The Appeal of Russell’s Prose Style
The appeal of Russell to the modern reader is due, in no small measure, to the charm of his prose style. Russell writes in a style which is characterized by lucidity, clarity, elegance, and a grace of expression. It is a plain, unembellished style which the layman easily understands, and yet it is a style which abounds in all the literary graces.
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. The Conquest of Happiness is Bertrand Russell’s recipe for good living. First published in 1930, it pre-dates the current obsession with self-help by decades. Leading the reader step by step through the causes of unhappiness and the personal choices, compromises and sacrifices that (may) lead to the final, affirmative conclusion of "The Happy Man", this is popular philosophy, or even self-help, as it should be written. His expositions of all the ideas are illumined by clarity and a grace of expression. His writing exactly reflects his crystalline, scintillating mind. One reason for the popularity of Conquest of Happiness 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 Conquest of Happiness 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
A noteworthy feature of the style of Russell is a complete absence of digressions or any other form of superfluity. Russell is never prolix or diffuse. Nor does he create an impression of copiousness or over-abundance in the matter of expression. His statements are 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.
Suited to Exposition and Argument
Russell has a style of writing which is admirably suited to exposition and argument. While reading through his writings, we do not get entangled or enmeshed in the intricacies of thought.
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 writings, as also in the wealth of allusions that we find in them.
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.
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.)
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 Conquest of Happiness on the causes of unhappiness and has also provided the ways through which we can win the happiness. 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.