A young Bertrand Russell guards his time


On September 3, 1894, Bertrand Russell wrote to Alys Pearsall Smith, his wife-to-be, concerning the importance of creating an environment in which he could cultivate his talents. (She was a Quaker, thus the “thee.”)

And (I must confess it) horrible as such a thought is, I do not entirely trust thee to back me up. I have a passion for experience, but if I am to make anything of the talents I have, I must eschew a vast deal of possible experience, shut myself up in my study, and life a quiet life in which I see only people who approve of such a life (as far as possible); I know myself well enough to be sure (though it is a confession of weakness) that if thee insists on my having a lot of experience, on my seeing a heterogeneous society and going out into the world, and perhaps having episodes of an utterly different, worldly sort of life, my nervous force will be unequal to the strain; I shall either have to give up the work my conscience approves of, or I shall be worn out and broken down by the time I’m 30. In short, I know my own needs, much better than thee does; and it is very important to me that thee should back me up in insisting on them. Casual experience of life is of very little use to a specialist, such as I aspire to be; good manners are absolutely useless. Thee has a sort of illogical kindness (not to call it weakness), which prevents thy seeing the application of a general rule to a particular case, if anybody is to derive a little pleasure from its infraction, so that thee is quite capable, while protesting that in general thee wishes me to lead a quiet student’s life, of urging me in every particular case to accept offers, and to go in for practical affairs, which really are a hindrance to me. Both of us, too, are in danger of getting intoxicated by cheap success, which is the most damning thing on earth; if I waste these years, which ought to be given almost entirely to theoretic work and the acquisition of ideas by thought (since that is scarcely possible except when one is young), my conscience will reproach me for the rest of my life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they later divorced. Russell married three times more.

See also The orangeless childhood of Bertrand Russell and Bertrand Russell’s terror of madness (both based on passages from his autobiography, where the full text of this letter appears), and E.B. White on the tricky valuation of a writer’s time.


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