by Oscar Handlin
Before he was a philosopher, Bertrand Russell was a Russell, member of the great Whig family which had left its mark on English political and intellectual history since the fifteenth century. Lord John Russell, Bertrand’s grandfather, had been Prime Minister and a dominant figure in the British government for almost fifty years. Russell connections were sprinkled through society, the universities, the church, and the diplomatic service. To a young man with brains, these ties opened infinite possibilities.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BERTRAND
RUSSELL (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $7.95) vividly describes the world of the Russells. This remarkably candid and fascinating book carries its author from his birth in 1872 down to the outbreak of war in 1914. Although it was apparently written in 1952, when Russell was already eighty years old, it is thoroughly lucid, sharp in its portrayals, and precise in its recollections.
Nostalgia rarely intrudes in these pages. They record pleasant memories of a sheltered boyhood on a grandmother’s estate. The account of undergraduate life at Cambridge is playful and informative. A few personalities command Russell’s respect, and those he describes with generosity and appreciation, notably his teacher and colleague Alfred North Whitehead, and the novelist Joseph Conrad. But the dominant tone in the book is that of an old man looking back with amused condescension at the foibles of the contemporaries he outlived. When it
comes to earnest do-gooders like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the wit with which most of the Autobiography is written turns into malice.
Russell is at his best in describing the English gentry, whom he knew intimately by birth. Since he was nevertheless detached enough to be objective, he writes accurately as well as entertainingly.
Upper-class British society was at its zenith in the closing decades of the nineteenth century — wealthy, absolutely self-confident, and able to indulge its every whim. Only P. G. Wodehouse has depicted as well as Russell such a gallery of cousins and aunts, eccentrics every last one of them, rattling about their great houses without restraint. They become Buddhists, or Catholics, or agnostics, and vigorously pursue their hobbies, getting and doing what they want. Perhaps no other society ever permitted its members so completely to indulge their individuality.
Russell was thoroughly part of this world. He was also a truly great philosopher. The two roles, however, receive quite unequal treatment in these reminiscences. Russell says very little about the interior workings of his mind. He mentions the difficulties in writing the Principia Mathematica but hardly refers to the intellectual processes involved in putting that work together. The book focuses upon the man rather than upon his ideas; and the picture it paints is of a thoroughly selfcentered and not very likable human being.
The longing for love, Russell explains, was one of the passions that governed his life. The Autobiography certainly makes clear his need for love. But love to him was not reciprocal. It was a sentiment he expected to receive, not one it occurred to him to give. The lengthy accounts of his treatment of his first wife and of Lady Ottoline Morrell reveal a breathtaking selfishness.
Neither at the time nor in retrospect did it occur to him to take into consideration the feelings of others. Informed (mistakenly) that he had cancer, he told neither his wife nor his mistress. Instead he bullied his wife into a divorce by threatening suicide and then slipped out of the need for marrying the other woman.
Russell consistently measures his relations with women by the gratification they afford him. On a trip to Chicago, he seduced the daughter of his host and persuaded her to come to England to live with him. Before she arrived he decided to abandon her, because a private scandal would complicate his position just when he was about to come out as a pacifist against the First World War. He “had relations with her from time to time, but the shock of the war killed” his “passion for her,” and he “broke her heart.” Ultimately she went insane. That there may have been a deficiency in his conduct does not occur to him even a half century later.
Perhaps the most revealing passage in the book is from the account of his childhood. His parents hired a tutor in an advanced stage of consumption. “Apparently upon grounds of pure theory, my father and mother decided that although he [the tutor] ought to remain childless on account of his tuberculosis, it was unfair to expect him to be celibate. My mother therefore allowed him to live with her, though I know of no evidence that she derived any pleasure from doing so.” That astounding last clause may contain a clue to the twisted personal life recorded in these pages.
Philosophy and behavior
Although William James exerted enormous influence upon the thought of his country, he was not as gifted a philosopher as Russell. But James was a more attractive human being. The difference between the two men was partly personal and temperamental. But the setting within which they lived and their approach to philosophy also set them apart.
GAY WILSON ALLEN’S WILLIAM JAMES (Viking, $10.00) is a carefully written biography based on the private papers of the James family. Professor Allen’s story focuses primarily on the personal aspects of his subject’s life. The development of James’s ideas and his contributions to psychology and philosophy receive only tangential treatment. Although the detail is somewhat excessive, the book holds the attention. Through it moves an interesting family, enlivened by two men of genius, the philosopher and his brother Henry, the novelist.
The Jameses were by no means Russells in aristocratic lineage. William’s grandfather, the first of the family in America, was an Albany merchant who earned enough wealth to provide an income for the next two generations. William’s father, a self-educated religious thinker, became a devotee of Swedenborg and significantly influenced his children. Henry, William, and their brothers and sisters had the resources for frequent and extensive travel abroad, for good educations, and for the indulgence of some of their eccentricities.
They were all neurotic, William James like the rest of them. He backed into his career after a long period of vacillation. He spent a year studying to be a painter and then took a degree in medicine. His first teaching was in physiology. Only after these false starts did he decide to become a psychologist and a philosopher. Throughout his life, he was torn by uncertainty, concerned about health, and subject to fits of depression.
Yet he also attained a serenity that came from the knowledge of his usefulness to others. His kindness as a human being was quite unselfish, and as his relationship with Peirce showed, did not depend upon any requital. His tolerance and open-mindedness made him receptive to new ideas, sometimes uncritically so, as in his interest in spiritualism. The same qualities, however, also imparted in him a gentleness and modesty that made him a persuasive teacher.
To some extent these were personal traits. But James’s environment and his stance as a philosopher also influenced his character. Throughout his life he remained a provincial. Not that he was unfamiliar with the European capitals and watering places! But he was so securely fixed in his Cambridge community that looking down from the Hassler on the Piazza di Spagna, he was reminded of Harvard Square. And membership in that community brought with it a sense of obligation and responsibility to others.
James’s position in philosophy was unique. Beginning as a physician and a psychologist, he never lost sight of the importance of emotions. From his own experience he knew the desperate need of the men of his time to find meaning in their experience, and he insisted upon taking seriously feelings that were not susceptible to precise definition. That was why he was a figure of such consequence among his contemporaries. That was also why he played a rather minor part in the future development of philosophy.
Russell was in the mainstream, and as a philosopher was therefore far more significant. Approaching the subject from mathematics, he focused upon the problems of logic and of scientific inquiry. He dealt therefore with abstractions so pure that they bore little relationship to his personal life. Academic philosophy in the twentieth century followed his line rather than James’s. It devoted itself to exploring the techniques of knowing far more than to the applications of knowledge to man’s problems.
Accidents and their meaning
After the impassioned pre-publication battles, WILLIAM MANCHESTER’S THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Harper & Row, $10.00) is decidedly anticlimactic. The immense 700-page book is crammed with detail on the five days in November, 1963, during which John F. Kennedy was assassinated and buried. Its impact is that of a mnemonic device. The pages bring back memories of the hours by the television and of the emotional shock that swept the country and the world at the news from Dallas.
But the book’s contribution to the understanding of the event is negligible. Manchester got most of his information by talking to people, and he wrote by fitting together the accounts given him. He did not, therefore, go behind the prevalent versions on any significant incident. For instance, he accepted completely the conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin without even considering the kind of evidence put forward by Mark Lane and Léo Sauvage.
Furthermore, the derivation of some passages is unclear. The report of the conversations between De Gaulle, Rusk, and Johnson probably did not come from any of the participants. Is it reliable? The same question arises elsewhere. As a result, long sections of The Death of a President are open to question, and the historians who ultimately deal with the problem will have to re-examine all the evidence.
The peculiar circumstances of this book’s composition and publication may have deepened the perils inherent in writing any contemporary history. But the chief difficulties xin The Death of a President emanate not from the relationship with the Kennedy family but from the excessive reliance upon oral evidence. An interview, like a vacuum cleaner, indiscriminately sucks in great masses of material which can as well obscure as clarify the truth.
Perhaps no one close to the events would have been sufficiently dispassionate to sort out the information and misinformation about those five days that have steadily piled up. But Manchester was especially handicapped by emotion. The style, some of the chapter headings, and the use of religious imagery show the effort to frame the story as epic tragedy. The conclusion reaches for analogies with Greek heroes and Joan of Arc, as if there had to be a meaning to the drama. But despite the effort lavished on the book, despite the anguish of the family and the nation, a meaning fails to appear.
The unwillingness to regard a major event as accidental is characteristic of a society oriented toward science. Though science itself increasingly leaves open the possibility of randomness, we cannot accept it in our highly organized lives.
On the morning of Monday, January 17, 1966, two American planes collided above Spain. One of them was carrying four H-bombs, which fell, along with the wreckage, on the village of Palomares in southern Spain. The incident suddenly involved that tiny community in high politics and technology.
Two fine books by competent reporters now discuss the incidents. ONE OF OUR H-BOMBS IS MISSING (McGraw-Hill, $5.95) is a careful, lucid narrative by FLORA LEWIS. THE BOMBS OF PALOMARES by TAD SZULC (Viking, $5.95), the correspondent of the New York Times, covers much the same ground. There is little to choose between them.
Both books, in telling the story, raise the question of the meaning of the event. Palomares is a primitive village, in which people are not concerned with diplomacy or the cold war. They tend their own gardens. Out of nowhere comes a force which disrupts their whole lives. Though no one is killed, the fear of contamination draws in complex scientific and technological apparatus, the village becomes an issue in diplomacy and public relations, and its members will never again be the
same. And behind the spectacle of what actually happened appears the specter of what might have happened had one of the bombs been detonated.
The bombers still fly, and they still carry their deadly cargoes, and it is not inconceivable that some other village will also find itself in danger. Is that risk less worth bearing than that of doing without the bombers?
The peasants of Palomares can avoid the question. God, who caused the bombs to fall, caused them to fall where they did no damage. The incident is thus evidence of His benign intentions.
Most modern men cannot be thus satisfied. They must ask essentially the same question asked by the Enlightenment philosophers two centuries ago. Having surrendered the faith in a Divine Providence in favor of the belief in a beneficent world of nature, they were unable to explain why an earthquake in Lisbon should have taken thousands of innocent lives. The disasters of the twentieth century are as often man-made as natural, but they yield no more consoling an answer. Our world is not so calculable as to exclude the possibility of accident.
Politics and anti-politics
The social system not only influences the operations of government, it also establishes the climate within which theorists think about politics. Experience provides the data and shapes the assumptions basic even to very general concepts.
JOHN H. BUNZEL’S ANTI-POLITICS IN AMERICA (Knopf, $6.95) is a very American and a very useful book. It deals with the tendencies to reject the political process as a means of arriving at important decisions and the consequent distortions of democracy. The discussion is particularly appropriate at a time when antipolitical methods have been used to further desirable goals such as civil rights or peace. The danger to democracy from demagogues or dictators is self-evident. This hardhitting work reminds us that there are perils also from the well-intentioned but impatient.
Bunzel’s discussion of the extremists of the right and the left covers familiar ground. His critique of the Quaker position and of utopianism is more provocative. He is particularly incisive in the discussion of the extent to which advocacy of the impossible may impede the attainment of the possible.
Compromise, however, is not always a part of the political process, nor are politicians invariably brokers among competing interests. There are, therefore, circumstances under which nonpolitical means alone can achieve desirable ends. No amount of campaigning or lobbying would have broken the Southern pattern of segregation in the 1950s, just as no party measures a century earlier could have eradicated slavery.
There are points at which the inadequacies of the political process demand a statement of absolute ends and cast the utopian in a critical role. Such challenges to democracy in the United States have in the past proven temporary because the machinery of government ultimately was capable of functioning toward ends on which there was wide agreement. But we cannot assume that the political system will, of itself, continue simply to locate its own objectives.
This is the implication of a thoughtful work based on the French experience. JOUKS KLLUL’S THE POLITICAL ILLUSION (Knopf, $8.95) expresses a revulsion against the modern passion for entrusting all human concerns to decisions by the state. That tendency, he believes, rests upon the interlocking illusions of popular participation and popular control. Men turn to the government for the solution of all their problems, many of which are not susceptible to resolution. The concept of democratic planning is the extreme extension of the trend, which in the end simply cloaks the real power in the hands of the planning elite.
A subtle argument sustains these pessimistic conclusions; and the last century of French history goes some way toward confirming it. Yet the propositions seem plausible only because they are stated in absolute and abstract terms. Politics, like life, is subject to more qualifications than Professor Ellul recognizes.
While his thoughtful book is worth reading, it leaves unanswered the basic question an American asks, What better means than democratic politics are available for organizing intelligently the life of a complex modern society?