Ray Monk is a philosophy professor whose first book was a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-born philosopher whose brilliance unsettled even the haughty Bertrand Russell. This first volume of a planned two-volume life of Russell covers the first forty-nine of his ninety-eight years, from 1872 through 1921. Writing Russell's life is a daunting task in that the BIBLIOGRAPHY OF BERTRAND RUSSELL contains more than three thousand entries, and the Russell Archives hold more than forty thousand letters as well as many journals, manuscripts, and other documents. In many of these materials, Russell is concerned mostly with himself, creating a record of "detailed self-absorption" that Monk judges matched only by that of Virginia Woolf.
In working with this rich trove, Monk, unlike previous biographers, provides a full account of Russell's philosophical work and social thought. Monk organizes his story around the three powerful forces he locates at the root of Russell's behavior: "his need for love, his yearning for certain knowledge, and his sometimes overpowering impulse to become involved in the great political issues of his day."
These three passions were often in conflict with one another, and in Monk's analysis they issue from a terrible loneliness exacerbated by a haunting fear of madness. The events in Russell's life that shaped this difficult emotional history began very early in Russell's childhood.
Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1872, in Monmouthshire, England, in the most privileged circumstances. He was the third child and second son of Viscount Amberley and his wife, Kate. The Russells were an old family in a proud Whig tradition. Russell's grandfather, Lord John Russell, was a younger son of the sixth Duke of Bedford, and Lord John's highly principled political career included promotion of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and two...