For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me

[Bertrand Russell was present when the wife of his collaborator Alfred North Whitehead was undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain due to heart trouble. He was 29 at the time, and in the following excerpt from his autobiography he described the effect this experience had on him.]

She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me. Every since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region…
At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody that I met in the street, and though this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances. Having been an Imperialist, I became during those five minutes a pro-Boer and a Pacifist. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange excitement possessed me, containing intense pain but also some element of triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight which I then imagined myself to possess has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations.

In other place he says:

Within five minutes I went through such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated…

Bertrand Russell, in Ray Monk, vol.1, p.135

So for all his rationalism, basically his pacifism was based on this five minute religious experience. If he was ‘deluded’ about seeing into people’s souls, how did he know he wasn’t deluded about being pro-Boer and pacifist – sentiments that he fought for (not literally of course – that would be inconsistent!) the rest of his life.

He also said that he learned in this experience that, ‘strife is the root of all evil and gentleness the only balm. I became infinitely gentle for a time.’

So he learned that gentleness is good not through reason but through an experience. And it didn’t last.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: