Bertrand Russell’s Grandmother: Anti-Metaphysician

In, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914,  Russell tells an amusing story about his grandmother, the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot), who was the dominant family figure for most of Russell’s childhood and youth.[69][73] As an adolescent Russell had adopted utilitarianism, much to his grandmother’s dismay. In response she ridiculed him, and proceeded to pose ethical conundrums that she believed the young Russell couldn’t resolve using utilitarian principles.

But here disagreeableness didn’t stop there. Here is how Russell describes her antipathy to his philosophical interests: “When she discovered that I was interested in metaphysics, she told me that the whole subject could be summed up in the saying: ‘What is mind? no matter; what is matter? never mind.’ At the fifteenth or sixteenth repetition of this remark, it ceased to amuse me, but my grandmother’s animus against metaphysics continued to the end of her life.” Here is a poem the Countess penned to express those feelings:

O Science metaphysical,
And very very quizzical,
You only make this maze of life the mazier;
For boasting to illuminate
Such riddles dark as Will and Fate
You muddle them to hazier and hazier.

The cause of every action,
You expound with satisfaction;
Through the mind in all its corners and recesses
You say that you have travelled,
And all problems unravelled
And axioms you call your learned guesses.

Right and wrong you’ve so dissected,
And their fragments so connected,
That which we follow doesn’t seem to matter;
But the cobwebs you have wrought
And the silly flies they have caught,
It needs no broom miraculous to shatter.

You know no more than I,
What is laughter, tear, or sigh,
Or love, or hate, or anger, or compassion;
Metaphysics, then, adieu,
Without you I can do,
And I think you’ll very soon be out of fashion.

Russell subsequently states that some years later his grandmother said to him, ” ‘I hear you are writing another book,’ in the tone of voice in which one might say: ‘I hear you are having another illegitimate child.’ ”

As for me, I can’t imagine discussing utilitarianism or metaphysics with my grandmothers. Yet it doesn’t sound like discussing anything with Russell’s grandmother was much fun.


The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (London, Allen & Unwin: 1967), 56-7.

My Mom’s Birthday


My mother was born 98 years ago today. In her memory, I reprint this letter which I sent to her 17 years ago.

April 29, 2000


This letter should arrive on your 81st birthday—a time of rejoicing for a life well-lived. Emerging from the stable background of loving parents, a young woman with girlish charm, an ear and talent for music, a fluent reader of Latin, and pursued by a plethora of west St. Louis beaus, in 1935 you met a bicycle delivery boy, in whom, despite his relatively low economic status, you saw something good. His honesty and gentleness shone through beneath the rough exterior; you would marry him when you were just nineteen. A hard-working man who would be a devoted father—somehow you knew.

You courageously endured through an economic depression and a world war in which your husband was absent for two long years, forcing you to raise your first son without him. Your parents lived with you through the war and, as they prepared to leave at its conclusion, you and Ben told them they could stay with you for the rest of their lives. They had helped you during the war, and now you would care for them—they both lived with you for the rest of their lives and died in your home. In the post-war era you gave birth to three more children, all of whom you showered with the deep love and affection. With them you shared warmth and comfort—you were mother to them all. Like a chameleon you changed to meet their differing needs, always putting others before yourself. 

Your firstborn was typical of firstborns, independent and forceful like his father. He left home at an early age for college, and went on to travel the world and settle far from home, where he became the head of his own household. Your daughter was more like you—gentle, nurturing and cautious—an only daughter must have a special place in a mother’s heart. For your sickly third child you shed more tears than you deserved. You nursed him back from the edge of death, and even now you play an indispensable role in his life. And the baby was inspired by his father’s mandate to be inquisitive. This intellectual wanderlust caused much unintended heartache, but he’s still the same young man who talked of life’s search so long ago.

With your children raised, your husband’s love for you deepened, as did your love for him. The young boy on the bicycle—in whom you saw so much more than fifty years ago—had aged. No longer did he participate in the virile games of youth. The arms that once hit golf balls long distances, the coordination that nestled many a wedge shot close to the hole, and the shoulders that carried large sides of beef—did so no longer. As Thorton Wilder said, he was being “weaned away” from life. But his love for you was deeper than any that emanates from youthful vigor alone.

As his own physical vitality faded, his main concern was Mary Jane Hurley, the beautiful young woman on whose door he had knock so long ago. In his eyes that is who you still were. After fifty years of sleeping in the same bed, separated by war, struggling to make your payments, and watching children to whom you had cared for leave your loving home, after all that … you still had each other. A love so strong that all the cynics could not or would not ever understand. Yet, tragically, it ended after just fifty years.  But be assured that when Ben’s very last breath was taken, it was your name on his lips, your face in his eyes, your presence in his heart. The wind still murmurs outside your window, and its sound is his sound calling you. Now … wait.

For living this well lived life, one of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, you are to be praised. In the times since your husband left you—not of his own choice—you have endured and survived and re-created yourself. While the body deteriorates, your heart is still strong. You are the hero of your own life—my dearest mother.

With my deepest love and affection,
With my most gracious appreciation,

With yours and my father’s spirit always within me,
I remain, your devoted son, John Gerard

(Postscript – Mary Jane Hurley Messerly died in of a stroke on Sunday, September 18, 2005. She was 86 years old and had taken her usual walk the day before.)


What Is The Point of Money?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 1 2017.)

Wealth is necessary in order to live well, but it is not sufficient. You may have lots of money but live terribly if you have no friends or wisdom. You may have mistaken part of a good life—sufficient wealth to live—with the whole of the good life. For money isn’t an end in itself, it is merely a means to an end.

But let’s suppose that you realize all this. Let’s suppose further that you aren’t materialistic and you want to do good things for the world. Now imagine that you’ve been offered a well-paid position with a good company. We’ll assume your job doesn’t entail you doing anything immoral in the usual sense of the term. (We won’t consider participating in the world’s economic system to be intrinsically immoral.) Let’s further assume that the job isn’t your dream job, so you won’t be “doing what you love.”1 Finally, let’s suppose you are the kind of person who worries that money might corrupt you, or that the job isn’t exactly what you want. What should you do?

My advice would be to take the job. Obviously the job and its benefits—medical and dental insurance, retirement, etc.—help you to live well. But even more importantly for the idealistic, having some modicum of wealth allows you to help others. So while many people aren’t wise and think money is just a means to buy trinkets, the wise realize wealth can also buy freedom and the ability to do good. Money is power that can be used to benefit people—as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet do—or it can hurt people—as Donald Trump and the Koch brothers do.

So when offered a modicum of wealth you are essentially being offered a key that unlocks a door that gives you the chance to effect on the world, to having some power. That power can be used for buying frivolous possessions or for hurting others, but it can also be used for good. And with more power comes the ability to do more good. On the other hand, if you have nothing, you have nothing to give.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the only kind of power is financial. There’s moral and intellectual power too. But the way our world is set up, sometimes that’s just not enough. So I say be adventurous and accept a key if offered it. Go thru the door and you may find more keys that open more doors and perhaps, in some distant time, you will help unlock doors for others.


  1. I have written previously about whether you should only do what you love.

The Stoics on the Emotions or Passions

A common criticism of Stoicism is that is doesn’t leave proper room for the emotions or passions (EorP), and thus that it advocate a passionless, unemotional and apathetic life. Let’s investigate this claim.

The Stoics Don’t Reject Emotions, They Reject Passions

Let us begin by quoting John Sellars, a Research Fellow at King’s College London: “the Stoics never spoke about the emotions in the way we do.” Today the word emotion refers to almost any mental feeling that we contrast with reason. Understood in this sense, “the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.”

The Stoics believe we should feel affinity, care and concern for our friends and family. They also acknowledge that we are affected by external events, that we have natural reactions like being scared or shocked. So jumping behind a wall after hearing an explosion isn’t a passion. But hearing that you might lose your job, and then becoming anxious and fearful is a passion. In this case the Stoics counsel that we defeat these negative responses by thinking about whether they’re called for. Perhaps we won’t lose our job, or perhaps it won’t be so bad if we do. This suggests that our fear may result of poor thinking.

As for good passions, the Stoics say the only thing that is always good for us is virtue, basically a healthy state of mind. “This is the only genuine good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, the only thing the absence of which guarantees misery.” Good or proper passions follow from mental states produced by good reasoning. As Sellars puts it:

The ideal Stoic life is thus far from unemotional in the English sense of the word. Indeed, what the Stoics propose we reject are not emotions in the English sense of the word at all, if emotions are defined as feelings that contrast with reasoning. Instead what the Stoics propose we reject is faulty reasoning based on confused value judgments and the unpleasant consequences that this generates.

What Do The Stoics Mean By Passions (or Emotions)?

For those who feel more comfortable using the contemporary word emotion, we’ll continue our analysis using the phrase “emotions or passions” (EorP), as long as we remember that the older idea of passions is more what the Stoics have in mind.

Now the four most common accounts or definitions of EorP provided by the Stoics include:

  1. An excessive impulse.
  2. An impulse that ignores reason.
  3. A false judgment or opinion.
  4. A fluttering of the soul.

The first two definitions tell us that EorP are a kind of impulse or force. They are things that happen to us, as contrasted with actions or things that we do. EorP can be compared to running downhill but being unable to stop; they propel you forward. EorP also have a temporal dimension. Typically they are strongest in the present, and weaken over time.

The second and third definitions emphasize that EorP disrupt and contradict reason. EorP misrepresent a thing’s value, and then misdirect our impulses toward achieving it. For example, if we exaggerate the importance of wealth and then pursue it excessively, we may live poorly. Or if we want revenge and act on that angry impulse, we may end up in jail. In such cases EorP are either based on or produce bad reasoning.

The fourth definition of EorP as “a fluttering in the soul” derives from the Stoics sense that EorP have a physical basis and physical consequences—just think of the effect of EorP on heart rate and blood pressure.

The main passions the Stoics identify are appetite and fear. If we think something is good, we have an appetite for it; if we think something is bad, we fear it. These passions are related to two others: pleasure and distress. If we satisfy our appetites, we may experience pleasure, whereas if we fail to satisfy them, we may experience distress. Similarly, if we fear something we experience distress, whereas if our fears don’t materialize we may experience pleasure.

Why Excessive Emotions (or Passions) Are Bad For Us 

When we (too strongly) experience EorP we make errors in judgment concerning the good and bad, and the present and the future. The idea is that something may be pleasurable in the present that is actually bad for us, or we may have an appetite for something in the future, which is also bad for us. Likewise, we might think some action is bad in the present and experience distress, even though the thing is really good for us, or we might fear something in the future that either won’t happen, or won’t that bad even if it does happen.

So excessive EorP result in mistaken judgments and emotional disquietude. For example, the satisfaction of appetites for food, drink, sex may give us less pleasure than we thought. So it isn’t rational to risk more important things like health in their pursuit, or to suffer from their absence. Likewise things we fear—humiliation, betrayal, pain, anxiety—may not be as bad as we thought. So it isn’t rational to undermine our lives paralyzed by fear.

The Proper Role of Emotions (or Passions)

So the goal isn’t to  reject EorP altogether, but to have a balanced emotional life. Think joy rather than pleasure, caution rather than fear, or reasonable hope rather than appetite. As for distress, we should reject it completely.

Therefore the Stoics oppose EorP that psychologically manipulate us, thereby undermining our reason and volition, not that we shouldn’t care about anything. Rather, you should act as a result of rational deliberation. Consider an analogy. We may want to run or lift weights, but don’t run down too steep of an incline or lift too much weight—that would be excessive.

It is hard to know where to draw the line between restrained and excessive EorP, but clearly we will live better when reason prevents us from being slaves to our passions. EorP should follow from, not lead, rational reflection. This seems like good advice.

Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person

Alain de Botton.jpg

Alain de Botton ( 1969 – ) penned an astute essay in the New York Times titled: “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” De Botton is a Swiss-born British author who co-founded The School of Life in 2008. His books discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy’s relevance to everyday life and offering sound practical advice. His published works include: On Love: A Novel, which has sold more than two million copies, and his newest book, The Course of Love. His other books include:

How Proust Can Change Your Life
The Consolations of Philosophy
The Architecture of Happiness
Status Anxiety
The Art of Travel
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Art as Therapy
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
How to Think More About Sex
The News: A User’s Manual
Essays In Love
A Week at the Airport

Now, why will you marry the wrong person? One reason is that we are all flawed. Were we more self-aware, the first question perspectives mates would ask each other is: “And how are you crazy?” We don’t recognize we’re all crazy because we often abandoned relationships before they get complicated or, if we live alone, we assume we’re easy to get along with. And our friends and family hesitate to tell us the truth about ourselves. Everyone is psychologically unhealthy to varying degrees. And typically people don’t spent enough time together before commiting to another person to know this.

Now for most of recorded history, people married for reasons of finance, religion, politics, convenience, or their marriages were otherwise arranged. Such marriages were often disastrous and today have been replaced in most of the world with the marriage of feeling or emotion. “What matters in the marriage of feeling is that two people are drawn to each other by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right.” And while we think we seek happiness in marriage, we often seek something we associated with childhood—like helping a parent or being deprived of their love. And we reject potential partners because they might be “too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable—given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign.”

Loneliness is another cause of choosing bad partners. If remaining single is unbearable, it isn’t surprising we choose poorly. We might choose anyone just to avoid the fate of remaining single. Another reason we choose poorly is that we want to make the feeling of falling in love seem permanent, but there is “no solid connection between these feelings and the institution of marriage.” For marriage isn’t about passionate love; it is about work and strife, money and children.

Yet the good news is that “it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person.” We don’t need to abandon our spouse, just the stupid idea of Romantic love—that some perfect person exists who will satisfy all our needs. Instead mature people recognize:

… that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us—and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

This “philosophy of pessimism … relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage.” That another person can’t save us from ourselves is not surprising, but should be expected. Still some people are better for us than others. Who are they?

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition. (My emphasis.)

Loving is about learning to be more forgiving of our own and others faults. Love isn’t something we fall into, but something we learn to do, as Erich Fromm wrote years ago.