Chapter 6 of A Thinking Reed, Barry Jones’ memoirs, is called ‘Faces’ and is about a lot of the significant people in Jones’ life, including his mentors. But prior to that he introduces a few short cameo sketches, the first of which is about Bertrand Russell, arguably one of the most famous British thinkers of the 20th century.
I have my own story about Russell, which also shaped my interest in biography.
A Chinese Singaporean student came to me once, to ask me about Russell. I was this man’s tutor in philosophy, for his undergraduate studies. I responded by sketching a few things about Russell’s work, the philosophy of ‘logical atomism’, and so on. Mr Ong interrupted, ever so politely, and said that what he would like to know was about Russell’s life. What was he like, as a man? I knew almost nothing. Mr Ong explained that he was studying some of Russell’s thought, but as a Chinese, he could not understand a person’s ideas in complete separation from their life. So he needed to know a bit about the person.
It is a personal life which give depth and meaning to ideas. I have learned a lot from that young student’s challenge.
Barry Jones had the remarkable privilege of meeting Russell, when Jones was a first year undergraduate, at the University of Melbourne. ‘Although we never spoke, he signed some books for me. His white hair, penetrating eyes, beaky nose, recessive chin and quavering voice left an unforgettable impression.’ Jones goes on to explain that through his grandfather, Russell was a living link with the 18th century and a plethora of rational thinkers. Then comes this beautiful quotation: ‘He said: "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."’ (p.182) It is great to think of this highly rational man describing his life in terms of passions, which so often the rationalists distrusted. Even greater, just what these passions were. We could all hope to do the same, though perhaps also to do something more than be distressed by the suffering of others.
Jones goes on to write about Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister from 1945 – 51, whom he had met in 1954 and with whom he had a long friendship. ‘His modest public persona, devoid of rhetoric and appeals to pride or fear, was derided by Churchill’s followers as a nonentity but his reputation among historians and political scientists has risen greatly since his death …’
I get the impression that Jones himself would like to be thought of in similar ways to these men, though he makes not the slightest claim to be in their class. For those of us who have know his public life, and have learned from his scholarship too, there is much about Barry Jones that is like them. Certainly the passions of Russell’s life and the appeal of Attlee’s disposition can be attributed to him.
How delightful it would be to know a political leader whose persona was ‘devoid of rhetoric and appeals to pride or fear’!