Dear Bertrand Russell, 1969
[Chapter 3] Youth and Old Age: Foreword
'I consider old age a time to struggle for human decency-- like any other.'Having lived the first twenty-eight years of his life in the nineteenth century, Bertrand Russell rightly claimed 'I may, and f indeed must, reckon myself a Victorian'. Despite reading his own obituary in 1921 when it was believed he had expired on a visit to China, and penning another himself which forecast his demise for 1962, he continued, until his ninety-eighth year, to impress his presence on the world.
One of the most remarkable facets of his life was his affinity with young people, whose admiration was more ardent the older he became. In 1961, when he addressed students at the London School of Economics, where he had lectured the previous century, he was able to remark that at a similar meeting held twenty-five years previously the Chairman was already then referring to him as a Victorian fossil.
Russell was always conscious that what he had to say is to be I considered and judged by future generations. 'The young are aware, however remotely, that their elders would have them all exterminated,' he avers. 'The rebellion of the young is entirely understandable, and not one iota as irresponsible as the established practices of the old. Denunciation of the young is a form of excitement suitable to old age and, we may judge, not nearly as satisfying as that which it condemns.'
To the youth Russell was cast in the mould of a Prometheus. He passionately opposed authority, convention and dogma-those respectable ideas which are barriers to human achievement, the ossification of human curiosity and death to the open mind. 'What is important,' he implored the young, 'is that you preserve , that burning desire to question and challenge accepted views which is so frightening to the established and so necessary to anything creative or new.' And when the Promethean was threatened by the gods : 'TO defy the stupid, to oppose the malicious is no easy thing. . . . Be isolated, be ignored, be attacked, be in doubt, be frightened but do not be silenced.' It is no wonder that Russell was such a potent symbol for today's youth, but he was also an inspiration to the aged, challenging the time-honoured image of old age, retirement and decay. 'One's thoughts must be directed to the future and to things about which there is something to be done,' he wrote in Portraits from Memory(1956), and 'I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do, and content that what was possible has been done.'
Russell was concerned to change people's ideas so that they advance their thoughts and actions from the selfish to the social. He saw no dichotomy between youth and age except in those terms and believed that 'A successful old age is easiest for those who have strong impersonal interests involving appropriate activities'. As far as fear of death is concerned, 'the best way to overcome it-so at least it seems to me- is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life'.
Bertrand Russell liked to think of himself as a late survival of a dying age; he outlived all his contemporaries. Nonetheless, he saw humour in this situation, and in a letter to his publisher (Sir Stanley Unwin) *1 refuses to take himself too seriously: '. . . I enclose herewith a postscript to my autobiography as I failed to die when I finished it. If 1 Iive to be a hundred. I will send you another. '
*1 Who died in October 1968 at the age ot 83.