Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will     Archive   Favorite posts   Twitter: @steve_hsu

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Bertrand Russell

At the bookstore yesterday I came across the autobiography of Bertrand Russell, which I became engrossed in for some time. Below is the prologue, written when Russell was 84.


Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy -- ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness -- that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what -- at last -- I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

I found Russell's comments on Keynes quite interesting.

Keynes's intellect was the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my own life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool. I was sometimes inclined to think that so much cleverness must be incompatible with depth, but I do not think this feeling was justified.

The bookstore had quite a nice section of Russell books. He wrote what could be classified as a "self help" book called The Conquest of Happiness, which anticipated a lot of recent work in positive psychology. See here for a nice overview.

... For those who find that even “the exercise of choice is in itself tiresome,” (147) Russell has a remedy that anticipates the smart unconscious. “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity of which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time to give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.” (49-50)

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to happiness is “the disease of self-absorption.” (173) Russell offers that his own conquest of happiness was due “very largely [. . . ] to a diminishing preoccupation with myself.” (6) A happy person knows that “one’s ego is no very large part of the world.” (48) ...

To the self-absorbed person, other people primarily serve as objects of comparison. “What people fear [. . .] is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.” (27) Russell warns that “the habit of thinking in terms of comparisons is a fatal one.” (57) To overcome it, “teach yourself that life would still be worth living even if you were not, as of course you are, immeasurably superior to all your friends in virtue and intelligence.” (173) “You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.” (58-59)

Likewise, Russell advises not to worry too much about what others think of you. On the one hand, he suspects that “if we were all given by magic the power to read each other’s thoughts, I suppose the first effect would be that almost all friendships would be dissolved.” (76) On the other hand, he doubts that “most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you.” (79) This is a nice example of regression to the mean: Chances are you overestimate the love of your friends and the disdain of your foes.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Blog Archive