Bertrand Russell’s Last Manuscript

The history of Russell’s last manuscript is fascinating. This excerpt from the Independent tells the story:

Unlike most of Russell’s papers, it [his last manuscript] did not go to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, when the Russell Archives were set up in 1968. Nor did it go with the residue of Russell’s papers, now known as the ‘Second Russell Archives’, when that was sent on to McMaster after Russell’s death. Kenneth Blackwell, the Russell archivist who is generally taken by scholars in the field to be omniscient on the subject, did not even know that this manuscript existed until he saw a copy of Life of Bertrand Russell in Pictures and His Own Words, a book of photographs published to mark Russell’s centenary in 1972.

One of the pictures was of Russell’s study at Plas Penrhyn, his home in north Wales. It showed his desk set out as if ready for him to begin work, with his pen, some books, some unanswered correspondence, and a manuscript. This last, Blackwell noticed, was dated 1967 and … was not a manuscript he had seen before … He asked Russell’s widow about it, and in 1977, a year before she died, Edith handed it over to the archives. [Yet the manuscript was not made public until 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the opening of the archives.] 

The Context of the Final Manuscript

In the manuscript, which is simply titled “1967”, Russell asked whether he believed, in retrospect, that his life had had a purpose. Russell had made other attempts to sum up his life and its importance, first in his great essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” and later in the prologue to his autobiography, which many consider one of the finest pieces of short prose ever written. But in his final years, he became increasingly focused on the existential threat of nuclear weapons and began to judge his life in terms of his efforts to lessen this threat. Russell was one of the most visible opponents of nuclear weapons, and along with Einstein signed what came to be known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto condemning nuclear weapons.

Another point to remember is that at that time this short manuscript was penned Russell was 95 years old, and rumored to be senile or at least no longer capable of coherent writing. The hand-written page proved otherwise, displaying a lucidity of style that eludes most writers at their peak.

The Last Manuscript

Russell’s final words began: “The time has come to review my life as a whole, and to ask whether it has served any useful purpose or has been wholly concerned in futility. Unfortunately, no answer is possible for anyone who does not know the future.” After so many years of study, an answer to the most important question we can ask was not forthcoming. Yet a glimmer of optimism remained. Some of the last sentences ever written by one of Western civilizations’ great writers and philosophers looked to the future.

Consider for a moment what our planet is and what it might be. At present, for most, there is toil and hunger, constant danger, more hatred than love. There could be a happy world, where co-operation was more in evidence than competition, and monotonous work is done by machines, where what is lovely in nature is not destroyed to make room for hideous machines whose sole business is to kill, and where to promote joy is more respected than to produce mountains of corpses. Do not say this is impossible: it is not. It waits only for men to desire it more than the infliction of torture.

There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.

Reflections – Clearly by the end of his life Russell identified with humanity at large; he wanted to transcend the limitations of his ego. He wished for both world peace and to escape the loneliness which we all endure. “Letting the artist loose” is thus a way to preserve the world and overcome our fear of individual death.

Finally, in the above video, here is an almost 90-year-old Russell, one of my intellectual heroes, answering a question about what lessons he would leave to future generations.

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6 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell’s Last Manuscript

  1. virtually anything he writes is beautiful. (with the exception of his logic and mathematics which is inaccessible to all but experts.)

  2. “(with the exception of his logic and mathematics which is inaccessible to all but experts.)”

    Yes, that’s deadly territory for most people, I imagine. One of the innumerable things I found striking in his autobiography is when he thought that “he could no longer write anything again about logic” after Wittgenstein said it was a tautology.

    Another one, when he wrote that he was devastated by his discovery of God and religion being merely a dogma. And what about when he tells of a colleague who wrote his own philosophical treatise for a year, and then forgot it on the bus, and had no choice but to start over, but never happened because he then died?

    Wow. What an interesting book. I wish I had found these gems at least 15 years earlier.

  3. Actually, right before Bertrand Russell’s death he said, ‘there is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.’

  4. The quote is from Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, vol. 2 [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968] 159). Probably written a few years before his death.

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