But He’s the Brother of an Earl!

This is just a bit of light relief. I’ve been collecting Bertrand Russell anecdotes (for a possible future web project). Here are two.

The first is famous, and as far as I can tell – courtesy of Twitter – it was first cited in Robert Skidelsky’s book, English Progressive Schools. It concerns Beacon Hill School, a progressive school that Russell founded with his second wife, Nora, in 1927.

“Rumors were rife of godless orgies. When a pastor visited Beacon Hill, a naked teenage girl was supposed to have answered the door. “Good God”, gasped the astonished cleric. “There is no God,” she replied, slamming the door in his face.”

The second is less well known, and appears in Russell’s autobiography (pp. 240-41, pub. Routledge). The context is a meeting that Russell attended towards the end of the First World War that was stormed by an angry mob convinced it was full of enemy collaborators.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so that they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused point-blank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everybody had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken viragos began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested that they should defend me. The police, however, merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an earl’, she finally cried. At this, the police rushed to my assistance.

If you know any other Russell anecdotes, or indeed, similar anecdotes involving other philosophers, feel free to tell us about them in the comments.

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11 Comments.

  1. Odd that Lord Bertie should have used ‘virago’ to describe men as it means a warrior like woman in its most positive sense. Think of the Virago Press. Generally though it is applied to the termagant and scold.

    It is said that Lady Ottoline Morell was forced to discard him as a lover such was his halitosis but was too embarrassed to tell him.
    – Dahling we must part. No don’t come any closer.

    One thinks of England, you know.

  2. Dennis Sceviour

    @michael reidy,
    As I interpret the quotation, the mob was composed of women followed by drunken police. That is, the viragos were women and not men.

  3. Dennis:
    You’re probably right. As I was reading it, first they were viragos and then they were roughs who didn’t want to assault women. So there were viragos and roughs. Would viragos be unwilling to assault women? Possibly not. Roughs might assault women related to them by marriage but probably not otherwise. Nobody it seems would lay a finger on earlblood.

    It’s an interesting question whether when war is proposed being against it is moral but war having been declared and your country is under actual attack, the moral weight is on the side of self-defence.

  4. Jeez, these stories sound even more painfully apocryphal than usual. They are perfectly expectable stories for graduate students to tell one another. I’ve heard these, and similar ones, and they’re just complete bull****. But, seriously, you need not have heard them before to determine that. You’ve found people who actually believe these? There is approximately zero chance that either of these happened even roughly as described.

  5. Russell was attending a meeting of the No-Conscription Fellowship. A mob broke into the meeting, composed of thuggish men (the roughs) and women (the viragos), urged on by some soldiers, (the officers). The police arrived but were reluctant to protect pacifists until they were told there was a member of the aristocracy among them.

    No reason to think it isn’t true, more or less.

  6. @mja – The first story sounds apocryphal, and is often cited precisely as evidence of the kinds of rumors the school provoked.

    The second story is almost certainly more or less true. It comes straight from Russell himself, and there’s a lot of supporting detail in his autobiography.

  7. I think the lesson here is if you’re not a police man or an earl, then know someone who is.

  8. The earl in question was Bertrand’s brother Frank, the first man in Britain to obtain a driver’s licence. He was also famous for indulging in bigamy, for which he was tried by the House of Lords. Frank was a very close friend of another philosopher, George Santayana, who devotes a major part of his autobiography to him. Santayana introduced Bertrand to the family of his first wife.

  9. Another Russell anecdote: Bertrand was the only person in history to lecture to both TS Eliot and to Mao Tse-Tung. Eliot attended Russell’s sabbatical lectures at Harvard and Mao one of his public lectures in China.

  10. One from Gilbert Ryle:

    A good many years ago, I happened to be sitting with Earl Russell in the restaurant-car of a train to North Wales. Somehow our conversation turned to John Locke and I put to Russell this very question, perhaps with some hyperbole: ‘Why is it that, although nearly every youthful student of philosophy both can and does in about his second essay refute Locke’s entire Theory of Knowledge, yet Locke made a bigger difference to the whole intellectual climate of mankind than anyone had done since Aristotle?’ Russell agreed that the facts were so, and suggested, on the spur of the moment, an answer which dissatisfied me. He said, ‘Locke was the spokesman of Com­mon Sense.’ Almost without thinking I retorted impatiently, ‘I think Locke invented Common Sense.’ To which Russell rejoined ‘By God, Ryle, I believe you are right. No one ever had Common Sense before John Locke—and no one but Englishmen have ever had it since.

    from Ryle’s ‘Critical Essays: Collected Papers Volume 1′

  11. Asked to write a recommendation for a book by C.E.M. “it depends what you mean by…” Joad, Russell replied: “Modesty forbids”.

    A.S. Neill, interviewed by Terry Philpot, Russell: The Journal of the Bertrand Russell Archives, Winter 1985–86, pp.147

    http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1501&context=russelljournal

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