“But still you must understand that knowledge is neither a tower nor a well, but a human habitation.” These inspiring words belong to French philosopher and spiritual writer, Antonin Sertillanges. He means we must not regard knowledge as something external to ourselves, something to which we refer or draw upon from time to time. Knowledge must be more personal than that, more intimate and immediate. We must embody what we know and literally live our day to day lives according to our own set of authentically preferred truths.
A biographer has suggested that Chekhov had no world view and was thus free of illusions. But what is the cost? (Image: public domain)
For Sertillanges, having a philosophical frame of reference is essential. “It is undeniably useful to possess, as early as possible, even if at starting [one’s intellectual life] if it may be, a body of directive ideas forming a whole, and capable, like the magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge. The man without some such equipment is, in the intellectual universe, like the traveller who easily falls into scepticism through getting to know many dissimilar civilizations and contradictory doctrines.
While not the most sympathetic, Ray Monk is perhaps the most thorough biographer of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. According to Monk, Russell felt lonely and separated. He felt trapped inside the prison walls of his self, and believed only another person could alleviate the agony of imprisonment by seeing into his soul. (For clarity, I should mention that Russell was one of those who used the word “self” to describe the conscious “I.”) This is the desire, so commonly met with, to find a profoundly understanding soul mate.
Bertrand Russell craved someone who could see into his soul and relieve his sense of loneliness and separation. (Image: public domain)
In reality, Russell was agonizingly self-alienated. As someone who stressed conscious reasoning above all else, he was partially cut off from his unconscious mind. The resulting isolation of his ego, or “self” as Russell would have it, was the source of his painful loneliness. A sound connection with the unconscious adds richness to life. A more plentiful supply of allusive symbols and subjective images would have balanced the dry logic of mathematics and the cold sterility of abstract reasoning that were the centrepieces of Russell’s world. He would have had a greater sense of meaning. In all likelihood, an improved connection with the unconscious would have enhanced his emotional life as well.