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The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell Vol. 2 (1914-1944)

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Volume 2

Atlantic - Little, Brown & Company, 1967




Bertrand Russell and second wife Dora Black

In Volume 2 of his autobiography, which is almost as fascinating as Vol 1, Russell visits Russia and China, changes from Pacifist to War supporter, divorces his first and second wives and remarries a third, has three children, and moves to America by accident. There he is treated poorly, called names, and removed from certain university teaching positions. However, at the end he is back in England re-elected to a Fellowship at Trinity.


This reading inspired me to undertake some internet research, where I learned that:

1. "Anti-biographer"Ray Monk blamed Russell for the mental illness suffered by son John and grandchildren Lucy and Sara. Lucy immolated herself in protest to the Vietnam war.

2. Dora Black, second wife, and mother of John, was a feminist and a maternalist. 3. Bertrand Russell: A Life by Caroline Moorehead, published 1993 concentrates on Russell's childhood and emotional life.

4. I also found this article interesting: Solitary Pain: Bertrand Russell as Cognitive Therapist, by Geir Overskeid, University of Oslo, 2004.

https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1217&context=tpr


A few quotes:

From prison

30/1/18 Letter to Brett

p.126 Advice for not letting troubles get one down (Brett was deaf and feeling not “included in human life”):

1. First: Practice the mental discipline of not thinking how great a misfortune it is; when your mind begins to run in that direction, stop it violently by reciting a poem to yourself or thinking of the multiplication-table or some such plan.

2. Then, some smaller things: Try not to sit about with people who are having a general conversation; get in a corner with a tête-à-tête; make yourself interesting in the first place by being interested in whoever you are talking with, until things become easy and natural….Take care of your inner attitude to people: let it not be satirical or aloof, set yourself to try and get inside their skins and feel the passions that move them and the seriousness of the things that matter to them. Don’t judge people morally: however just one’s judgement, that is a barren attitude. Most people have a key, fairly simple; if you find it, you can unlock their hearts. Your deafness need not prevent this, if you make a point of tête-à-tête…Being included in human life…wants effort, and it wants that you should give something that people will value. Though your deafness may make that harder, it doesn’t make it impossible.


p. 127 (same letter) I sympathize with the Chinese philosopher who fished without bait because he liked fishing but did not like catching fish.


p.153 Chapter entitled: Russia

Russell wanted to divorce his first wife and marry Dora (his second wife), with whom he was planning a trip to China. He writes: “…as I wished to be divorced while in China, it was necessary to {be caught} in official adultery. The detectives were so stupid that this had to be done again and again.”


p. 188 Chapter entitled: China

On being alive (after a serious illness):

“Lying in my bed feeling that I was not going to die was surprisingly delightful. I had always imagined until then that I was fundamentally pessimistic and I did not greatly value being alive. I discovered that in this I had been completely mistaken, and that life was infinitely sweet to me. Rain in Peking is rare, but during my convalescence there came heavy rains bringing the delicious smell of damp earth through the windows and I used to think how dreadful it would have been to have never smelt that smell again. I had the same feeling about the light of the sun, and the sound of the wind…I have known ever since that at bottom I am glad to be alive. Most people, no doubt, always know this, but I did not.”


On dealing with journalists:

“The Japanese journalists were continually worrying Dora to give them interviews when she wanted to be nursing me. At last she became a little curt with them, so they caused the Japanese newspapers to say that I was dead. This news was forwarded by mail from Japan to America and from America to England. It appeared in the English newspapers on the same day as the news of my divorce. Fortunately, the Court did not believe it or the divorce might have been postponed. It provided me with the pleasure of reading the obituary notices, which I had always desired without expecting my wishes to be fulfilled. One missionary paper, I remember, had an obituary notice of one sentence: “Missionaires may be pardoned for heaving a sigh of relief at the news of Mr Bertrand Russell’s death.”


p. 229 Chapter entitled Second Marriage

“Christmas at Sea”, reflections on growing older

“Time, they say, makes a man mellow. I do not believe it. Time makes a man afraid, and fear makes him conciliatory, and being conciliatory he endeavours to appear to others what they will think mellow. And with fear comes the need of affection, of some human warmth to keep away the chill of the cold universe. When I speak of fear, I do not mean merely or mainly personal fear: the fear of death or decrepitude or penury or any such merely mundane misfortune. I am thinking of a more metaphysical fear. I am thinking of the fear that enters the soul through experience of the major evils to which life is subject: the treachery of friends, the death of those whom we love, the discovery of the cruelty that lurks in average human nature.”


p. 302 Chapter entitled: Later Years of Telegraph House

17 Feb 1931

Regarding Happiness:

“A man who is melancholy because lack of exercise has upset his liver always believes that it is the loss of God, or the menace of Bolshevism, or some such dignified cause that makes him sad. When you tell people that happiness is a simple matter, they get annoyed with you.”


p. 306 June 8, 1931

Will Durant, an American writer and professor of Philosophy wrote to BR while attempting to answer the question “What is the meaning or worth of human life?” His long letter includes, “We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the disovery of truth. It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us, and restraints that preserved us; it has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased. As we look upon it now we wonder why we hurried so to find it. For it appears to have taken from us every reason for existing, except for the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s trivial hope.”

He asks for BRs opinion and help. But the reply is rather short:

20th June 1931

“I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever, and that being so, I do not see how I can answer your questions intelligently. I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.”


After follows a letter from Albert Einstein expressing his admiration for BR. 14 October 1931. I’ll leave you to discover it on your own.


p. 379 Chapter entitled: America 1938 -1944

Letter to Gilbert Murray, Cambridge 21 April 1940

Regarding change in BRs pacifist position:

“I find that I cannot maintain the pacifist position in this war. I do not feel sufficiently sure of the opposite to say anything publicly by way of recantation, though it may come to that. In any case, here in America an Englishman can only hold his tongue, as anything he may say is labelled propaganda. However, what I wanted to convey is that you would not find me disagreeing with you as much as in 1914, though I still think I was right then, in that this war is an outcome of Versailles, which was an outcome of moral indignation.”


p. 381 Letter from Gilbert Murray

Regarding the English temperament

“I am inclined to think that one of the advantages of the English temperament is that we do not get frightened or excited beforehand as Latins and Semites do, we wait till the danger comes before getting upset by it. I suppose this is what people call lack of imagination.”

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