Dear Bertrand Russell, by Bertrand Russell

Dear Bertrand Russell

Dear Bertrand Russell is a collection of letters to and from the philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell. It is quite a short book, and while the letters are sometimes on serious subjects (and sometimes not), Russell’s responses are brief and non-technical, sometimes droll, and very much at a layman’s level. This isn’t hard core philosophy, or back-and-forth deep debates. As Russell himself puts it in the Preface, “The letters in this volume…recall some of the lighter moments of distraction from answering more serious correspondence.” It is indeed a light, easy, quick, somewhat entertaining read.

The shortest of the letters to Russell reads in its entirety, “How are you Lord Russell?” It is from a Mr. Lin, who helpfully enclosed his photo. (Russell responded that he was fine.)

The letters are all from the 1950s and 1960s, when Russell was elderly but certainly still very active. For most or all of that period his main interest was opposing war and the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. Certainly much of the correspondence is at least in part about these issues.

Russell generally comes across as a genial, kindly old fellow, clever and obviously pleased with himself for being clever, and often bemused by his correspondents. He can be blunt, but he rarely if ever comes across as angry, nor as disrespectful or insulting.

That is, unless you think frankly stating one’s disagreement with someone is inherently disrespectful or insulting, which is how many seem to perceive it, especially in sensitive areas like religion, because in that sense he doesn’t pull his punches. A Christian’s question about his opinion of Jesus, for instance, elicits the response, “Some of the ethical views which purport to come from him are supportable. The hallucinatory conviction that he possessed divinity was shared by many wandering mystics and lunatics of the day. This is of interest primarily to psychologists.”

Perhaps my favorite letter to Russell reads: “Dear Mr. Bertrand Russell, Thank you very much for all the things you have done. I like you. If you come to Oxford come and have tea with me. Love from Paul Altmann. I am six years old.” (The delighted Russell responds that he does not expect to come to Oxford, but “If I do come, I will let you know.”)

Russell makes some good points, and there are plenty of smiles in Dear Bertrand Russell, but, again, it’s nothing very deep or challenging. It’s just a bit of fun for Russell fans.

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