Bertrand Russell

Russell Society Home Page

About Bertrand Russell

About the Russell Society

The BRS Library

Society Publications

Russell Texts Online

Russell Resources

JOIN the Russell Society!

Officers and Organization

Contact Us

 A Man Who Stood His Ground (1970)*

By Arnold Toynbee

I met Bertrand Russell first a few weeks after he had come out of prison towards the end of the first world war. What he said then made an impression on me that has been life-long. In 1914 anyone in this country who was already grown-up had felt that the bottom had suddenly fallen out of his world. But it was not till I met and talked with Russell … that I began to realise the full measure of the catastrophe. When I met Russell in 1918 he was manifestly suffering from severe shock, and this was awe-inspiring in itself. I had known of him as a man who was “on top of the world” in every way. He was an aristocrat, a master mind, and a masterful personality. Aristocrats expect to have licence to say and do what they choose; first-rate intellects expect to carry conviction when they are telling plain truths; strong characters expect to win adherence. For Russell during the first war all these reasonable expectations had been harshly disappointed, so, for him, the shock of 1914 had been multiple. His shock had been both public and personal. His reaction to 1914 had been to jump … into the arena with intent to part the combatants. One man against warring herds of tribesmen with their blood up. I doubt whether even Russell would have dared if he had not been armed with an aristocrat’s self-confidence to reinforce his own intrepid nature. And now, in 1918, he was being execrated as “the enemy of the people” … The shock from which Russell was suffering in 1918 was natural enough. What was amazing and magnificent was his resilience and his persistence. A lesser man who had brought on himself Russell’s experience in 1914-1918 might then have quit—especially, if he had, as Russell did have, a golden bridge to retreat over.

Russell, discharged from gaol, could have withdrawn into an ivory tower … By 1914 he was already world-famous … If he had died in February 1914, instead of February 1970, he would still have been famous today. His intellectual work during the first 13 years of this century ... is, I imagine, unsurpassed ... But if he had died before August 1914, he would have been famous for this one thing only, and the number of people who could have appreciated what he had done would have been far smaller; for his pre-1914 work was esoteric. However, after finishing the first of his two terms of imprisonment for trying to save mankind from itself Russell, being Russell, had not had enough. Nature gave him from 1918 to 1970, and he used those last 52 years as he had used the previous four. He never, of course, ceased to work on at philosophy, but he also never ceased from mental strife in William Blake’s meaning of those words.

Russell’s spirit was never daunted by hostility, and it was also never damped by ridicule, which is harder than hostility to bear up against. The zest for life with which Nature endowed him, and the self-confidence … led him back into the ring again and again … But the motive that kept him going more than any other was … his concern for his fellow men—not just his contemporaries, but all future generations. Powerful minds take long views, and Russell’s mind saw the vista of the broad way that leads to destruction. This trenchant intellect was mated with a compassionate heart … He cared intensely about what was going to happen after his long life was over—as intensely as if he had been a believer in personal immortality and had expected to see, as a disembodied spirit, the denouement of the drama of human life on this planet. Russell’s mind was not only trenchant; it was also satirical and provocative. The impulse to annoy, combined with a generous passion to make all things new, is a well-known mark of youth, and in this sense Russell remained youthful to the end. His insatiable relish for getting into trouble kept him always young in spirit. After a 43 years’ interval he found himself in prison … again; but this time the authorities had their hearts in their mouths. By now he was getting on for 90, and he was already a formidable world-power.

If he had died in prison, his posthumous potency as a martyr would have been stupendous. So, this time the authorities nursed him solicitously and discharged him with despatch…. Since 1914 mankind has been in one of those recurrent moods in which it is bent on going to hell, and since 1945 we have possessed the means of instant conveyance. In this mood human beings are infuriated by a fellow creature who does strive officiously to keep the human race alive in spite of being told that he need not. What business has one man to stay sane when the fashion is to be mad? The intervention is the more exasperating if the self-appointed saviour tries to goad us into facing up to our folly by sticking pins deftly into our tenderest spots. Did Russell defeat his own purposes by pursuing them so provocatively? On a short view, in some cases, perhaps yes; but on Russell’s own long view, no. This has been proved already by the unanimity of the tribute that has been paid to Russell at his death. He is remembered as the man who dared to take his stand across the path of the Gadarene swine with the audacious intention to stem their headlong rush—the man who held his ground when the bedevilled herd threatened to trample him underfoot.

Down to the end of his long and indefatigable career, Russell did not know whether the reasonableness that he strove for was going to prevail. We who have survived him are still an enigma to ourselves. But at least we have recognised that, if we do decide to commit mass-suicide, our blood will not be on Russell’s head…. Russell did his utmost to save us from ourselves, and this is why we are honouring him…. We still have that much sanity, and therefore that much hope.

* Arnold Toynbee, The Sunday Telegraph, February 8 1970