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Bertrand Russell's Best by Bertrand Russell
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Bertrand Russell's Best (original 1958; edition 2009)

by Bertrand Russell, Robert Egner (Editor)

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Member:Waldstein
Title:Bertrand Russell's Best
Authors:Bertrand Russell
Other authors:Robert Egner (Editor)
Info:Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2009. 8vo. xvi+128 pp. Revised edition. Edited by Robert Egner. Preface by Bertrand Russell, 1970 [vi]. Preface by the editor, 1970 [vii-viii]. Introduction by Robert Egner, 1970 [ix-xiii].
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Bertrand Russell's Best by Bertrand Russell (1958)

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Bertrand Russell's Best

Edited by Robert Egner

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2009.

8vo. xvi+128 pp. Revised edition. Edited by Robert Egner. Preface by Bertrand Russell, 1970 [vi]. Preface by the editor, 1970 [vii-viii]. Introduction by Robert Egner, 1970 [ix-xiii].

First published thus, 1958.
Revised edition, 1970?
First published in Routledge Classics, 2009.

Contents

Preface by Bertrand Russell
Preface by the Editor
Introduction
Meaning of Symbols

1. Psychology
2. Religion
3. Sex and Marriage
4. Education
5. Politics
6. Ethics

Epilogue
Acknowledgments

===========================================

As a novice freshly hooked on Bertrand Russell, and one totally ignorant of philosophy at that, I thought books like The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell and Bertrand Russell's Best are the best way to start. The former was indeed a perfect introduction for it was that book which got me hooked on Lord Russell's exquisite prose and formidable intellect; but the latter was rather a mixed bag. Bertrand Russell's Best is a little book - quite unlike the mammoth Basic Writings - in which the editor, Prof. Robert Egner, collected what in his opinion are the wittiest passages from Lord Russell's voluminous and extraordinarily varied literary output. The selections range from a few lines to seldom more than a page in length and are nicely grouped thematically in six parts, but I cannot help feeling that they give a very warped view of Bertrand Russell; that Mr Egner frankly admitted almost as much in his general introduction doesn't make the treatment any more desirable. Of course these excerpts make a very enjoyable read, and I guess they are not so bad an introduction to Lord Russell's mind and matter, but my personal impression is of something fragmented and sketchy, not really serious and not nearly as powerful as a complete essay, speech, lecture or even chapter from a book by Bertrand Russell.

I have to say also that Mr Egner's editorial work is somewhat shaky. As is obvious from his Meaning of Symbols, he used the impressive 40 books, 6 articles and 2 speeches by Lord Russell for his selection, ranging in time from 1920 (The Theory and Practise of Bolshevism) until 1969 (Autobiography, vol. 3); they all are given initials which appear in brackets after each excerpt and indicate the source. Mr Egner's decision not to quote any page numbers because the books of Lord Russell exist in numerous different editions in highly commendable, but I wish he had taken the trouble to indicate at least the exact chapter or essay a quote was taken from. After all, for example, Unpopular Essays (1950) contains 12 rather different pieces and Power: A New Social Analysis (1938) consists of no fewer than 18 chapters; one would be hard pressed to locate a quote if given only the title. There are no such problems with the articles and the speeches, of course, but there is one strange duplication: Why I am not a Christian is to be found both among the books and among the speeches, the latter from 1957 and the former from 1927. Naturally, that's to be expected since this famous lecture was given and published as a pamphlet in 1927, but it is usually reprinted from Why I am not a Christian, and other essays on religion and related subjects, a volume first published in 1957, edited by Paul Edwards and containing 14 other pieces in addition. The odd thing in Bertrand Russell's Best is that both the pamphlet and the book have absolutely the same initials: WNC. Would you mind clarifying this a little bit, professor? How is the newcomer to Bertrand Russell to know where the quote he loves so much is to be found: in the original lecture or in any of the other 14 pieces selected by Mr Edwards 30 years later?

In additional to Mr Egner's less than excellent editorial work, he has supplied the book in general and every part of it in particular with short, muddled and prone to repetitions introductions. It is true that he is not exactly dull and his attempts to summarise Russell's views on a a given subject may occasionally surprise with an insightful touch here and there, but for the most part his writing is a mechanical rehash of Lord Russell's opinions, mixed with hero-worship and in greatly inferior style. It must be admitted, though, that Mr Egner's selection is expertly done; almost all of the excerpts are entirely self-sufficient and give no impression of unduly extracted from the context (though I guess somebody much better acquainted with Lord Russell's writings might effectively challenge this view). But, then again, no prose could possibly be more packed with epigrams, aphorisms, witticisms, in short more quote-friendly, than Lord Russell's. It is probably neither too laudatory nor too dismissive to suggest that whatever merits and faults Bertrand Russell's Best may have, they are due doubtlessly to Bertrand Russell and Robert Egner, respectively. But it is a tribute to both the author and the editor that few of these selections fail to bring a smile on my face, quite a few make me laugh and a number give me quite a pause for serious reflection.

Coming back to somewhat more trivial matters, Routledge should be reprimanded too, for their publication history is grossly incomplete. All it tells us is that Bertrand Russell's Best was first published in 1958 - which should have been fine had both Lord Russell and the editor not made it clear that there was a significantly revised edition later, not to mention that Mr Egner quotes a number of books first published after 1958; indeed, in his very short preface, Bertrand Russell himself mentions The Basic Writings which were first published in 1961. The mystery is largely solved by Mr Egner in his Preface by the Editor where he states that the aforementioned preface by Lord Russell was written for the first impression of ''this new and completely revised edition'' only a few weeks before the death of the great philosopher in his 98th year (February 2, 1970). So, apparently, this new edition of Bertrand Russell's Best was first published later in 1970, or perhaps early in 1971. In a way, the fact that this half page preface by Bertrand Russell was one of the very last things he wrote in his life attaches a singular poignancy to this otherwise somewhat indifferent selection of quotes. This is particularly true for his trade mark ''I should not wish to be thought in earnest only when I am solemn'' and also for his shrewd parallel between solemnity and humbug. Bertrand Russell finishes this little gem with the candid confession that he had not always been successful in fighting solemnity with the best weapon against it - which is wit.

But if there is anything which Bertrand Russell's Best makes crystal clear, this is the fact that Lord Russell's fascinating wit did dispel all solemnity far more often than not. His amazing command of English language makes even the shortest excerpts worth reading. Of course he is immensely opinionated, but I can't really understand why people so much object to this. Opinionated is an adjective that is usually used in a disapproving sense, or so the dictionary tells me, but for my part, if a person is not opinionated, he doesn't really believe in his opinions - how could I believe in them? It is quite another matter how this person defends his views, if at all, and one can't help noticing how often opinionated people are given to idle ranting that hardly makes any sense at all. Not so Bertrand Russell. He may often be harsh and occasionally downright brutal, but he always does his homework and backs up his views with an impressive battery of persuasive arguments. I should like to note, perhaps a tad contrary to the dictionary, that opinionated is something completely different than dogmatic; the former Lord Russell always was, I do not know that he ever succumb to the latter. He himself was the first to admit, and even boast, that he had changed his opinions on a number of subjects through the years.

I guess a book so full of witticisms may well render many a witty writer look like crashing bores. Not Bertrand Russell though. For his wit is not just delightful and delicious; it is never flippant and extremely serious too. Indeed, there is a great deal more here than mere amusement. Leaving aside his scope which is impressive even when confined to only six areas, Lord Russell's literary arsenal is truly impressive: sharp irony, devastating sarcasm, monumental understatement and, occasionally, chilling dystopian visions worthy of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) - and every bit as advanced for their time. Here are some personal favourites:

[Epigram à la Russell.]
Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.
[''The Impulse to Power'' from Power: A New Social Analysis, 1938; the former skipped by Prof. Egner, as always.]

[Wisdom à la Russell.]
There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.
[''Will Religious Fate Cure Our Troubles?'' from Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954.]

[Delicious (self-)irony à la Russell.]
Men who allow their love of power to give them a distorted view of the world are to be found in every asylum: one man will think he is the Governor of the Bank of England, another will think he is the King, and yet another will think he is God. Highly similar delusions, if expressed by educated men in obscure language, lead to profesorship of philosophy; and if expressed by emotional men in eloquent language, lead to dictatorship.
[''Power Philosophies'' from Power: A New Social Analysis, 1938.]

[Enchanting sarcasm à la Russell, regarding his imaginary death in Peking, 1921.]
I was told that the Chinese said that they would bury me by the Western Lake and build a shrine to my memory. I have some slight regret that this did not happen, as I might have become a god, which would have been very chic for an atheist.
[''China'' from Autobiography, vol. 2, 1968.]

[The social satirist, or caricaturist perhaps.]
I am persuaded that there is absolutely no limit to the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed. Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, the water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State. Of course, even when these beliefs had been generated, people would not put the kettle in the refrigerator when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted upon in daily life.
[''An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish'' from Unpopular Essays, 1950.]

[The witty raconteur.]
On one occasion a man came to ask me to recommend some of my books, as he was interested in philosophy. I did so, but he returned next day saying that he had been reading one of them, and he had found only one statement he could understand, and that one seemed to him false. I asked him what it was, and he said it was the statement that Julius Caesar was dead. When I asked him why he did not agree, he drew himself up and said 'Because I am Julius Caesar.'
[''An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish'' from Unpopular Essays, 1950.]

[The dystopian master.]
If, on the other hand, the old morality is to be re-established, certain things are essential; some of them are already done, but experience shows that these alone are not effective. The first essential is that the education of girls should be such as to make stupid, superstitious and ignorant; this requisite is already fulfilled in schools over which the churches have any control. The next requisite is a very severe censoreship upon all books giving information on sex subjects; this condition also is coming to be fulfilled in England and in America, since the censoreship, without change in the law, is being tightened up by the increasing zeal of the police. These conditions, however, since they exist already, are clearly insufficient. The only thing that will suffice is to remove from young women all opportunity of being alone with men: girls must be forbidden to earn their living by work outside the home; they must never be allowed an outing unless accompanied by their mother or an aunt; the regrettable practice of going to dances without a chaperone must be sternly stamped out. It must be illegal for an unmarried woman under fifty to possess a motor-car, and perhaps it would be wise to subject all unmarried women once a month to medical examination by police doctors, and to send to penitentiary all such as were found to be not virgins. The use of contraceptives must, of course, be eradicated, and it must be illegal in conversation with unmarried women to throw doubt upon the dogma of eternal damnation. These measures, if carried out vigorously for a hundred years or more, may perhaps do something to stem the rising tide of immorality. I think, however, that in order to avoid the risk of certain abuses, it would be necessary that all policemen and all medical men should be castrated. Perhaps it would be wise to carry this policy a step farther, in view of the inherent depravity of the male character. I am inclined to think that moralists would be well advised to advocate that all men should be castrated, with the exception of ministers of religion.
[''The Liberation of Women'' from Marriage and Morals, 1929.]

All the same, Bertrand Russell's Best is not a book I can honestly recommend to any newly converted Russell enthusiast. Nor can I imagine what a seasoned Russell admirer would do with it. A charming trifle to dip into when you have much too little time to read something longer but hardly anything more. Such considerations and certain sloppiness of the editorial work aside, the selections of Mr Egner - pleasant, amusing, stirring and thought-provoking though they are - give at best a very rough idea of Lord Russell's compelling personality and powerful mind, not to mention the truly mind-boggling diversity of his interests. Surely, this is a man who deserves much more than 100 pages of witticisms; 700 pages of essays, book chapters, lectures and other complete pieces is more like it. That's why The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell - incidentally, also edited by Prof. Egner but in collaboration with Lester Denonn - is a perfect introduction to this amazing man. Bertrand Russell's Best is not. But it is a great fun to read, and it does whet your appetite to devour the complete Marriage and Morals (1929), Unpopular Essays (1950), Portraits from Memory (1956) and so many others. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Sep 9, 2010 |
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This collection showcases the very best of Russell's writings on an impressively diverse range of subjects. From sex and marriage, to education and politics, this is a delightfully funny introduction to one of the 20th century's greatest thinkers.

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