Magazine article The Spectator

The Two-Edged Razor of Reason

Magazine article The Spectator

The Two-Edged Razor of Reason

Article excerpt

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF BERTRAND RUSSELL: THE PUBLIC YEARS, 1914-1970 edited by Nicholas Griffin Routledge, L25, pp. 704 ISBN 0415249988

When the actress Colette O'Niel, to whom Bertrand Russell wrote over 800 letters, was in her seventies, she observed in a memoir that the philosopher had first seemed to her `humble, simple, a real human being', but that later she had come to realise that he was the `most complicated of men ... torn between reason and emotion'. If the first volume of Russell's selected letters, published a few years ago, showed a man engrossed in the struggle for mathematical clarity, while exploring emotional possibilities, this second collection paints him in a considerably less tentative light. In the battles played out in a mind once described as a razor used to chop wood, reason proved increasingly the victor.

The Public Years opens in 1914, when Russell was 42. The laborious decade of Principia Mathematica is behind him, and much of the best of the philosophy is written. His lectureship in Logic and the Principles of Mathematics at Trinity is approaching its end. He has ridden away from the unhappy Alys Pearsall Smith on his bicycle, been embroiled for some time with Ottoline Morrell and is trying to extricate himself from a liaison with a young American called Helen Dudley (who will eventually go mad). The war, which is about to propel him into the public arena, has just been declared.

For his first volume, Nicholas Griffin had two immense correspondences to draw on - Russell's letters to Alys and to Ottoline - as well as his many exchanges with early friends at Cambridge. With the war, the pace of Russell's life quickened. Falling out with Alfred Whitehead and Gilbert Murray over his pacifism, which came to him, as he once explained, as if he had `heard the voice of God', he was making new friends among the war protesters and with D. H. Lawrence and the Webbs. Continuing his quest for the perfect passionate relationship, which alone could `counter the terrible loneliness of individual human life', he met and abandoned Colette, went to prison for his war protest, met, married and divorced Dora Black, opened a school where difficult small children roamed about more or less at will, wrote at length about the morality of the age, met, married and divorced Patricia Spence, opposed the atomic bomb, and eventually settled down for a fourth and at last happy marriage. More than anything he wrote himself or that has been written about him, these distinctive and elegant letters show the vast range and depth of his interests, and the way that he was curious about everything. …

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