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The Worldly Philosopher

BERTRAND RUSSELL The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970 By Ray Monk; The Free Press: 574 pp., $40

April 08, 2001|FREDERIC RAPHAEL | Frederic Raphael is the author of 20 novels as well as many story collections, biographies, screenplays (including "Eyes Wide Shut') and translations from ancient Greek and Latin. His most recent book is "All His Sons: A Novella and Nine Stories

Einstein was a great theoretical physicist. Jack Benny was a great comedian. Both played the violin. Neither was therefore a great violinist. Bertrand Russell was a great mathematician and technical philosopher who was assumed (not least by himself) therefore to be a great moral sage and a world-class political analyst.

It has never been unusual for philosophers to pontificate on the conduct of the world. Plato was only the most influential thinker to proclaim that rulers should defer to the supremely intelligent. His predecessors-notably Anaxagoras, who was in Pericles' kitchen cabinet during the great days of the Athenian empire-were often drawn to earthly powers. Avid for shortcuts from the ivory tower to the command post, clever men frequently attach themselves as advisors to tyrants and autocrats. They rarely have a good effect on their conduct. Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, Seneca to Nero. Voltaire had a special relationship with Frederick the Great. Hegel justified the Prussian monarchy. Heidegger fawned on Hitler; Sartre on Mao.

Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, always considered himself a democratic socialist. For most of his life he was ardently, sometimes belligerently, anti-Communist. Yet if he never endorsed absolutisms, he did not doubt his right of entree to the highest councils. At times he even seemed to come downstairs to them; in the 1960s, full of years and self-importance, he addressed himself to John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev with didactic condescension.

Russell's abiding claim to intellectual renown rests on two major works of a period preceding that covered by the second volume of this magisterial biography. Ray Monk's mastery lies, not least, in his capacity-rare among Russell's other, more opportunistic, biographers-to explain the complexities both of "Principia Mathematica" (Russell himself once said that only six people had ever understood it, at least two of them Poles) and of "The Principles of Mathematics." At once a professional philosopher and an unblinking detective, Monk began this job more than 10 years ago as one of Russell's most knowledgeable admirers. How far that esteem has fallen, on more intimate acquaintance, is the measure of how high it once was.

Both Russell's parents were dead by the time he was 3. The brilliant solitary boy was educated by tutors in the echoing mansion of his grandparents. He craved reliable certainties in a world nightmarish with privileged privation. Bertie's grandfather had been prime minister of England when Britannia ruled the waves and England's word was law. Russell once boasted that 400 years of history flowed in his veins. So did the fear of hereditary insanity, of which he was reminded by his remorselessly Christian grandmother. His later rebellion against God and Christian morality was, at least in part, an attempt to exorcise childhood fears.

When he went up to Cambridge after his lonely adolescence, he found in mathematics a providential realm without shadows or doubts. "In logic," Wittgenstein was later to say, "there are no surprises." Nor, in the world of symbols, do we find madness, morals or things that go bump in the night. Russell rejoiced to follow Plato in believing that mathematics gave access to eternal verities. He was also credulous of Plato's promise that whoever mastered the sublime heights of human knowledge was thereby qualified to officiate over the lower plains.

When, as Russell's pupil, Wittgenstein came to convince his teacher that mathematics was less the acme of knowledge than a complicated form of tautology, it entailed a loss of authoritative faith from which the older man never fully recovered. Russell would, however, continue to act as if the world were an equation theoretically capable of solution and as if mankind and its variables could some how be ordered in a coherent and peaceful system.

Until he was 40, Russell's cloistered dedication to the logic of mathematics kept him in a state of almost incorporeal exaltation. D.H. Lawrence accused him of being "all disembodied mind." After abandoning a first "romantic" marriage, with Alys Pearsall Smith, Russell refuted this judgment by becoming a goat-footed womanizer of rare and shameless agility. While he was on one of his detested but lucrative U.S. lecture tours in the 1920s and someone asked him why he had renounced serious philosophy, he replied, "I found that I preferred f---ing." The famous voice was apt and keen to shock nice people. His cultivated tactlessness made him loathed, revered and very, very celebrated.

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