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I discovered Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, historian, and social critic, in my junior year of high school. I found his ideas on international relations to be a more rational alternative to the Cold War perspective (think air raid drills) which was dominant at the time. Russell was a proponent of nuclear disarmament and involved in anti-war activism, including opposition to the Vietnam War.
This was circa 1963, and Russell quickly became my intellectual hero. High school was a brutal place, and Russell was my refuge.
In 1968 my family took its first trip to England, and I was obsessed with the possibility of visiting Russell. I approached his secretary in London. Russell was at that time 95 years old and spent most of his time in seclusion at his home in Penrhyndeudraeth, Wales. The secretary was reluctant to arrange my visit, pointing out Russell’s advanced age, but the sight of my misery must have moved him, because eventually he was on the phone with him, arranging the visit.
The next day I was on a train to Penrhyndeudraeth. The name alone filled me with excitement, and I was not disappointed in the cold, remote and exotic little town. I stayed at the town’s only inn, where the host had been to San Francisco and was eager to exchange notes. He told me how to walk up to the big house where Lord Russell lived. I did so the next morning.
A housekeeper let me into Russell’s study, which was an overwhelming tribute to his life, with thousands of books and mementos from 60 years of scholarship and activism. There was a vessel full of what appeared to be scotch or brandy, and several glasses. These remained untouched while I was there, although Russell was reportedly accustomed to periodic drinks.
Presently a very tiny old man came through the door. I still remember my heart pounding as I saw him and realized I had Bertrand Russell all to myself. I confess that in my youthful obsession I was near deifying him.
The conversation itself was somewhat anti-climactic as Russell was largely deaf. He mostly could not hear my questions, which were about essays he had written thirty years earlier. He did hear me mention Vietnam, and denounced LBJ’s bombing of the North. That was something, but there were any number of people opposing the U.S. involvement in Vietnam; I did not need Russell for that. When I left, he saw me out to the garden gate. I looked back at him and wondered if I would be the last youthful visitor to see him.
The quotes below give some of the flavor of Russell’s thinking, as well as some idea of the freedom of expression Russell enjoyed, in part because of his aristocratic background. For those interested, I recommend his works Sceptical Essays, “In Praise of Idleness,” and A History of Western Philosophy.
1. The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd. — Marriage and Morals, 1929
2. Science can teach us, and I think our hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supporters, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make the world a fit place to live. - Why I am Not a Christian, 1927
3. A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand. - An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth
4. The Victorian Age, for all its humbug, was a period of rapid progress, because men were dominated by hope rather than fear. If we are again to have progress, we must again be dominated by hope. - Why I am not a Christian, 1927
5. Change is one thing; progress is another. - Unpopular Essays, 1950
6. Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education. - An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1940
7. I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. - What I Believe, 1925
8. Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man. - What I Believe, 1925
9. We know very little, and yet it is astonishing that we know so much, and still more astonishing that so little knowledge can give us so much power. — The Metaphysics of Pragmatism, 1909
10. One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. - Conquest of Happiness, 1930