his farsightedness, it was his right and duty to go beyond the unwise reality of the politics of his contemporaries. In his open letter to President Wilson, he claimed that he had nothing in common with the machine of government, that he spoke in his own name. The grandson of John Russell actually knew the machine of government quite well, and knew what politics was. He also knew that appeals not backed by any real force are banal. This knowledge was not, however, contradictory to his conviction that the voice of Bertrand Russell would be heard.

The matter of his aggressive agnosticism was no different. The Greek Exercises-notes written during a breakthrough in his religious views at age 16 are a revealing commentary to his Why I am not a Christian. It is hard to even call this a crisis of faith. He simply came to the conclusion that the protestant dogmas he had been fed cannot stand up to the criticism of a young mind and he never thought it necessary to return to the matter. He wrote: “in my opinion all the great religions of the world…are not true and harmful.” All arguments which in any way limited the liberty of action and the requirements of the mind of Bertrand Russell had to, by nature, be untrue and harmful. He never confronted them with the arguments of other people, just as he never – in a century that dove so deeply into the mechanics of psychological motivation – tried to analyze his definition of human freedom.

BRLord Russell was an English eccentric, a great Lord, who muddled into an alien epoch straight from the Victorian Enlightenment and the cult of self-sufficient Reason. I think, however, that deep in the recesses of his heart, he remembered the friendly request of Wittgenstein, that he “not judge that all which cannot be understood is therefore stupid.” He was guided, then, not only by the imperatives of his Reason, but of his heart as well, though it was not always reasonable. In his behavior, he took on forms to which he was accustomed on account of his status and education, maintaining a consistency that at times bordered on the weird. When the wave of postmortem worship passes, what will remain in contemporary memory, and perhaps in future memory, will be the famous photograph of a judicious Lord Russell, sitting, surrounded by youngsters on the curb in London, just outside the Ministry of Defense, protesting atomic mindlessness.

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8 replies to this post
  1. The American newspapers usually referred to Russell as “Lord Bertrand Russell”. This was improper; he was “Bertrand, Lord Russell”. The latter denoted a real peerage, including a seat in the House of Lords; the former would have been proper only as a “courtesy title”. It is true that he was the grandson of the Victorian Prime Minister, Lord John Russell. Lord John was a younger son of the Duke of Bedford, (not the “Prince of Bedford” as quoted in the article), and thus entitled to be called “Lord John” rather than “Mr. John Russell” as a matter of courtesy. But Lord John was legally a commoner, and served in the House of Commons during the greater part of his career. As he approached old age and retirement from politics, Lord John was granted a genuine title, Earl Russell, and moved to the House of Lords. At that point, he ceased to be “Lord John Russell”, and became “John, Lord Russell”. That was the title his grandson Bertrand eventually inherited.

  2. Mr. Bogey – thank you for your correction.

    The mistake regarding the Duke of Bedford is entirely mine as a translator, nor Mr. Krzeczkowski’s as a writer.

    The Polish word he uses is so similar to “Prince”, but actually means Duke – I simply could not decide which one was the proper English title.

    Thank you for pointing this out.

  3. Russell, we may presume, did not ruminate upon the nature of his popularity and did not take care of it too much.

    According to Ray Monk’s revealing biography he thought a lot about this subject: disdaining much of the popular audience on which he relied to fund his projects while mourning the decline of his reputation in the academia. (Wittgenstein, somewhat unfairly but also with some justice, claimed that “Russell’s books should be bound in two colours: those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.”)

  4. Mr. Bensix,

    Thank you for the information. Ray Monk’s biography was published in 1996, Major Krzeczkowski died in 1985. He wrote the Last of the Great Libertines in the early 1970s, so readers are kindly asked to keep in mind these limitations.

  5. A beautiful and quite substantial “introduction” to this most sphinx-like of 20th century philosophers. An outstanding essay.

  6. Mr. Rieth,

    Indeed. It was not intended as a criticism. Thank you for these insights into Polish intellectual thought, incidentally. I really appreciate them.

  7. Mr. Bensix,

    Thank you for reading. I hope readers enjoy the next one. Criticism is always good, intended or not, my only concern is that it fall on me, not on the Major. Anything which might appear lacking in his work is likely due to my poor translation or poor understanding of it.

    On the subject of criticism in general, the Major’s dying words to conservatives come to mind:

    “Revise everything so that you do not become anachronisms, only never revise Poland, your country cannot be revised, your country must be served with faith that Providence is on our side.”

    A good guide for American conservative thought as well.

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