Mysticism Versus The Will To Succeed


I’ve been reading a lot of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) recently, prepping for a class on his philosophy I’m planning to teach next year. In this passage from one of his thousands of letters to Ottoline Morrell (his closest confidant and intermittent lover), Russell, a pioneer of symbolic logic and analytic philosophy, reveals his concern with a conundrum that would be familiar to a student of Zen Buddhism-

The rare moments of mystic insight that I have had have been when I was free from the will to succeed. But they have brought a new kind of success, which I have at once noticed & wanted & so my will has drifted back into the old ways. And I don’t believe I should do anything worth doing without that sort of will. It is very tangled.

(As quoted in Ray Monk’s excellent biography, Bertrand Russell – The Spirit of Solitude, p. 476)

In Russell’s case, it seems that although he found mysticism very seductive (as many intellectuals did a century ago), associating it with high art, expansive emotions, intuitions of subject-object unity, and the deepest sorts of intimate relationships, his hyper-rationality blocked any attempts to explore it very seriously – unlike, for a time, his student Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s debatable, I suppose, whether this was for the best (for him, and for his philosophy).

More publicly, Russell was extremely taken with the China he found in 1920, where he’d been invited to spend a year lecturing. Disgusted by the mechanized slaughter of World War I and by the “disease in our Western mentality” that, on a visit to Russia a few months earlier, he’d found the Bolsheviks were “attempting to force upon an essentially Asiatic population”, he seemed to think that the West had much to learn from the still pre-industrial East-

The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilisation… Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilisation is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

(The Problem of China, pp. 17-18)

No doubt he would have been troubled to see today’s China’s ever-accelerating emulation of Europe and North America – its embrace of authoritarian Capitalism. But what’s more striking to me, in terms of intellectual history, is just how closely Russell’s 1920 views foreshadowed, both socially and politically, those of the 1960s “New Left”, to which (at the age of 94!) he contributed by forming the so-called “Russell-Sartre Tribunal” that found the United States guilty of war crimes in Vietnam.