Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"My Father, Bertrand Russell"

Lady Katherine Tait was the only daughter of late Bertrand Russell. She wrote a biography about her dad. Here are a few of her personal observations:

“He never gave his whole heart to anyone, though he tried. ‘My most profound feelings have remained always solitary and have found in human things no companionship,’ he wrote. ‘The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God’,” My Father, Bertrand Russell (HBJ 1975), 46-47.

“My father’s scientific optimism was strong and he hoped tha we would share it, together with his dispassionate ability to see both sides of a question. But these things are not easy to combine; fair-mindedness puzzled our wills and muddled our hopes, and left us unable to strike out boldly against any enemy, public or private. For it was always possible the enemy was right. My father dealt with this problem by a sort of intellectual conjuring trick: when he wanted to be indignant over evil, he temporarily put away objectivity in some other compartment of his mind. We never managed to learn the trick, and I think he was a little disappointed by our hesitations, not realizing that he had taught them to us himself,” ibid. 92.

“In practice, at Beacon Hill, ‘making up our own minds’ usually meant agreeing with my father, because he knew so much more and could argue so much better; also because we heard ‘the other side’ only from people who disagreed with it. There was never a cogent presentation of the Christian faith, for instance, from someone who really believed in it,” ibid. 94.

“My parents’ marriage was founded on these principles…They believed it would be easy to live without jealousy, but it turned out that the new morality was no easier and no more natural than the ideal of rigorous lifelong monogamy it was intended to replace. Calling jealousy deplorable had not freed them from it…It took my father a long time to acknowledge that he was expecting too much of human nature. ‘Anybody else could have told me this in advance,’ he wrote later, ‘but I was blinded by theory’,” ibid. 102-103.

“We had imagined our parents to be superior in every way to the conventional: our parents would never quarrel sordidly over conjugal rights or the way to bring up children; they were far too generous and intelligent. Yet there they were, not only doing these things, but even trying to involve us in their disagreements. It was sickening. The only solution was inward withdrawal, my father’s old tactic. It was at that time that I came to regard progress, like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny, as a myth of childhood, and I have never since believed in any utopian project of any kind,’ ibid. 125.

“Though I would no more prefer the extinction of humanity to the victory of world communism than my father would have, I have never regarded the mere existence of humanity as good in itself, and I can contemplate without panic a world devoid of human beings. (Unwittingly, my father was responsible for this callous point of view, having taught us that mankind was no more than an accident of evolution.)” ibid. 178.

“In Grandmother Russell’s religion, the only form of Christianity my father knew well, the life of this world was no more than a gloomy testing ground for future bliss. All hope, all joy were centered on the life after death and were to be achieved only be unceasing warfare against evil in oneself and others. My father threw this morbid belief out the window, but he was never able to obliterate the emotional pattern with which it had stamped him. All the yearnings of his powerful nature were directed to the future, to a golden age to come, if not in heaven, then on earth,” ibid. 183.

“In his many anti-Christian writings, my father attacked over and over again the cowardice of religious people who could not face life without the comfort of their irrational beliefs. He recommended instead ‘the stark joy’ to be found in ‘the unflinching perception of our true place in the world,’ the same proud passion I had offered my Harvard friend in our discussion in the library. Christians were mocked for imagining that man is important in the vast scheme of the universe, even the high point of all creation—and yet my father thought man and his preservation the most important thing in the world, and he lived in hopes of a better life to come. He was by temperament a profoundly religious man, a sort of passionate moralist who would have been a saint in a more believing age,” ibid. 184.

“I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God…Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put it in. He wrote of it in letters during the First World War, and once h said that human affection was to him ‘at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God.’ After the war, finding his life more satisfying, he stopped talking that way; nostalgia for religion was quite absent from our home. Nevertheless, I picked up the yearning from him, together with his ghostlike feeling of not belonging, of having no home in this world,” ibid. 184-185.

“The religion my parents had grown up with was a dry morality without grace, a series of impossible demands that left them defeated and depressed. They escaped from it joyfully into a free life that affirmed their own goodness and expected their children’s. And yet they passed on to us the same impossible demands from which they had suffered—no, not exactly the same, for they allowed us to masturbate and talk about sex—but they still expected perfect honesty and kindness and all the rest, without showing us how it was to be done. Consequently, we in our turn were loaded down with inescapable and, to us, inexplicable guilt. The doctrine of original sin gave to me, when I came to understand it, the same sense of intoxicating liberation my father had received from sexual emancipation. It was normal for me to be bad, and I need not feel ashamed,” ibid. 187-188.

“For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did, not matter how low I fell, God would be there to forgive, to pick me up and set me on my feet again. Though I could not earn his love, neither could I lose it,” ibid. 188.

“He seized on the follies, which are many, and labeled them official religion, while claiming that Christians have never taken seriously the good parts of Christ’s teaching. But he never dealt with it seriously either. When he wanted to attack religion, he sought out its most egregious errors and held them up to ridicule, while avoiding serious discussion of the basis message I found so liberating…I found no message in his books but failure and despair (for me)…the world was not what he hoped it might be, and neither was I, nor could I believe that men would ever become the intelligent paragons of his imagination,” ibid. 188.

“As I went deeper and deeper into religion, however, I found it ever more satisfying. I wished I could convince my father that it added to all I had learned from him and took very little away. I didn’t find it a denial of life, a brier patch of restrictions, but a joyful affirmation. ‘I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly,’ said Jesus. All that I lost was my anxiety—and the option, perhaps, of sleeping with many men, which I had no desire to exercise. I was already so bound by the exacting moral code my father had taught me that I saw no new restrictions in Christianity, merely the possibility of living with those I already had,” ibid. 189.

“I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life. I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be vain. But it was hopeless. He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding,” ibid. 189.

“Of course there was a failure of communication. Even from that blissful holiday I came away feeling dissatisfied, though mostly with myself. I wanted to tell him about God, to share with him the happy certainty I had discovered…But we sat at tea around the fire, the four of us, making conversation about the state of the world, and I could never break through to real talk. Too shy, too selfish, too subservient, too proud, always a follower of the tone set by others, I sat and allowed myself to be cut off from him by the small talk I had never mastered. It was only as we said good-bye that emotion broke through for a moment and I hugged him with demonstrative affection. But he was old and fragile, almost ninety; he needed to be held in tender hands, like old porcelain, and treasured for what he was. Too late for storms of emotion, too late to stand up and justify myself against him, defending my values by attacking his. Adolescent rebellion is absurd in middle age, if not cruel, and adolescent emotion is not much better. There seemed no solution but to look at each other with love as we drifted apart on our separate rafts of belief,” ibid. 196.

“I drove on to school and went on with life in a world without my father. I had told myself often: he is so old, so deaf, so cut off from me, it’s as though he were dead already; it won’t be too bad when it happens. But it was too bad, and it left me with a numb ache for a long time: now I can never tell him this, never ask him that, never straighten out old confusions,” ibid. 201-202.


  1. I wonder, if Steve Hays had any children (perhaps he does?), what they would write about him in a biography on him.

  2. I had meant to comment on this the other day, but it slipped my mind.

    These statements make give great context to Russell's ideas and words

    Thanks for posting them.

  3. A sad post, because God might have lost one of his children in Bertrand Russell, but also an uplifting post, because his atheistic beliefs did not pass on to the next generation, and his daughter (and only child) found her freedom in Jesus.
    Atheism can't survive because the belief system is, at its core, reactionary. It defines itself primarily by rejecting and resisting (and slandering) God and his children.
    Atheism has not been able to propose a "better way" that we all should follow. And how could it? God has already shown us the better way through the life and death of his son Jesus Christ, and the eternity that all who follow him are promised.
    All praise to God and may he bless and draw in all those who have yet to find Him.

  4. I've experienced similar difficulties in reconciling religion and logic.
    I'd suggest that one might take the best from both and use them in a
    practical manner ; if at all possible.

    Through your father you may of attained to a type of Christian religion that
    hasn't existed for some time.

    My problem now , having personally experienced the 'abyss' , through
    a near death accident , having a very increased awareness of the value
    of existence ; how do I make others aware of something that can't
    really be expressed in any language , formal or otherwise.