Friday, November 30, 2012

Sublime Knowledge: Bertrand Russell and the Intellectual as Hero

I find myself compelled, from time to time, to gorge myself on the work of a particular writer, for reasons that often remain opaque to me until much later. For the last month or so I've been tearing through the works of Bertrand Russell — philosophical essays, memoirs, polemics, and even a little of his work on mathematics. I think, now that I'm coming to the end of this fit of Russellmania, that the whole thing has been a powered by an unconscious need to provide some kind of counter-weight to my other reading for the month, a series of investigations into Gnosticism, undertaken in preparation for the panel on American Gnostic poetics on which I'll be speaking at the Louisville conference this coming February. What better way to clear one's mind of the eight heavens, the archons, and the emanations of early Christian heresy than by turning to Russell, the village atheist to end all village atheists? 

Russell's atheism, though, turns out to be the least interesting thing about him. Much more fascinating, at least to me, is his notion of the intellectual. For Russell, the intellectual isn't just a heroic figure, he's something grander altogether: he's sublime. And not just sublime in some general sense of being grand. The intellectual is sublime in the Kantian sense of that word.

For Kant, objects themselves are never truly sublime.  Rather, it is the effect of certain kinds of objects on us, on our consciousness, that is truly sublime, though we tend to attribute the quality of the sublime to the objects themselves.  "Volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation, the boundless ocean in a state of tumult," says Kant, are things "we willingly call... sublime," but this is only because of their effects, because "they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance... which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."  That is, we look at these terrifying things and, provided we are not reduced to sheer terror, we feel not only their grandeur and fearfulness, but also our own capacity to stand in their presence, afraid but not merely reduced to fear.  We feel their grandeur, but also the capacity of our own little light to withstand their mighty winds and not be blown out.  And it's our awareness of that capacity in ourselves that is truly sublime.  "In this way nature is not judged to be sublime in our aesthetical judgments insofar as it excites fear," says Kant, "but because it calls up that power in us... of regarding as small the things about which we are solicitous (goods, health, and life), and of regarding its might... as without dominion over us..." This is why, according to Kant, so many people from so many different kinds of societies have a certain kind of respect for soldiers, those people who put self-preservation aside and, quite often willingly, put themselves up against overwhelming force. "What is that which is, even to the savage, an object of the greatest admiration?" asks Kant. "It is a man who shrinks from nothing, who fears nothing, and therefore does not yield to danger, but rather goes to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation. Even in the most highly civilised state this peculiar veneration for the soldier remains..."

When we look at Bertrand Russell's depictions of what it means to be an intellectual, we see something remarkably like the Kantian sublime at work.  Often, this takes the form of a historical panorama in which an intellectually advanced cohort resists an overwhelming barbarism, brave despite the overwhelming odds of defeat.  Here, for example, he describes his earliest sense of intellectual heroism in the communities of Greeks left behind in what is now Afghanistan in the wake of Alexander's conquests:

Already in youth I felt an interest, which has remained with me, in solitary outposts of civilization, and men or groups who were isolated in an alien world.  I did not then have the knowledge I have since acquired about such matters but I already wished to have it.  This interest led me in later years to read about the Bactrian Greeks, separated from the mother country by deserts and alien monarchies, gradually losing their Hellenism, and finally subdued by less civilized neighbors, but passing on as they faded away some part of the cultural heritage of Greece in the Buddhist sculpture they inspired.
Here, in a passage about Ireland during a time of barbarian invasion, we get an even stronger sense of the preservation of a small, flickering flame of intellectual achievement in an ominous and darkening world:
I contemplated with vivid interest the civilization of Ireland that was destroyed by the Danes.  This civilization, which was created by refugees of from the barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, kept alive in one corner of the extreme West the knowledge of Greek language and Greek philosophy, which elsewhere in the West had become extinct; and when at last the Danes began their destructive inroads France was ready to accept the heritage at the hands of John the Scot.
Or, to take things from the panoramic to the more personal, here is Russell on the meeting of Christian missionaries in pagan Germany:

I liked to think of St. Boniface and St. Virgilius, two holy men engaged in the endeavor to convert the Germans, meeting in the depth of the Teutonic forest, glad for a moment of each others' society but quarreling desperately on the question of whether there are inhabited worlds other than our own.

Against all those dark forests, the mind shines a small but indomitable light — that's the stuff of sublimity.  And it's what led Russell to form a belief in an enduring tradition of the life of the mind, in, as he put it, "the indestructibility of certain things which I valued above all others, the things which make up our cultural heritage, and which have as yet persisted through all the various disasters from the time when Minoan civilization was destroyed until our own day."  A "gradually increasing power of intellect and knowledge" persists, sometimes falters, but never dies, due to the efforts of heroic individuals and embattled minorities — that's Russell's position.  

When we consider Russell's own intellectual formation, it becomes clear that this sense of the sublimity of the intellectual is tied to another strain in Russell's thinking: his yearning for certainty.  Russell's first career, before he became a public intellectual, was as a kind of hybrid logician-mathematician.  He gave himself a Quixotic task: to put mathematics on logically solid foundations, without any reliance on intuition.  For most of us non-mathematicians, it probably comes as a surprise to know that there is a strong element of intuitive thinking in mathematics, but there is.  Consider geometry (the field that first inspired the young Russell).  In classical, Euclidian geometry, many of the basic axioms from which all else derives are not actually proven, but rather taken as intuitively true, in a "we hold these truths to be self-evident" kind of way.  For example, Euclid tells us that if we draw a line, and then mark a point outside that line, there's only one line we could draw through that point that will be parallel to the first line.  Euclid doesn't prove this, he just takes it as true because it is intuitively correct — it's hard to envision how it could possibly be wrong.  That was good enough for Euclid, and for a great many mathematicians and logicians of Russell's youth — Henri PoincarĂ©, for example, argued for an intuitive basis for mathematics;But it wasn't good enough for Russell, who spent many agonizing years working on the Principia Mathematica in an attempt to prove, with complete logical certainty, the basis of mathematics.  The attempt alienated him from his field, from his wife, and quite frequently from his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead.  But despite the overwhelming odds against him, the project did not reduce Russell to despair.  His was a sublime, and lonely, intellectual heroism during the long years of his formation, and this was certain to have an effect on his conception of the intellectual's particular virtues.

In a strange way, this desire for certainty that underlay Russell's notion of the intellectual as sublime all comes back to his status as the village atheist, the author of Why I am Not a Christian and similar tracts.  The desire for certainty, after all, comes from somewhere, and in Russell's case it came from his early loss of faith.  Since Russell lived so long, and kept his wits sharp until the very end, it's easy to forget that he was very much a Victorian.  Born in 1872, he was almost thirty when the old queen died.  What is more, after the early death of his parents he was raised in a regime of rules and devotions created and enforced by his grandmother Countess Russell, a high Victorian virago if ever one trod the earth.  She insisted upon the worship of a terrifying, vengeful God of the fork-bearded paternal punisher type — and when the very young Russell lost his faith in this monster, he was left with the kind of void only a Victorian could have.  Matthew Arnold plugged the hole with culture, but young Russell plugged it with geometry, which seemed to him to offer the very kind of absolute certainty he'd lost when he cast his grandmother's god out of the sky.  So, in a roundabout way, the sublime intellectual, defiant against an enormous, encroaching darkness, was born when Countess Russell's God died.