Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 I

I'm getting off to a very slow start on this biography by Ray Monk. That isn't because I dislike it, but because I go through periods in which I don't feel like reading. So far I am finding it very interesting, and Monk is a good writer. As a philosophy professor, he is also in a good position to evaluate Russell's ideas. The biographies I read of Rousseau and Darwin were sometimes lacking in this respect, because the authors weren't as ideas-oriented as Monk seems to be.

Bertrand Russell came from an aristocratic, wealthy family. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he distributed the lands among the aristocracy, and Bertrand's ancestors were major beneficiaries. Bertrand's grandfather was John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, and served as Prime Minister. Earlier in his career he had met Napoleon. Like Charles Darwin's family, the Russells were Whigs, roughly the equivalent of current liberals. Bertrand was a son of Lord Russell's eldest son, John Russell, Viscount Amberley. He had an older brother, Frank, who was born in 1865, and a sister, Rachel, who was born in 1868. Bertrand was born on May 18, 1872. The children were initially raised at their family's house, Ravenscroft, in Monmouthshire, Wales. However, in 1874, when Bertrand was only two, both his mother and Rachel died from diphtheria. Viscount Amberley, who was said to be introverted, depressive and epileptic, himself died from bronchitis on January 9, 1876. This left Frank and Bertrand orphans, and they soon came under the care of their paternal grandmother and moved to Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, now part of London. Their grandfather, Lord Russell, was still alive then, but died in 1878.

There was a notable difference between the atmospheres at Ravenscroft and Pembroke Lodge. Ravenscroft was extremely liberal, and Viscount Amberley allowed his wife's lover to live with them in the house. They were not religious, and John Stuart Mill became Bertrand's godfather. Lady Russell at Pembroke Lodge was not especially conservative, but she was religious and insensitive to the needs of Frank and Bertrand. Bertrand managed to fit in, because he was introverted and non-confrontational, but Frank was extremely rebellious. As a consequence, Frank was eventually sent away to Winchester College, while Bertrand was educated at home by tutors. Frank considered Bertrand a prig, and they don't seem to have been on friendly terms. The house was also occupied by their uncle Rollo, whom both Frank and Bertrand disliked. Rollo is described as being both introverted and ineffectual.

One of the developing themes that interests me is the variety of mental illnesses within the family. Besides Rollo, Viscount Amberley had another brother, William, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic early in his life and lived most of it in an institution. As noted, Amberley was disposed toward depression. Bertrand felt detached from people and had difficulty relating to his environment. Frank was highly temperamental and often got into conflicts. After Winchester, he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford. However, he became embroiled in a mysterious scandal when a friend from Winchester visited him, and there were rumors of homosexuality. Because Frank remained vitriolic, he was expelled from Balliol, an unusual measure at the time, and never returned. These kinds of things have interested me for many years, because there has always been what I think of as a unique English oddness that is never quite defined, but which probably exists as a result of an unusual collective psychiatric state that has a genetic basis.

It sounds as if Russell was very stiff and uncomfortable growing up, and the lack of exposure to a variety of people probably hampered his social development. In his teens he studied mathematics at a school in London and found the other students very crude. He was interested in girls and sex, but was extremely awkward in establishing relationships. Similarly, he enthusiastically sought friendship with another boy whom he thought was just like him, but that proved to be a mistake. He developed a rich private life in which he came to appreciate the poetry of Shelley. However, his real talent was in mathematics, and, like many mathematicians, he was attracted to the field because it conveyed greater certainty than other fields.

As far as I've read, Russell has been tutored for the Trinity College, Cambridge entrance exam and passes it. Arriving in Cambridge in 1890, he immediately makes friends and is greatly excited to be able to engage in conversations with intelligent people. He gets off to a very good start, because Alfred North Whitehead, a fellow at Trinity, immediately recognizes his talent and recommends him to others. Of course, his aristocratic credentials are also highly beneficial for him, though it seems that he still would have done well without them.

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