Bertrand Russell as a Prose Writer
Table of Contents
Bertrand Russell is by any reckoning the most prolific writer of the present century who expressed his views on diverse subjects of human interests with great force and rigorous logical style. Hardly is there any human problem which escaped his attention.
He was basically a mathematician whose epoch-making contribution to this subject published in three volumes, Principia Mathematica in collaboration with Prof. Whitehead is undoubtedly considered a landmark in the history of mathematics. Combined with mathematics his vast scientific background enabled him to speak with authority and exactness on each problem.
The lucidity and charm of his style depend largely upon the clarity of his thoughts. An enormous repository of knowledge made him clear headed and honest in his opinions.
Whenever Russell attempts to write on a subjects, he adopts a well-calculated plan for a successful writing. About his own method of writing, he himself says-
“If I were to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity–the great intensity of which I am capable– for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed under ground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered this technique, I used to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.”
From the above reference it becomes crystal clear that Russell was extremely conscious about the clarity of thought and expression Out of these two things he developed a charming and lucid style which leaves indelible mark upon the mind of the reader.
- Russell’s View on World Government in his Essay The Future of Mankind
- Summary of Russell’s Essay, Knowledge and Wisdom
The second characteristic of Russell’s styles is the unity of thought. Rigorous logical and mathematical discipline taught him the principle of the unity of thought. Like a mathematical premise, he starts reasoning from a well-affirmed basic assumption and then proceeds step by step to the logical conclusion of his arguments. Each argument is linked to the preceding one like the anxious of Euclid. Thus the conclusion drawn leads to a necessary logical outcome of his arguments.
The exact choice of diction
Russell’s ideal scientific outlook compels him to have a cautious and exact use of words. He avoids ambiguity and equivocation and where he perceives the possibilities of those drawbacks he clarifies his point further. He uses the words with the greatest possible economy and avoids the empty meaning-less rhetoric.
Russell often writes long and elaborate sentences in order to preserve the unity of thought. He is extremely conscious of his style and docs not let the sentence jeopardize the fluency of his style From the beginning to the end his thoughts flow steadily and rhythmically through the medium of his expression. That is why, there is no feeling of abruptness in his mode of writing.
Simplicity of Language
Having great regard for clear and convincing expression he avoids ornate and affected use of language. There is very rare use of two or three synonymous words which often produce monotony and tediousness. However, he does write long sentences in order to convey W ITC units of ideas to his reader. But this is inevitable, because Russell unites often on grave and serious subjects which demand an Interlinked unity of thoughts and arguments. It is very difficult to write on important and profound subjects with a simplicity of language and clarity of thought. But Russell has acquired this unique and almost unparalleled style of writing with great effort and devotion to his work.
Almost all his writings bear the high seriousness of his subject. As pointed out earlier he does not write with personal or emotional effect. He is one of the great humanists of twentieth century who does not take human problems lightly. He has developed a practical philosophy of life of which he is a great preacher. But again, it is not the preaching of an old type dogmatic clergy. His supreme intellectual outlook, broadmindedness, objective and impersonal attitude towards human problems make him a great serious writer. This seriousness of his outlook naturally makes his style of writing profound. He has a great concern for the present formidable problems of the world which human race has to face. The possible outbreak of nuclear war, the unchecked increase of population, the gradual exhaustion of natural resources, and the impending fear of such natural calamities as famine always occupied his mind.
Moreover the interminable ideological antagonism between the two superpowers and its far-reaching effects upon mankind, particularly the under-developed countries did not let him keep at ease. He wrote on all these problems and pointed out the follies of man in the past and the present with a deep sense of concern, sympathy and human love. All problems of such a grave nature naturally demand a serious contemplation.
His Humour and Satire
But in spite Russell’s high seriousness, his style is buoyant and gay. His writing is effervescent with highly intellectual and well-meaning remarks which indicates the follies of mankind. His humour is not repulsive and disgusting like that of Swift, but optimistic and full of hope. It is a reformative humour which brings out clearly the blunders of mankind with a hope of improvement in future. For example while pointing out the opposition of the Clergy against scientific inventions towards the end of nineteenth century, when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning-rod, he writes-
“When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning-rod, the Clergy both in England and America, with enthusiastic support of God to punish impiety or some other grave sin — the virtuous arc never struck by lightning. Therefore if God wants to strike anyone, Benjamin Franklin ought not to defeat His design, indeed to do so is to help criminals to escape. But God was equal to the occasion, if we are to believe the eminent Dr. Price, one of the leading divines of Boston. Lightning having been rendered ineffectual by the ‘iron points invented by the sagacious Dr. Franklin, Massachusetts was shaken by earthquakes, which Dr. Price perceived to be due to God’s wrath at the ‘Iron Points’. In a sermon on the subject he said, “In Boston are more erected than elsewhere in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God. Apparently, however, Providence gave up all hopes of curing Boston of its wickedness, for though lightning rods became more and more common, earthquakes in Massachusetts have remained rare. Nevertheless, Dr. Price’s point of view, or something very like it, was still held by one of the most influential men of recent times. When there were several bad earthquakes in India, Mahatma Gandhi solemnly warned his compatriots that these disasters had been sent as a punishment for their sins.” (Unpopular Essay page 85-86.)
The above detailed reference shows the penetrating humour and satire of Russell, which indicates how effectively he brings forth the follies of dogmatism.
Although Russell’s general style of writing is precise, exact and simple, yet he can write highly ornate and affected style. His only celebrated essay “The Free Man” “Worship” published in his book “Mysticism and Logic” is a masterpiece of ornate style which demonstrates his absolute command of English language.
Most of his writings consist of reflective and argumentative style, but his descriptive power is equally fluent and simple. The unity of thought runs harmoniously and systematically in his descriptive writings. The most lucid example of Russell’s descriptive style is his own Autobiography. It contains the whole history of his life which he presents in very clear, simple and appealing manner.
To sum up
Russell is one of the great prose writers of the present century, who wrote on almost all kinds of varied subjects with great force and confidence. The unity of his thoughts goes hand in hand with the unity of his style.