Why Read Russell?

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly, wrote Albert Einstein in 1940, in a letter to Morris Raphael Cohen, Professor emeritus of philosophy at the College of the City of New York, defending the controversial appointment of Bertrand Russell to a teaching position.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell born on 18th May 1872 and passed away on 2nd February 1970, was a British Mathematician, Philosopher, Political theorist, Logician, Social Critic and an activist; a rare polymath of the modern age.

In a prologue to his Autobiography, written on 25th July 1956, Russell says

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.

Reading the works of Russell that throw light on a plethora of topics, one finds every page imbibed in at least one of these passions. A child who wished to understand how we can be sure about anything; a question that remained a life-long topic of investigation and writing, Russell, worked on numerous other subjects as well. Moved by the misery wrought upon mankind by the two world wars, by the subjugation of women, by Victorian morality, and an economic and political system bent on destroying creative joy and impulsive pleasure, Russell expressed opinions on all shades of human life.

The writings of Russell will find a wide audience. Like the diverse spectrum of subjects he choose to write about, his work is also very diverse in its intellectual reception. While his epistemological works like Principia Mathematica, Human Knowledge, The Problems of Philosophy, and the likes, do require extensive knowledge of Philosophy, Mathematics and modern science, many of his works on Political Theory and Moral critique, like In Praise of Idleness, Marriage and Morals, Why Men Fight etc. would be intelligible for someone even with a moderate understanding of the subjects. A few other works, like the Conquest of Happiness and What I believe should be an easy read even for someone not interested in any theoretical understanding at all.

What makes the writings of Russell so unique and subtle, is the unusual combination of intellectual brilliance, with a genuine compassion to make the reader understand what he intends to say; reflected in the lucidity of his writings and the caramel flow to his contents.

Disowning the sophistry of modern-day scholastic, Russell makes a concerted and deliberate attempt to clear the vision of his thought on paper. He writes on the highly intricate issues of Mathematical Logic and Human Knowledge, also devoting heavily to issues that are of immediate concern to mankind. His pointed critique of the unnecessary misery emanating from traditional morality, to his rampant attacks on the socio-economic aspects of capitalism are as relevant today, as they were a century back. His belief in the impulsive joy of a reflective life and his abhorrence for mechanistic regimen one finds throughout his works; from his praise of the Chinese civilization in his The Problem of China to his critique of modern-day wage slavery in The Praise of Idleness, his thought tries to address the diseases of the age.

The panacea, the cure, Bertrand Russell believed to be in a politico-socio-economic system designed for man as an end in itself, and not a means to an end; to enrich human life in a deliberate cooperation and not blind competition. Power, Why Men Fight, Freedom and Organization, Political Ideals; to name some of his works dealing with the issue. Equally, if not more, is the importance given to Education; directed not to overpower the natural instincts of a child, but to harness his curiosity, that he contends will go a long way in creating a good society; one which takes more pleasure in what it gives than what it possesses. On the subject he wrote extensively; On Education (1926) and Education and the Social Order (1932) being few examples.

Throughout his writings and in his activism, Russell promoted academic courage and a child-like curiosity; a good life, if I may, as summarized in his own words One inspired by Love and guided by Knowledge.