A Passion For Peace

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Issue 290
May/June 2015
Becoming Barbarian

Reviews

A Passion For Peace
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issue cover 290

Cover: Arctic Moss (5,500 years old), Elephant Island, Antarctic by Rachel Sussman

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Satish Kumar is moved by an account of a great philosopher’s wartime agonies. Bertrand Russell: A Pacifist at War by Nicholas Griffin (ed.). Spokesman, 2014. ISBN: 9780851248370

Bertrand Russell was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature for his book Principia Mathematica, but he could as well have been given the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a lifelong peace activist as well as a public philosopher. For him politics of peace and commitment to philosophy were two aspects of one single vision: a vision of the integrity and sanctity of human life.

Coming from a privileged and aristocratic background did not prove to be a barrier for Russell to devote his life not only to peace but also to freedom, justice and emancipation for every member of society. By no means was he an armchair philosopher or an indulgent academic: he was a political activist through and through. The purpose of philosophy for him was the liberation of the human mind and the establishment of human dignity.

A philosopher with such profound conviction could not have taken any other option, then, than to oppose the First World War when it broke out in August 1914. In his autobiography Russell wrote: “When the war came I felt as if I heard the voice of God. I knew it was my business to protest.” Protest he did, with great vigour and dedication. His pacifist position cost him his job at Trinity College, Cambridge. His passport was confiscated and eventually he was imprisoned. But none of this caused him to waver for a moment in his unrelenting opposition to war.

Nicholas Griffin’s book A Pacifist at War shows how Russell rose to the challenge and faced the crisis of war with dignity and courage. Yet at the same time Russell was also going through a personal crisis, and his handling of that crisis proved to be much more problematic.

After his marriage with Alys Pearsall Smith ended in a lengthy separation (though they were not divorced until 1921), Russell was engaged in a number of romantic relationships, primarily with Lady Ottoline Morrell and Colette O’Neil but also to a lesser extent with Helen Dudley and Vivienne Eliot. Russell’s candid and heartfelt letters chronicled in this book give a vivid picture of his state of mind and troubled emotions.

In one of his letters to Colette O’Neil he admits his vulnerability: “The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain – a curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond, something transfigured and infinite… The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, but love of it is my life – it is like passionate love for a ghost.”

In the same letter he talks about his spirit being “in prison”. Russell, an agnostic, reveals his spiritual crisis with honesty and transparency through these love letters – and seeks answers in love. He writes, “There is a sort of alchemy of defeat that one has to learn: how to turn defeat into victory.” He continues, “There is really only one way, and it is the way we must all come to sooner or later: to live by love, to care really and profoundly for others more than for oneself. There is no other way through the abysses of life.” Then he concludes, “Love has come to my rescue.” Later Russell talks about “active love” and declares, “Without love one cannot live a good life.”

The book clearly charts the journey Russell is on – the journey opposing the war and searching for love. This search continued throughout his life. In 1961 he led the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which also led him to a brief imprisonment when he was almost 90. I was 25, a young man sitting in a café in Bangalore, India, reading about it. I thought, “Here is a man of 90 going to jail for peace in the world. What am I doing here drinking coffee?” Russell inspired me and my friend E.P. Menon to undertake a peace walk of 8,000 miles across continents. During that journey I had the privilege of meeting Russell and talking about peace. His age had in no way diminished his passion. Reading A Pacifist at War has refreshed my memory of meeting a great man of lively mind and passionate heart.

Satish Kumar is Editor-in-chief of Resurgence & Ecologist.

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