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Earl Bertrand Russell – birth anniversary

The 138th birth anniversary of Earl Bertrand Russell falls on May 18. I presume, one can count on one’s fingers the number of personages in the known history of mankind as multi-faceted as Bertrand Russell. The impact he has left on the thinking of mankind is equally impressive, considering the number of books he has authored and the number of lectures he has delivered on such a diversity themes.

He has been described as a rationalist, philosopher, mathematician, logician, historian, social critic and pacifist.

Talking of Russell’s books, numbering exactly 189, quite a few of them are deemed monumental. The 3-volume ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1910), for example, has been described as an attempt ‘to ground mathematics on logic’. ‘History of Western Philosophy’ (1945) and ‘Social Democracy’ (1896) are world class masterpieces. Space constraints prevent me from enumerating at least a few of them with their significance.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born to an aristocratic family in Monmouthshire, Wales, as the youngest of 3 boys, on May 18, 1872, and died on February 2, 1970, at the ripe old age of 97 years. He was educated at the Trinity College, Cambridge.

He served as a teacher at Universities of Chicago, California, Beijing and City College of New York, not to mention London School of Economics, which was popular among the Sri Lankans at the time. When he was appointed Professor, City College of New York in 1940, there was a heavy public outcry that a man with such thinking as manifested in his ‘Marriage and Morals’ (1920) was not fit to be a teacher. So much so that the College authorities terminated his services soon.

In this connection, it is worth mentioning that Russell married 4 times, 4th time in 1952 at the age of 80. Some have suggested that he had had a clandestine relationship with the wife of the renowned English poet, playwright and literary critic, T. S. Eliot, and we are inclined to surmise that there could not have been a smoke without a fire!

In his 3-part autobiography, published in 1969, Russell wrote that there were 3 factors that preoccupied his mind, one being ‘the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’. His life activities amply demonstrate how this sentiment acted as a motivating force in his life. His anti-war campaign during WW I saw him imprisoned for 6 months in 1918. His sustained crusade against the American military involvement in Vietnam earned him the wrath of the US imperialists. His drive for nuclear disarmament is equally well known.

Russell visited Russia in 1920 and met Vladimir Lenin with whom, however, he was neither pleased nor impressed. Let it be noted, too, that Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was his friend.

Despite the great aggressive hostility that Russell had to put up with during his lifetime, his greatness did not go unnoticed either. He was awarded Order of Merit in 1949. He won the Nobel Prize for literature the following year, not to mention a few other similar honours.

This brief account should explain why we, of the Sri Lanka Rationalist Association, chose May 18 to be declared ‘Rationalists’ Day’. In order to mark the event, we have organized a public meeting on this day to be held at 4pm at Namel-Malini Punchi Theatre, Borella. All are welcome.


Dharmapala Senaratne,
President – Sri Lanka Rationalist Association

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