Sunday, July 08, 2018

Bertrand Russell on growing old.

Bertrand Russell was one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the past century. Although much of his work was devoted to analytical philosophy, particularly to exploring the logical foundations of mathematics, he also wrote and spoke eloquently and with wit about ethical and political matters, and about concerns of everyday life.

As I progress further into my eighth decade of life I, like, I'm sure, many of my contemporaries, spend time reminiscing and sometimes regretting roads not taken. Russell, in his Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, offered this observation:
"Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being."
To my fellow Christians, this may seem perplexing. Loss of individual being doesn't jibe with traditional notions of immortality. It seems, if anything, more like Buddhism. To me, though, the crucial words are "the walls of the ego recede".  I believe this to be central to the message of the Gospels; perhaps best summed up in Luke 17:33. Russell was not a Christian, nor a Buddhist, but to me it seems that in this respect his thinking was in concurrence with both traditions (which, I think, have more in common than many believers in either would care to admit.)

I'm indebted for the Russell quotation to Maria Popova's blog Brain Pickings, which I find a reliable source of thought provoking insights. If you follow the link and scroll down, you can subscribe for free. Maria relies on donations to keep up her very valuable work and, if you would like to help, please follow the link provided on her blog.

The photo (public domain; photographer unknown) is of Russell with his children John (born 1921) and Kate (1923). Judging by the children's appearances, the photo was made in the late 1920s when Russell (born 1872) would have been in his mid-fifties.