Russell, a Great Prose-stylist
Russell is one of the great prose-stylists of the twentieth century. Although a philosopher, he does not write in a distorted or obscure manner as most philosophers do. His style is characterized by intellectual brilliance, clarity and lucidity, a certain frivolity and gaiety, and a catholicity of temper.As a matter of fact, the phrase “intellectual brilliance” is itself very wide in its scope, and it includes most of the other qualities. After all clarity, wit, and catholicity of temper are different manifestations of intellectual brilliance. Russell is incapable of being dull in his writing just as he is incapable of being shallow. In the Unpopular Essays he deals with various subjects—philosophical, political, sociological, psychological, educational, historical, and so on—and his expositions of all the ideas are illumined by clarity and a grace of expression. His writing exactly reflects his crystalline, scintillating mind. These essays are, of course, far from being unpopular; in fact, they have a ready appeal for the average mind, and there can be no doubt at all about their popularity. One reason for the popularity of these essays is certainly the simplicity and charm of Russell’s prose-style.
Clarity, Lucidity, Grace and Elegance
The most conspicuous characteristics of this style are clarity, lucidity, grace, and elegance. Even when Russell is dealing with ideas which are philosophical and technical, he succeeds in conveying them to the reader by the manner in which he expresses them. He takes great pains to make ideas clear to the reader, and yet his style is not at all forced or laborious. It is a sign of his intellectual brilliance that he writes effortlessly and spontaneously in a style that is singularly free from all kinds of obscurity and ambiguity. Such an effect is achieved by him by means of his method of logical reasoning and by his habit of offering homely examples to clarify ideas. Every thesis, every proposition, every theory, every suggestion that he offers in the course of his Unpopular Essays is well-argued, well-reasoned, and supported with appropriate examples, illustrations, and analogies, most of which are drawn from either well-known facts of history or everyday life,
Ideas, Intelligible and Coherently Presented
The essay, Philosophy and Politics, is not meant for everybody; but it is thoroughly intelligible to well-educated men who may not have made a special study of philosophy. This essay is an attack on the philosophy of Hegel with its destructive political implications, and a strong defence of Locke’s philosophy of empiricism with its liberal political consequences. The argument in this essay proceeds in a most logical and coherent manner. The ideas are so presented that we have no difficulty in grasping them. And the essay ends with a conclusion which is really a brief summing-up of what Russell has said in the course of the essay. His conclusion is that empiricist liberalism is the only philosophy which can yield the desired results in the world of today. In the essay, The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed, Russell’s thesis is that writers, and especially moralists, have a tendency to admire certain sections of the population, which are oppressed, on the supposed ground that these sections of the population possess certain superior virtues. This thesis is also developed in a logical manner by means of several examples. In the essay, On Being Modern-Minded, the central idea is that the modem-minded man tends to fall under the sway of current opinions and shrinks from independent thinking; one of the consequences of this trend being that a mentally solitary life seems pointless according to modern standards. This essay, though slightly difficult as regards its ideas, is yet not perplexing or obscure in any way; all that it demands is a greater degree of concentration than such essays as An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, Ideas That Have Helped Mankind and The Functions of a Teacher. The three last-named essays are extremely easy, as regards both the ideas and the expression. The same is true of Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind. In these essays we have a transparency of thought, and a perfect simplicity of expression. A noteworthy feature of the style in all these essays is a complete absence of digressions or any other form of superfluity. Russell is never prolix or diffuse, even when an essay is somewhat long as is An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish. Nor does he create an impression of copiousness or over-abundance in the matter of expression. Every essay is compact and well-knit, even when somewhat long.
An Unadorned but Effective Style
Russell’s style is free from embellishments and ornamental effects. It is a plain, unadorned style. It is rarely charged even with emotion, being mainly addressed to the intelligence or the intellect as distinguished from the heart or the feelings. And yet it is not uninteresting, dull, tedious or monotonous in its effect. As has been indicated above, it is an elegant style with a charm of its own. Here, for instance, is a specimen of his writing, showing an excellent combination of lucidity, clarity, and the grace of expression:
Upon our collective wisdom during the next twenty years depends the question whether mankind shall be plunged into unparalleled disaster, or shall achieve a new level of happiness, security, well-being, and intelligence. I do know which mankind will choose. There is grave reason for fear, but there is enough possibility of a good solution to make hope not irrational. And it is on this hope that we must act. (Ideas That Have Helped Mankind)
In these lines an important idea has been expressed in utterly unembellished language which, however, does not fail to produce the desired effect upon us. Here is another example of this combination, which is very frequent in Russell’s writing, of simplicity and elegance:
Education, which was at first made universal in order that all might be able to read and write, has been found capable of serving quite other purposes. By instilling nonsense it unifies populations and generates collective enthusiasm. If all governments taught the same nonsense, the harm would not be so great. Unfortunately each has its own brand, and the diversity serves to produce hostility between the devotees of different creeds. (An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish)
There are no rhetorical flourishes here, nothing theatrical. A weighty idea finds expression in the plainest words which do not, however, fail to produce an effect.
Suited to Exposition and Argument
Russell has a style of writing which is admirably suited to exposition and argument. While reading through these essays, we do not get entangled or enmeshed in the intricacies of thought. In the essay, The Future of Mankind, Russell visualises three possibilities which are in store for mankind. And, after discussing them, comes the following irresistible conclusion: “There are now only two fully independent
and States, America . The next step in this long historical process should reduce the two to one, and thus put an end to the period of organized wars, which began in Russia some six thousand years ago.” In the essay, The Functions of a Teacher, Russell makes the distinction between a true teacher and a propagandist in a masterly manner. In the same essay the way in which he explains the meaning of civilization is remarkable for its cogency and clarity. Egypt
Examples and Illustrations
Russell’s intellectual brilliance is also seen in the abundance of examples and illustrations which he provides in the course of his essays, as also in the wealth of allusions that we find in them. In order to bring out the difference between the freedom that exists in
and the absence of it in America , he gives us as many as three examples in his essay, The Future of Mankind. In Russia one may hold whatever view of Mendelism one may like to hold on the basis of available evidence; one may write a book debunking America ; one may hold or not hold that Lincoln is heading for an economic slump. In America one can hold only those views which are officially sponsored. In the essay, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, Russell gives us a host of examples to show how people’s minds have been dominated for centuries by superstitious beliefs. In the essay, Ideas That Have Helped Mankind, he makes a statement that man is morally a mixture of good and evil, and then goes on to illustrate this statement with reference to the brutal treatment of the Jews by the German Nazis, the expulsions of the Germans ordered by the Russians, and the attitude of the British and the Americans towards German children, all these being concrete cases to show the evil in man. Russell is never content with abstract statements and ideas; everywhere we find concrete examples. Sometimes he offers parables or fables to illustrate his point: for instance, he gives us the fable of the butchers and the bakers, and the fable of a cow grazing in a field and running away in fright from a passing railway train, (in the essay Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind) Russia
The Abundance of Condensed Statements and Generalisations
Russell’s intellectual brilliance shows itself also in his capacity for making condensed statements and generalisations which in most cases produce a striking effect. The following examples, chosen at random, illustrate this point:
(1) Change is scientific, progress is ethical; change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy. (Philosophy and Politics)
(2) Science is empirical, tentative, and undogmatic; all immutable dogma is unscientific. (Philosophy and Politics)
(3) Children were idealized by Wordsworth and unidealized by Freud. Marx was the Wordsworth of the proletariat; its Freud is still to come. (The
Superior Virtue of the Oppressed)
(4) We are suffering not from the decay of theological beliefs but from the loss of solitude. (On Being Modern-Minded)
(5) Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life. (An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish)
(6) Fear generates impulses of cruelty, and therefore promotes such superstitious beliefs as seem to justify cruelty. (An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish)
(7) To the propagandist his pupils are potential soldiers in an army. (The Functions of a Teacher)
(8) Selfishness beyond a point, whether individual or national, is not wise. It may with luck succeed, but if it fails failure is terrible. (Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind)
Irony, Wit, and Gaiety
Although Russell has always something serious to say in his essays, yet he is not too grave or solemn a writer. His essays are interspersed with witty observations and comments. Irony and sarcasm are often employed by him as weapons of attack. However, his wit is generally dry, though occasionally also gay. (Wit is gay when an author really seems to enjoy his witty remark, but wit is dry when the author makes a witty remark somewhat scornfully or with a sense of great superiority.) We have a striking example of gay wit towards the close of An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish when he points that out superstitions are often interesting and enjoyable. Once, he says, he received a communication from the god Osiris, giving his telephone number. He frequently receives letters from men announcing themselves as the Messiah. During prohibition in
there was a sect which maintained that the communion service ought to be celebrated in whisky, not in wine because this belief gave them a legal right to drink some hard liquor. Then there was the prophetess who duped her followers into believing that she could walk on water. Another example of gay wit in the same essay occurs when Russell says that Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women had fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. Examples of irony and sarcasm are many. In Philosophy and Politics, Russell mocks at Hegel by defining Hegel’s “Absolute Idea” as “pure thought thinking about pure thought”. In The Future of Man, Russell makes the following ironical observation about Stalin: “Stalin at all times knows the truth about metaphysics, but you must not suppose that the truth this year is the same as it was last year”. In The America Superior Virtue of the Oppressed viz have plenty of irony; for instance, Russell here pokes fun at the Freudian theory of the unconscious mind in relation to children.
Catholicity of Temper
Russell is a liberal philosopher. He suffers from no prejudices and no pet aversions. He has no crotchets or fads. A philosopher who is never tired of preaching a scientific temper of mind could never be narrow-minded in any sense of the word. His mind was large enough to take in its sweep all issues pertaining to human welfare. He has expressed his opinions in the Unpopular Essays on many subjects—politics, economics, psychology, ethics, education, morality, science, scepticism, communism, civilization, war, peace, world-government, and so on. And he has dealt with these matters in a style which reflects his catholic temper and his wide-ranging mind. He did not evolve a style according to any premeditated theory or doctrine. His style came to him naturally. In his case, as in the cases of other great writers, it can be said with confidence that the style is the man. His is a style which is rich in such devices as parallelisms, antitheses, contrasts, similes, metaphors, quotations, allusions, anecdotes, simple words and difficult words, short sentences and long ones. He attaches no undue importance to any particular ingredient of style, his only concern being clarity of expression. We cannot use a single formula for this style as we can, for instance, for Bacon’s style (concise and epigrammatic), for Carlyle’s style (erudite, cumbersome, and eccentric), or for Ruskin’s style (mellifluous, musical prose). This is a style in which a perfect synthesis has been achieved between its various ingredients. In its own way, it is a unique style, even as the man himself was unique.