An outstanding conclusion to the story begun in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872–1921 (1996): the tragedy of a brilliant but flawed thinker who mistreated the humans closest to him while promoting humanity in the abstract.
Monk is an exceptional biographer of philosophers, able to interweave clear analysis of abstruse notions with compelling personal narrative. Here he takes Russell from first-time fatherhood at age 49 to death at 97. Celebrated for his earlier work on logic and the philosophy of mathematics, Russell enters these pages fallen from intellectual grace because he abandoned academia for a more lucrative career as a freelance writer and lecturer on social and political topics about which he has no special expertise. Self-confessedly “past his best” at logic, he enjoyed the money and notoriety he got as an advocate of atheism, adultery, socialism, and “scientific” education. Not only is much of this work, in Monk’s view, “sloppy and ill-considered,” it fails dismally in practice, as Russell and his second wife free-love their way into a nasty divorce and their self-started progressive school leaves his son with emotional scars. In the US during the 1930s and ’40s, and back in England afterward, Russell keeps getting more famous: he returns to academic philosophy; becomes a “cause célèbre of . . . academic freedom”; wins the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature; emerges as a champion of nuclear disarmament and, half-wittingly, of Che Guevara. The darker private story concerns Russell’s solipsistic disregard for others and his well-founded fear of the family strain of madness. The result: a “long trail of emotional wreckage” including three divorces, an insane son, and two insane granddaughters. Ironically, his daughter Kate achieves happiness when she defies her father and converts to Christianity.
Monk’s generally negative portrait may alienate the great man’s devotees, but it’s the product of meticulous research and balanced by the biographer’s esteem for a great intellect and outsized personality. (illustrations not seen)