Commentary by Okla Elliott
The following is the prologue to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, which I recommend very highly to any lover of philosophy, twentieth century history, and lively characters. Russell was one of the greatest minds the human species has produced, and he has been one of my heroes since my undergrad years. The following passage is some of the most powerful and accurate language I have had the pleasure of reading. When I first found it many years ago (as a student worker in the university library, where I occasionally read the books I was supposed to be shelving), I felt an immediate kinship with Russell. I have been rereading his work lately, along with the work of his student Wittgenstein, and came across the passage again. I find it strikes home even more today than years ago when I first encountered it.
What I Have Lived For
by Bertrand Russell
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.