Finally finished the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. Excellent book covering the life of the noted philosopher, mathematician and peace campaigner. He lived nearly a century and was active into old age. Born a Victorian, he drank with Gladstone, campaigned for Women's Suffrage, was imprisoned for opposing the WW1, achieved a measure of respectability after reluctantly accepting the necessity of WW2, was imprisoned again for campaigning against nuclear weapons, and his penultimate book was an expose of the Vietnam War.
Always willing to communicate at a layman's level, the book doesn't go into any great detail on mathematics, logic or epistemology; just describing. his emotions and motivations. He talks with a degree of frankness about his marriages, but doesn't go into much detail on his alleged affairs: the picture that emerges today is of rather mundane serial monogamy.
Compared to his other works, the autobiography is particularly fascinating on two counts. Firstly he had a lot of contact with the other famous people of his lifetime, so you get glimpses of Keynes, Wittgenstein, Joseph Conrad, Einstein, T.S. Eliot and others.
Secondly you get to see the evolution of his thought. I think one of the things that made his creative live so long and significant that he was willing to change his mind. He started off as a kind of arch-idealist trying to find a firm foundation for mathematics: when he proved that impossible he ended up an arch empiricist.
He describes how one of the things that made him moderate his pacifism was running an experimental school, where he found it necessary to exert authority to stop the strong oppressing the weak.
Definitely well worth reading, though I skimmed over some of the letters which end each chapter. You're better off reading some of his other works first though, as the autobiography fits things together.
One should not demand of anybody all the things that add value to a human being. To have some of them is as much as can be demanded. p76
In 1907 I even stood for Parliament at a by-election, on behalf of votes for women. The Wimbledon Campaign was short and arduous. It must be quite impossible for younger people to imagine the bitterness of the opposition to women's equality. When, in later years, I campaigned against the first world war, the popular opposition that I encountered was not comparable to that which the suffragists met in 1907... Rotten eggs were aimed at me and hit my wife. At my first meeting rats were let loose to frighten the ladies, and ladies who were in the plot screamed in pretended terror with a view to disgracing their sex.p156
I had been able to view with reluctant acquiescence the possibility of the supremacy of the Kaiser's Germany; I thought that, although this would be an evil, it would not be so great an evil as a world war and its aftermath. But Hitler's Germany was a different matter. I found the Nazis utterly revolting cruel, bigoted, and stupid. Morally and intellectually they were alike odious to me. Although I clung to my pacifist convictions, I did so with increasing difficulty. When, in 1940, England was threatened with invasion, I realized that, throughout the First War, I had never seriously envisaged the possibility of utter defeat. I found this possibility unbearable, and at last consciously and definitely decided that I must support what was necessary for victory in the Second War, however difficult victory might be to achieve, and however painful in its consequences...
But private experience had almost as much to do with changing my beliefs as had the state of the world. In the school, I found a very definite and forceful exercise of authority necessary if the weak were not to be oppressed. Such instances as the hatpin in the soup could not be left to the slow operation of a good environment, since the need for action was immediate and imperative. In my second marriage, I had tried to preserve that respect for my wife's liberty which I thought that my creed enjoined. I found, however, that my capacity for forgiveness and what may be called Christian love was not equal to the demands that I was making on it, and that persistence in a hopeless endeavour would do much harm to me, while not achieving the intended good to others. Anybody else could have told me this in advance, but I was blinded by theory. p430
A lady, whose daughter at- tended some section of the City College with which I should never be brought in contact, was induced to bring a suit, saying that my presence in that institution would be dangerous to her daughter's virtue. This was not a suit against me, but against the Municipality of New York. I endeavoured to be made a party to the suit, but was told that I was not concerned. Although the Municipality was nominally the defendant, it was as anxious to lose the suit as the good lady was to win it. The lawyer for the prosecution pronounced my works "lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber." The suit came before an Irishman who decided against me at length and with vituperation. I wished for an appeal, but the Municipality of New York refused to appeal. Some of the things said against me were quite fantastic. For example, I was thought wicked for saying that very young infants should not be punished for masturbation.
A typical American witch-hunt was instituted against me and I became taboo throughout the whole of the United States. p461
It was my first trip in a Black Maria as the last time I had been gaoled I had been taken to Brixton in a taxi, but I was too tired to enjoy the novelty.p610
What I'm Watching
Saw Synecdoche, New York at the cinema. A possibly insane theatre director builds a giant, multi-levelled theatrical representation of his life.
Couldn't get into it at all, though there are a few moderate laughs along the way. "Being John Malkovich" and even "Adaptation" kept me watching because they had a certain pace and energy, even if they didn't have a lot of plot or even sense. But "Synecdoche" just has a lugubrious whiner whine on lugubriously: there's no real tension or drama, just empty surrealism and a play-within-a-play gimmick that's a least four hundred years old.
Mildly depressed at the recent BNP success. While it's easy to overestimate their significance, it's possible to underestimate it too. There's some brushing-aside talk on Metafilter and elsewhere to the effect that they're not going to gain power, and they're not going to launch a Holocaust, which is perfectly true.
But I was a mixed-race child in the Seventies and Eighties when the National Front were prominent, and a resurgent fascist movement can make things somewhat unpleasant even without any of that. It can be unpleasant to have to avoid groups of skinheads, worry about where you can go without getting beaten up, to walk past walls of racist graffiti, to have to forced to decide every time whether to respond or ignore verbal abuse.
The election result will give the racists an extra degree of confidence.
Got my blood pressure checked out: apparently it's "perfect", so hopefully the hospital reading was just stress.
Ribs seem to be healing: was able to walk with a normal gait today. Still hurts a bit if I sneeze, stoop or twist.
Articles. Dani Rodrik on the Madrassa myth in Pakistan. The better you code, the worse you communicate. Stumbling and Mumbling on house prices. Will Hutton argues UK's government inefficiency is because of monarchical constitution.
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