Bertrand Russell

9 Sep

You could say that staying up reading Bertrand Russell until 2 in the morning for a few weeks during the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college made me who I am today. Of course, you could say a lot of things — but few of them would be so obviously causally true as the above.

The following quote by Russell (source) manages to say approximately everything I have ever intended to say about life, better than I could have done.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

What else is there to say?  “With equal passion I have sought knowledge.” “A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.” There are no better words.

I found especially relevant the lines on pity:  “Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth.” This is the common and fallible argument against investing in space exploration and other scientific research — that the money would better be spent here on Earth, on everyday problems. I love that Russell acknowledges that it’s all right to sort of exist in both planes, to acquire knowledge in your ivory tower, as it were, but still to be fully engaged in the social injustices of your time (as Russell himself certainly was). For me, at least, there is this sense that I’m privileged not only economically and materially, but really privileged over anyone who has ever lived in my ability to study modern neuroscience, considering the advances that have taken place even in the past 10 years.

On the flip side, of course, an optimist would have to conclude that I am to be hopelessly pitied by future generations who feel the same about the neuroscience of my generation. It is certainly the best that can be hoped for. But still, discounting possible futures, Russell hits the nail on the head when explaining the balance between the elevation of love and knowledge and the way in which suffering diminishes even those who do not themselves suffer.  (Although I have spent years learning, as another great philosopher once wrote, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.)

Anyway, there is nothing more to add, except to suggest that you scroll back up and read the passage again.

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