Bertrand Russell 2

December 16 2008

Bertrand Russell

What did Toynbee think of Russell? He admired him. Between, say, 1946, when Somervell’s abridgement of the first six volumes of the Study came out, and 1954, when the last four volumes of the main part of the work were published, Toynbee was bracketed with Russell in the mass media with the super-eminent. Time magazine on November 3 1975, after Toynbee’s death: “He had become an international sage, like Einstein, Schweitzer or Bertrand Russell [...].”

After 1954, attacks on aspects of Toynbee’s work started to undermine his reputation. Schweitzer’s reputation has also declined.

Toynbee was a very different man from Russell. Greece was the centre of his world. Russell tells us in the interview shown in the last post that the classics didn’t interest him when he was growing up. Mathematics were his world. Nor were classics his main interest later in life. Toynbee admitted, for example in passages in the twelfth volume of the Study (1961) and in Experiences (1969), that he knew little of mathematics or science.

Russell came from a Whig family which had “participated in every great political event from the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536-40 to the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89 to the Great Reform Act in 1832” (Wikipedia).

Toynbee’s paternal great grandfather George had been a Lincolnshire farmer. His grandfather Joseph (1815-66) had been a doctor in London, the first ear, nose and throat specialist. Joseph’s son Arnold (1852-83) was an economic historian and social reformer, after whom Toynbee Hall was named in east London. Another son, Paget (1855-1932), was a Dante scholar and editor of the letters of Horace Walpole. The historian’s father, Harry Valpy Toynbee (1861-1941), was a minor philanthropist; his mother, Edith, the main early influence on him, came from a Birmingham industrial family which had fallen on hard times. Arnold Toynbee inherited something of his uncle’s and father’s seriousness and philanthropic temperament. He passed it on to his son Philip Toynbee (1916-81), writer, ’30 communist, later religiously-leaning, and tormented son of a too-busy father. Philip passed it on to his daughter Polly, who now writes in The Guardian. Perhaps one can see the faintest trace of social deference in Toynbee’s article on Russell below.

But Toynbee and Russell had a central experience in common: the First World War. Neither fought in it. Russell was too old, and in any case, the war confirmed him as a pacifist. Toynbee did office-bound war work. He appears to have dodged the draft, but he was not a pacifist either then or in the Second World War.

The first war turned Russell into a campaigner and activist in ways shown in the last post and changed Toynbee’s view of humanity and history in ways I have described. For example, here.

Their alarm at the fact of the atomic bomb was an echo of their response to that war, but Toynbee was not an activist after 1945 either in the sense that Russell was.

Toynbee had a strong sense of the numinous, Russell none. Russell’s views on social and sexual matters were more liberal than Toynbee’s.

A friend of mine who has occasionally commented here has a rather low opinion of Russell. I’ve referred to his view in a comment underneath a post called Hellenistic philosophy and saddened Whigs. He considers him a narrow philosopher, though a considerable logician (On Denoting) and mathematician. His empiricism had a certain smugness in it. He thinks there are better histories of western philosophy than his History, which is full of a Whiggish “we’re done with all that”. You need wider historical sympathies, which Toynbee at least had, if you are going to attempt something as big as that. He has reservations about Toynbee, too, and would not class him as a philosopher at all (and has a particular intellectual disdain for the phrase “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest” in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto).

Russell did little important philosophy after the First World War. Many of his later books are popularisations (The ABC of Relativity, Why I Am Not a Christian,The Conquest of Happiness). His Nobel Prize in 1950 was for Literature – for his History of Western Philosophy (1945). The sub-title of that work is And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.

Toynbee did not know Russell well, though they were related by Toynbee’s first marriage. There is no mention of Russell in Acquaintances (1967). When he came to write the follow-up volume, Experiences (1969), I am sure that he had been stirred by the first volume of Russell’s Autobiography, which had appeared in 1967, whose prologue I quoted in the last post. Russell was perhaps even a stimulus for that book. It mentions him admiringly. I have quoted a letter by Toynbee from 1961 expressing admiration of Russell. There is one other reference to Russell in the same collection.

The article by Toynbee I’m about to show is online in a couple of places. The source is not stated, but it was clearly his piece in The Sunday Telegraph of February 8 1970 A Man Who Stood His Ground. I show it as it is online, including dots: I haven’t seen the original.

Russell’s autobiography does not refer to Toynbee, except in printing a letter which Toynbee had written to him from Stanford in California on May 9 1967 on the occasion of Russell’s 95th birthday (May 18). There is some material relating to Toynbee in Russell’s published letters, which I have not yet consulted.

Morton’s bibliography of Toynbee mentions an article by Russell in The Sunday Times, February 15 1953, Where I disagree with Mr Toynbee. That, I presume, was a response to Toynbee’s Gifford Lectures, which were printed as An Historian’s Approach to Religion in 1954.

Toynbee published a review of Russell’s Has Man a Future? in The Observer, November 26 1961.

I met Bertrand Russell first a few weeks after he had come out of prison towards the end of the First World War. What he said then made an impression on me that has been life-long. In 1914 anyone in this country who was already grown-up had felt that the bottom had suddenly fallen out of his world. But it was not till I met and talked with Russell … that I began to realise the full measure of the catastrophe.

When I met Russell in 1918 he was manifestly suffering from severe shock, and this was awe-inspiring in itself. I had known of him as a man who was “on top of the world” in every way. He was an aristocrat, a master mind, and a masterful personality. Aristocrats expect to have licence to say and do what they choose; first-rate intellects expect to carry conviction when they are telling plain truths; strong characters expect to win adherents. For Russell during the first war all these reasonable expectations had been harshly disappointed, so, for him, the shock of 1914 had been multiple. His shock had been both public and personal. His reaction to 1914 had been to jump … into the arena with intent to part the combatants. One man against warring herds of tribesmen with their blood up. I doubt whether even Russell would have dared if he had not been armed with an aristocrat’s self-confidence to reinforce his own intrepid nature. And now, in 1918, he was being execrated as “the enemy of the people” … The shock from which Russell was suffering in 1918 was natural enough. What was amazing and magnificent was his resilience and his persistence. A lesser man who had brought on himself Russell’s experience in 1914-1918 might then have quit – especially, if he had, as Russell did have, a golden bridge to retreat over.

Russell, discharged from gaol, could have withdrawn into an ivory tower … By 1914 he was already world-famous … If he had died in February 1914, instead of February 1970, he would still have been famous today. His intellectual work during the first 13 years of this century … is, I imagine, unsurpassed … But if he had died before August 1914, he would have been famous for this one thing only, and the number of people who could have appreciated what he had done would have been far smaller; for his pre-1914 work was esoteric. However, after finishing the first of his two terms of imprisonment for trying to save mankind from itself Russell, being Russell, had not had enough. Nature gave him from 1918 to 1970, and he used those last 52 years as he had used the previous four. He never, of course, ceased to work on at philosophy, but he also never ceased from mental strife in William Blake’s meaning of those words.

Russell’s spirit was never daunted by hostility, and it was also never damped by ridicule, which is harder than hostility to bear up against. The zest for life with which Nature endowed him, and the self-confidence … led him back into the ring again and again … But the motive that kept him going more than any other was … his concern for his fellow men – not just his contemporaries, but all future generations. Powerful minds take long views, and Russell’s mind saw the vista of the broad way that leads to destruction. This trenchant intellect was mated with a compassionate heart … He cared intensely about what was going to happen after his long life was over – as intensely as if he had been a believer in personal immortality and had expected to see, as a disembodied spirit, the denouement of the drama of human life on this planet. Russell’s mind was not only trenchant; it was also satirical and provocative. The impulse to annoy, combined with a generous passion to make all things new, is a well-known mark of youth, and in this sense Russell remained youthful to the end. His insatiable relish for getting into trouble kept him always young in spirit. After a 43 years’ interval he found himself in prison … again; but this time the authorities had their hearts in their mouths. By now he was getting on for 90, and he was already a formidable world-power.

If he had died in prison, his posthumous potency as a martyr would have been stupendous. So, this time the authorities nursed him solicitously and discharged him with despatch … Since 1914 mankind has been in one of those recurrent moods in which it is bent on going to hell, and since 1945 we have possessed the means of instant conveyance. In this mood human beings are infuriated by a fellow creature who does strive officiously to keep the human race alive in spite of being told that he need not. What business has one man to stay sane when the fashion is to be mad? The intervention is the more exasperating if the self-appointed saviour tries to goad us into facing up to our folly by sticking pins deftly into our tenderest spots. Did Russell defeat his own purposes by pursuing them so provocatively? On a short view, in some cases, perhaps yes; but on Russell’s own long view, no. This has been proved already by the unanimity of the tribute that has been paid to Russell at his death. He is remembered as the man who dared to take his stand across the path of the Gadarene swine with the audacious intention to stem their headlong rush – the man who held his ground when the bedevilled herd threatened to trample him underfoot.

Down to the end of his long and indefatigable career, Russell did not know whether the reasonableness that he strove for was going to prevail. We who have survived him are still an enigma to ourselves. But at least we have recognised that, if we do decide to commit mass-suicide, our blood will not be on Russell’s head … Russell did his utmost to save us from ourselves, and this is why we are honouring him … We still have that much sanity, and therefore that much hope.

A Man Who Stood His Ground, The Sunday Telegraph, February 8 1970

3 Responses to “Bertrand Russell 2”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    For a vignette of Russell’s mind and a breathtaking example of “we’re done with all that”, see this clip from a discussion with the British philosopher Alan Watts:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=FWMq8PD8BRw

  2. davidderrick Says:

    You can download three and a half hours of Russell speaking (interview, speech, press conference) from iTunes.


  3. [...] funds were insufficient) is silly. His teetotalism had something of the sandal-wearers about it. Bertrand Russell thought there was nothing at all to Shaw but [...]


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