Autobiography

Autobiography

Autobiography

Autobiography

Excerpt

A particular, persistent reason why Bertrand Russell had such appeal, throughout his ninety odd years, especially to the young, was the trouble he took to write plain English. Considering how complicated or ratified were the subjects he started writing about in his own youth or early manhood, it is all the more instructive to see how he shaped his own style for his own purpose. Was it just a gift from the gods in whom he never believed, or was it not rather a deliberate design to carry forward the tradition of intellectual integrity in which he was reared? The plainer the style, the less likely it could be used to tell lies. He would stake everything to tell the truth. The century he loved best and the language he came to love offered the best exemplars. Jonathan Swift and David Hume aimed to secure an absolute clarity and they seldom failed. Yet they continued to be read thanks to the enduring individual resonance in their writing which they also achieved.

All through his life and increasingly in the later years, as many of us believed, Bertrand Russell was given credit for a comparable combination of qualities. And yet the claim has been challenged, and the point should be disposed of at once. Ray Monk, himself a philosopher, has written a new biography of Russell in which he insists that he is dealing with the philosophical questions overlooked or bowdlerized by previous biographers or by Russell himself. His first volume, subtitled The Spirit of Solitude, takes the record from Russell's birth in 1872 until 1921. In the light of his actual text, the title might be regarded as satisfactorily restrained. What he is examining more specifically, as he indicates in an epigraph from Dostoevsky, is how nearly and constantly Russell himself trembled on the edge of despair and madness. It is indeed a very different portrait from the one drawn by the man himself who believed that he derived at least part of his inspiration from the fountain of eighteenthcentury rationalism and who so often, when he was on the 'verge of despair', could still find the honest words to restore his faith in the human race. Mr Monk is a skilful operator, and his assault on Bertrand Russell's reputation responds to all those wretched instincts in the human condition which like to see great men reduced in their status. Devout Christians especially seem to be happier when free-thinkers of one breed or another are exposed as victims of the same fate as the rest of humanity. Such was the kind of venom which Dr Johnson unleashed on Jonathan . . .

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