Durant 1926: Epilogue (Bertrand Russell)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 3.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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III. BERTRAND RUSSELL

3. Epilogue

All this, of course, is rather optimistic,—though it is better to err on the side of hope than in favor of despair. Russell has poured into his social philosophy the mysticism and the sentiment which he had so resolutely repressed in his attitude towards metaphysics and religion. He has not applied to his economic and political theories the same rigid scrutiny of assumptions, the same scepticism of axioms, which gave him such satisfaction in mathematics and logic. His passion for the a priori, his love of “perfection more than life,” leads him here to splendid pictures that serve rather as poetic relief to the prose of the world than as practicable approaches to the problems of life. It is delightful, for example, to contemplate a society in which art shall be better respected than wealth; but so long as nations rise and fall, in the flux of natural group-selection, according to their economic rather than their artistic power, it is economic and not artistic power which, having the greater survival value, will win the greater plaudits and the large rewards. Art can only be the flower that grows out of wealth; it cannot be wealth’s substitute. The Medici came before Michelangelo.

Russell is too optimistic. He has not applied the his usual rigid scrutiny of assumptions to his economic and political theories. His passion leads him to splendid pictures but they do not serve as practicable approaches to the problems of life. 

But it is not necessary to pick more flaws in Russell’s brilliant vision; his own experience has been his severest critic. In Russia he found himself face to face with an effort to create a socialist society; and the difficulties encountered by the experiment almost destroyed Russell’s faith in his own gospel. He was disappointed to find that the Russian Government could not risk such a measure of democracy as had seemed to him the axiom of a liberal philosophy; and he was so angered by the suppression of free speech and free press, and by the resolute monopoly and systematic use of every avenue of propaganda, that he rejoiced in the illiteracy of the Russian people;—the ability to read being, in this age of subsidized newspapers, an impediment to the acquisition of truth. He was shocked to find that nationalization of the land had been forced (except on paper) to yield to private ownership; and it dawned upon him that men, as made today, will not properly till and husband their holdings unless they can rely on transmitting them, and the improvements which they put into them, to their children. “Russia seems on the way to becoming a greater France, a great nation of peasant proprietors. The old feudalism has disappeared.” He began to understand that this dramatic overturn, with all its sacrifices and all its heroism, was only Russia’s 1789.

Russell’s experience has been the severest critic of his brilliant vision. The difficulties encountered in Russia to create a socialist society almost destroyed his faith in his own gospel. It dawned upon him that men will not properly till and husband their holdings unless they can rely on transmitting them to their children. 

Perhaps he was more at home when he went for a year to teach in China; there was less mechanism there, and a slower pace, one could sit down and reason, and life would stand still while one dissected it. In that vast sea of humanity new perspectives came to our philosopher; he realized that Europe is but the tentative pseudopodium of a greater continent and an older—and perhaps profounder—culture; all his theories and syllogisms melted into a modest relativity before this mastodon of the nations. One sees his system loosening as he writes:

I have come to realize that the white race isn’t as important as I used to think it was. If Europe and America kill themselves off in war it will not necessarily mean the destruction of the human species, nor even an end to civilization. There will still be a considerable number of Chinese left; and in many ways China is the greatest country I have ever seen. It is not only the greatest numerically and the greatest culturally, but it seems to me the greatest intellectually. I know of no other civilization where there is such open-mindedness, such realism, such a willingness to face the facts as they are, instead of trying to distort them into a particular pattern.

Russell’s stay in China made him aware of an open-mindedness, a realism, and a willingness to face the facts as they are, that was superior to the western culture. He realized that there was much more to the human species than the white race.

It is a little difficult to pass from England to America, and then to Russia, and then to India and China, and yet keep one’s social philosophy unchanged. The world has convinced Bertrand-Russell that it is too big for his formulae, and perhaps too large and heavy to move very rapidly towards his heart’s desire. And there are so many hearts, and so many different desires! One finds him now “an older and a wiser man,” mellowed by time and a varied life; as wide awake as ever to all the ills that flesh is heir to and yet matured into the moderation that know’s the difficulties of social change. All in all, a very lovable man: capable of the profoundest metaphysics and the subtlest mathematics, and yet speaking always simply, with the clarity which comes only to those who are sincere; a man addicted to fields of thought that usually dry up the springs of feeling, and yet warmed and illumined with pity, full of an almost mystic tenderness for mankind. Not a courtier, but surely a scholar and a gentleman, and a better Christian than some who mouth the word. Happily, he is still young and vigorous, the flame of life burns brightly in him yet; who knows but this next decade will see him grow out of disillusionment into wisdom, and write his name among the highest in “the serene brotherhood of philosophs”?

Russell’s social philosophy could not help but change as he passed from the western to the eastern culture. His sincerity shines in the clarity of his observations. He did grow out of his disillusionment into wisdom.

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