by John Holbo on August 15, 2006

Which famous philosopher was accused of being all of the following (answer under the fold):

lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fibre.

Bertrand Russell! At the age of 68! (We really need a photoshop contest. A bottle of Logic perfume, and a soft-focus, crane-like come-hither Bertrand in the background.)

The accuser was Joseph Goldstein, lawyer for Mrs. Jean Kay, who was concerned to prevent Russell from taking up a teaching position at City College, New York, in 1940. The campaign to prevent the corruption of youth was a terrific success. Russell was prevented.

I just got the quote from Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction.



harry b 08.15.06 at 9:43 am

It doesn’t, though, sound like a wholly inaccurate assessment. Most of those adjectives seem to apply to him pretty well.


SamChevre 08.15.06 at 9:47 am

I guessed Socrates.


engels 08.15.06 at 9:53 am

Harry, I think leaving open the possibility that the last three might be fair, if that’s what you intended, would not be nice at all, even by internet standards.


Adam Kotsko 08.15.06 at 9:59 am

I think that “bereft of moral fibre” needs to make a comeback.


rich 08.15.06 at 10:10 am

There’s a good (and quite sarcastic) account of the campaign in the version of Why I Am Not A Christian I have. The judge made a number of similar remarks.


Anderson 08.15.06 at 10:10 am

Harry is indeed correct: the list fits quite well, with the possible exception of the last item (“bereft” is rather strong).


engels 08.15.06 at 10:15 am

Anderson is indeed wrong…


JR 08.15.06 at 10:55 am

My father was a student at City when this happened. It was a cause celebre on campus, as you can imagine. The plaintiff, Mrs Jean Kay, contended that Russell might corrupt her daughter, who had never applied to attend City and could not have attended anyway – it was all-male at the time (women – like my mother – attended Hunter, which was all-female).

As my father told it, the City students were tremendously excited to have a professor of his caliber and very bitter that he was not permitted to teach.


pedro 08.15.06 at 10:59 am

Narrow-minded? Untruthful? Sad to see anderson endorse the venom.


Tata 08.15.06 at 11:00 am

I guessed Benjamin Franklin. Though he would seldom have guessed *me.*


Ted 08.15.06 at 11:08 am

I guessed me, but then I realized that I’m not famous.


Alison 08.15.06 at 11:16 am

I bet AJ Ayer was, too


blah 08.15.06 at 12:14 pm

My guess was Immanuel Kant.


sglover 08.15.06 at 12:38 pm

I guessed Voltaire, though he wasn’t really a philosopher in the modern sense. I’m embarrassed by rich’s comment, because years ago I enjoyed that very same account, and I don’t know how I forgot it.

Interesting to see some Russell-bashing pipsqueaks here…..


harry b 08.15.06 at 12:53 pm

Read a biography of him. Or his autobiography, for that matter. He was a shit. One of our shits, maybe. But a shit all the same (esp where women were concerned).

A bloody good philosopher. Great, maybe. Right about many things, including a good deal in politics. But the quote is about his character. A deeply unadmirable man. (Untruthful is indeed unfair, though, on reflection).


Anderson 08.15.06 at 2:19 pm

Read a biography of him. Or his autobiography, for that matter. He was a shit. One of our shits, maybe. But a shit all the same (esp where women were concerned).

Um, right. I have no idea where the rest of you are coming from, but Russell’s personal life was scarcely immaculate. I suppose “narrow-minded” and “untruthful” are causing the disagreement?

But perhaps Russell’s admirers should identify which adjectives they dispute?


roger 08.15.06 at 2:42 pm

Pretty much the same bill of goods was pressed against Socrates. Herodicas of Babylon, in “Reply to the Partisans of Socrates” claimed that Socrates, one night, drunk, challenged one of his critics, Critobolus, who kept saying Socrates was the ugliest man in Athens, to a nude beauty contest to be decided by a bunch of dancing girls, and the winner to be “rewarded with an embrace from one of these umpires.” As it happens, Socrates won, and took more than an embrace from more than one dancing girl.

Of course, Herodicus could have been simply retailing gossip. Interestingly, like Socrates, Russell was considered extraordinarily ugly — but I don’t think there is any record of him participating in a drunken nude beauty contest.


Philip Brooks 08.15.06 at 2:51 pm

The first 4 are hardly very insulting, coming as they are from a social conservative in 1940, but I think the 5th is a bit excessive. The 6th is surprising in a 68-year-old man, and he ought to have been quite proud of himself for it. The 7th is generally a commendable attribute.

It’s mostly the last three that strike me as unfair. Russell was open-minded enough to see the value of Frege’s work and bring it to a wider audience, and appreciate Wittgenstein’s philosophical talent despite their very different approaches. Heck, despite being an atheist he worked closely with a prominent theist for years to write his magnum opus. I don’t know of any evidence that Russell was much of a liar, and to call someone who campaigned tirelessly for such moral goods as peace and human and civil rights “bereft of moral fiber” is just silly.


engels 08.15.06 at 5:23 pm

It’s not just the moral causes which Russell stood for which are important, it’s the personal sacrifices he made. Russell lost his jobs at Cambridge and New York because of his convictions and also served time in prison, the first time, in 1918, for six months, because of his opposition to the First World War and the last time, because of his part in anti-nuclear protests, at the age of 88. For anyone who hasn’t made similar sacrifices to describe him as “bereft of moral fibre” is just crass.


engels 08.15.06 at 5:50 pm

As for being “narrow minded”, Russell supported women’s suffrage, contraception and what were for his time liberal attitudes to sex long before it was acceptable to do so. And whatever you think of Russell’s private life, it was not that of a narrow minded man.

I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind for “untruthful”, but as an overall judgment, it can not be consistent with being one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, which Russell was. As Ayer said

Bertrand Russell would not have wished to be called a saint of any description; but he was a great and good man.


don freeman 08.15.06 at 6:19 pm

I forget who said it, and I don’t have it exactly, but Russell was a man who loved humanity but hated humans.


engels 08.15.06 at 6:24 pm

DH Lawrence


engels 08.15.06 at 6:59 pm

You are too full of devilish repressions to be anything but lustful and cruel. I would rather have the German soldiers with rapine and cruelty, that you with your words of goodness… It is not the hatred of falsity which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood. It is a perverted mental blood lust. Why don’t you own it.

(From a letter from Lawrence to Russell quoted in Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921, p. 426)


Bill McNeill 08.15.06 at 6:59 pm

I guessed Russell, but only by gaming the below-the-jump convention and trying to come up with the least likely person that description could apply to.


josh 08.15.06 at 8:07 pm

One gets the feeling that being friends with D.H. Lawrence wasn’t great fun …


pedro 08.15.06 at 8:18 pm

Okay, so let us read the Russell-bashers (it really is quite shocking to read someone as thoughtful as harry b. call him a shit) substantiate each of the last three charges.


vivian 08.15.06 at 8:27 pm

Indeed. My sense is that Russell tried and failed to match his feelings/actions to his beliefs (esp regarding open marriage, but also e.g. his brief fling with preemptive nuclear war). That’s human, and getting blindsided by one’s own fear and petty jealousy makes humans act like real jerks. But DH Lawrence seems like an uncomplicated jerk through and through.

Roger – cool Socrates anecdote.


vivian 08.15.06 at 8:28 pm

(er, I was Indeed’ing Josh, not Pedro)


Anon 08.15.06 at 10:17 pm

Which famous philosopher was accused of being all of the following

lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fibre.

Which famous philosopher wasn’t!



Richard Bellamy 08.15.06 at 10:54 pm

Evidence of Bertrand Russell’s untruthfulness, if that is what is sought:

“I am looking forward very much to getting back to Cambridge, and being able to say what I think and not to mean what I say: two things which at home are impossible. Cambridge is one of the few places where one can talk unlimited nonsense and generalities without anyone pulling one up or confronting one with them when one says just the opposite the next day.”



T. Scrivener 08.15.06 at 11:25 pm

I guessed Russell in a moment and even guessed that it was in relation to that trial. Ha! Who can match my incredible grasp of slander and libel.

By the way, a question for all you legal types, can what a judge says on the bench and writes in his or her decision ever count as slander or libel?


Jonathan Edelstein 08.16.06 at 1:11 am

By the way, a question for all you legal types, can what a judge says on the bench and writes in his or her decision ever count as slander or libel?

Not in the United States – judges are immune from suit for anything they say or do in an official capacity. I’m not sure how far this doctrine extends to other common-law countries.


Chris Bertram 08.16.06 at 3:08 am

Bernard Williams makes some pretty sharp observations about Russell in “The Human Prejudice” (a ch. in his Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline) where he accuses Russell of engaging in rhetoric that is simultaneously self-pitying and and self-glorifying in A Free Man’s Worship.

Ray Monk’s biography is very damning about the way he handled his personal relations with people and family, especially his son John.

As for being untruthful and lacking in moral fibre. I think one might acquit him on those charges because of his brutal honesty toward people to whom saying less than the truth would have been the kind thing to do, and because his appalling confidence in his own moral rectitude gave him the steel to act courageously and admirably at some key moments in his life.


ajay 08.16.06 at 4:46 am

Not in the UK – statements made in court, by witnesses, defendant, lawyers or judge (or juror, I suppose), fall under absolute privilege. You can’t be sued for libel or slander for making a privileged statement – a good thing, too, otherwise someone accused of a crime and acquitted could sue the prosecution witnesses and counsel, or even the jurors if his conviction were later overturned! Parliamentary proceedings are also covered by absolute privilege – you can say what you want in Parliament without being sued (though you may break Parliamentary rules, for example by calling someone a liar).

Court proceedings can then be reported under qualified privilege – the reporter gets immunity as long as he isn’t doing it with malicious intent.


abb1 08.16.06 at 4:55 am

Ah, I though it was someone from the Horowitz’s 100 and one list.


DC 08.16.06 at 5:41 am

I’m dissapointed “fragrant” didn’t make the list.


Idiot/Savant 08.16.06 at 6:06 am

Being labelled “bereft of moral fibre” by conservatives should be considered a badge of honour…


harry b 08.16.06 at 8:20 am

Ok, pedro has charmed me into saying something more, but it’ll fall short of actual justification. On a couple of the counts, I was certainly too hasty. But I can explain why. Russell was indeed a shit to the women in his life, and to his family members generally (you don’t need to read Monk to see this, it is vividly on display in his autobiography). His endorsement of “modern” attitudes to sex seem to me to be little more than rationalisation of his own appalling behaviour — certainly very convenient. And, as Chris hints, some of the vivid egotism displayed in his private life spilled over into hsi public life. He was a great self-publicist, and even his arrests leave me cold — I’ve known many people who have sacrificed far more than Russell did for causes such as his, and without any of the public approval that he has gotten, and also without a comfortable private income to secure themselves. Now, some of them are basically saints. (I’d name some of them if I thought it wouldn’t embarrass them. But I know it would. I’ll leave that to Scott M). Of course, that attitude of mine is at least partly a result of my inability to overlook his behaviour toward his intimates. Its no surprise, by the way, that Ayer should have found it easier than I do to overlook that.

Which raises two interesting points. I don’t know whether Russell would now be diagnosed as having a serious personality disorder, but from what I now know of pds and what I remember of his autobiography (I read it when I was 18, 25 years ago, at least as much of it as I could stomach, because he had been held up to me as a hero of the left, and was considered (rightly, I now know) a great philosopher) it seems that he did. So maybe he isn’t morally to blame for his appalling private behaviour. But if so, I don’t see why he should get credit for his more admirable-seeming public behaviour, which, as again Chris suggests, seems to have owed a good deal to similar traits.

The other interesting question is the non-Russell specific one of whether one can be a morally admirable person despite a lifelong habit of ill-treatment of others in one’s personal relations. I have absolutely no argument in favour of my position, but I’ll state it: one can’t. We rarely know enough about the private lives of public people when they’re alive to make a fair judgment — we tend only to know enough about the lives of our own intimates. And, of course, excellent treatment of intimates does not salvage a life devoted in part to the shabby treatment of strangers (though that combination is perhaps rarer). Preumably there are people out there who have thought carefully about this (I bet tom hurka has something useful and smart to say about this if he’s reading).


DC 08.16.06 at 9:09 am

“And, of course, excellent treatment of intimates does not salvage a life devoted in part to the shabby treatment of strangers (though that combination is perhaps rarer).”

I’d have thought it much more common to be heartless towards strangers and loving towards family, no? Even Cheney has a mother and all that…

Especially if, as I believe it is, it’s entirely possible to treat strangers shabbily without being conscious of doing anything to them at all.


Matt 08.16.06 at 10:06 am

Old Bertie will always get a few extra points in my book for having been in some ways in two films I like a lot, portrayed in _Tom and Viv_ (“My actions where of the highest character” he says, or something like that, while returning Eliott’s wife to him. [From that account Eliot doesn’t end up looking much better than Bertie]) and mentioned in one of my very most favorite films, “Carrington” “Bertie Russel is in jail for opposing the war!” Dora says. “As well he should be!” answers Ralph.

Also, I don’t think the “loving humanity but hating humans” situation is really all that rare or even terribly unreasonable, and that a good number of philosophers would do well not to talk about which philosophers have major personality disorders. (Nothing about Harry here personally, though we do all have our quirks, don’t we.)


harry b 08.16.06 at 10:31 am

Thanks Matt!

But seriously, I’m interested in the claim I make which I can’t defend (and which completely underlies my own reaction to Russell), that abominable behaviour in one’s private life is sufficient to undermine any claim to a good moral character. Well?


Chris Bertram 08.16.06 at 11:20 am

I quoted Bernard Williams earlier. I now see that Harry is moving into Gauguin territory!


engels 08.16.06 at 11:48 am

But I’m not certain that Harry would concede Williams’ premise, that Gauguin’s personal sins were redeemed by his painting.


harry b 08.16.06 at 12:16 pm

Now, I’ll go off and read Williams. If anyone thinks that Gauguin’s sins were redeemed by his painting — no, I don’t concede that! (I wouldn’t concede that those sins would be redeemed by Constable’s painting, even!).


Chris Bertram 08.16.06 at 12:22 pm

Would Constable’s sins have been redeemed by Gauguin’s painting?


engels 08.16.06 at 12:43 pm

Fine: Bertrand Russell was a shit. Gauguin was a shit painter. Anything else? This has to be the most irritating thread you lot have put up since this.


harry b 08.16.06 at 12:47 pm

I was joking about the painting! (and, if I hadn’t been, I’d have emphasized that I have no visual aesthetic judgment at all).


jeet 08.16.06 at 1:37 pm

Me? The 3rd Earl Russell? In a lecture hall full of nubile undergraduates? With my reputation? Has no one thought of the consequences?


Nick 08.16.06 at 1:52 pm

#38 – and others – in my student days (at Cambridge, coincidentally but insiginficantly) ‘a Bertie’ was feminist shorthand for a man who, while professing adherence to enlightened sexual attitudes behaved like a complete & utter shit to the women in his life.


Nick 08.16.06 at 1:54 pm

Oh dear, all that education & I still can’t spell ‘insignificantly’ . . .


Ophelia Benson 08.16.06 at 4:26 pm

I guessed Russell, partly because of having read Ray Monk’s biography, but also because of the word ‘erotomaniac’ – that didn’t sound like a translation, so I figured an Anglophone, and it sounded kind of pseudo-technical, kind of Freudian-inflected, kind of ’40s – so Russell fit both ways. That one word was a helpful clue.


Steve 08.17.06 at 4:35 am

There’s a nice piece by Nagel (I think a review of Monk’s book) where he notes the strange disparity between the way Wittgenstein’s faults tend to be ignored, but Russell always gets a good kicking. I suppose that Russell wasn’t a “genius” in quite the same way W was, but I’m not certain why this should matter so much. After all, Russell’s work for CND (at an advanced age), and his campaigns for humanism seem to me, even if questionable, at least to signal a willingness to engage politically (compared with Wittgenstein) which seems to me admirable (of course, Russell was far more obviously nasty in his private life than was Wittgenstein, but I think W may have been destructive in his own unworldly way, and his politics seem, quite frankly, nasty).

I can predict that one response to this comment will be that Wittgenstein really wasn’t nasty at all – in fact, he was a paragon of a peculiar kind of virtue, both personally and in his isolationism about social affairs – whereas Russell really was beyond the pale, but I doubt that’s the whole story here.


Dabodius 08.17.06 at 7:02 pm

Monk blamed Russell’s parenting for his son’s schizophrenia — a quaint imputation in these neurological times.

Lawrence? An abusive bluffer, “a Midlands schoolmaster pretending to be a coal miner,” as a character of Terry Eagleton describes him, who intruded on Bloomsbury to discover himself outclassed by the likes of Russell, Bell, Fry, Keynes and V. Woolf. He could not hold his own in argument, so he tried to hurt with his Deep Insights into Character and What You’re Really Up To, pretending to authenticity. (Yes, that’s What He Was Really Up To, besides writing a few great novels.) Russell, IIRC, said he was depressed by
Lawrence’s aspersions for a few days — until he realized they were quite untrue, and then they troubled him no more. I’d question anybody’s love of humanity who expressed some sympathy for fascism.


engels 08.17.06 at 8:32 pm

Msaybe we’re all shits,if it comes to that.

But if Russells sins can not be redeemd by his philosophy, and Guahgin’s by his painting, then God help the rest of us.

I’m pissed now, but whatever.

Over and out.


Matt 08.17.06 at 8:56 pm

Whatever Lawrence’s faults I do recommend his little essay on Ben Franklin. It’s quite funny, and especially good for anyone living in Philly who has to hear how great old Ben was all the time.

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