Book Review: The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell

The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. It is a shame that his is not a household name, nor nearly as readily recognizable to the average layman as are those numerous lesser thinkers like Freud. That is an oversight, however, that is still correctable, at this short distance in time from the end of Russell’s remarkable life. And this book, a sort of “best of” of Russell’s long career, is a wonderful place to begin that corrective.

Herein are some of Russell’s best essays and chapters on every topic he wrote upon, among which are nearly every topic available for men to discuss. There are, among others, selections from his writings on mathematics, on philosophy, on religion, on politics, and on science. Each of them contains his characteristic British wit and humane wisdom.

When Russell is at his best, he is absolutely brilliant. When he falls short, however, he falls short. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming that Russell had, and one that runs throughout the entire length and breadth of his works, is his consistent inability to see that he himself was a proponent of the very philosophies which led to the calamitous events of World War I and the subsequent degradation of Western Civilization, events he identifies correctly as the great catastrophes that launched us into the current age. It is disappointing that Russell never realized this, and it certainly would have tied up the numerous loose ends and self-contradictions within his worldview had he done so.

He was, nevertheless, a genius of great magnitude and this, his collected greatest hits, is a perfect place to begin to delve the depths of that genius.

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One comment

  1. “It is a shame that his is not a household name, nor nearly as readily recognizable to the average layman as are those numerous lesser thinkers like Freud.” This made me think of a passage in John Lukacs’ At the End of an Age in which he writes about how peculiar it is that we still tend to idolize Freud, Marx, and Darwin–who all lived over a century ago–while ignoring the conributions of more recent thinkers. He holds it out as evidence of a general degradation in our intellectual culture, causing us to look back to a bygone age because things are winding down in the present. I’m not sure if I totally agree, but I do believe that Freud is a tad overrated.

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