A Cumulative Treasure

There are many great thinkers and doers I was never taught about in school.  They were left for my eventual discovery at a time when I am capable of appreciating them. As a kid I would not have understood what those men and women stood for or have learned anything but surface facts anyway.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell is one of those whose wisdom and legacy I have only encountered in recent years. He was a British philosopher, mathematician and writer known for his work in broad range of subjects from education and history to philosophy and social commentary. It is the latter two for which I have become an admirer.

Noted for his many spirited anti-war and anti-nuclear protests, Russell was a prominent public figure until his death at the age of 97 in 1970. He never slowed down until the very end and lived his life about as fully as a person can. At the beginning of his autobiography is the following abundantly real prologue that within a few paragraphs tells pointedly who Bertrand Russell was and what he believed.  The second paragraph when he writes about love I find particularly meaningful.

 “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.

I read Russell’s words again for the umpteenth time and am moved even more deeply than each previous reading.  They educate me at a core spiritual and emotional level beyond my ability to describe intellectually.

Whether from a century just past or millenniums ago, the richness of wisdom and knowledge others have left behind is a cumulative treasure I benefit from today. We all do if we pay attention to what has come before us. Mr. Russell died the year before I graduated high school. I believe he would be pleased of my eventual discovery of him at a time when I can appreciate what he had to say. It has been my discovery that reading what great men and women had to say is a tremendous way of gaining time-tested insight. This knowledge does not make my life any easier. Rather, it makes it more understandable and to have greater meaning to me. It is with humble gratitude I acknowledge that.

 Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.