[Bertrand Russell says of the following passage from his three volume autobiography that it had been taken from an earlier short autobiography, and no longer expressed the way he felt. He goes on to attribute his sombre mood at that time, in large part, to personal unhappiness, which he failed to acknowledge. However, a study of Russell’s life and letters suggests that intellectual difficulties and philosophical disillusionment plagued him throughout his life and caused more grief than he was willing to admit. His experience is a warning of what often lies in store for those who put too much trust in thought while shunning faith and a common sense acceptance of the inherent mystery of things.]
And what of philosophy? The best years of my life were given to the Principia Mathematica, in the hope of finding somewhere some certain knowledge. The whole of this effort, in spite of three big volumes, ended inwardly in doubt and bewilderment. As regards metaphysics, when, under the influence of Moore, I first threw off the belief in German idealism, I experienced the delight of believing that the sensible world is real. Bit by bit, chiefly under the influence of physics, this delight has faded, and I have been driven to a position not unlike that of Berkeley, without his God and his Anglican complacency.
When I survey my life, it seems to me to be a useless one, devoted to impossible ideals. I have not found in the post-war world any attainable ideals to replace those which I have come to think unattainable. So far as the things I have cared for are concerned, the world seems to me to be entering upon a period of darkness. When Rome fell, St Augustine, a Bolshevik of the period, could console himself with a new hope, but my outlook upon my own time is less like his than like that of the unfortunate Pagan philosophers of the time of Justinian, whom Gibbon describes as seeking asylum in Persia, but so disgusted by what they saw there that they returned to Athens, in spite of the Christian bigotry which forbade them to teach. Even they were more fortunate than I am in one respect, for they had an intellectual faith which remained firm. They entertained no doubt as to the greatness of Plato. For my part, I find in the most modern thought a corrosive solvent of the great systems of even the recent past, and I do not believe that the constructive efforts of present-day philosophers and men of science have anything approaching the validity that attaches to their destructive criticism.
My activities continue from force of habit, and in the company of others I forget the despair which underlies my daily pursuits and pleasure. But when I am alone and idle, I cannot conceal from myself that my life had no purpose, and that I know of no new purpose to which to devote my remaining years. I find myself involved in a vast mist of solitude both emotional and metaphysical, from which I can find no issue.
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