On the fiftieth anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s death on 2nd February 1970, we take a look at his life through some of the documents in the Trinity College archive.
The philosopher, mathematician and political activist Bertrand Russell began his studies at Trinity College in 1890, as a scholarship student studying for the Mathematical Tripos. Later in life he recalled that “from the moment that I went up to Cambridge…everything went well with me.” He was elected as a member of the Cambridge Apostles in February 1892 and became friends with other members of this intellectual society, many of whom were also involved in the literary Bloomsbury Group. Russell became great lifelong friends with the poet Robert Trevelyan and his wife Elizabeth (known as Bessie) and the Trevelyan archive at Trinity College contains many letters from him.
Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics (published 1903) explores the foundations of mathematics and has become a classic reference text for generations of students. This copy belonged to Russell’s great friend and fellow philosopher G.E. Moore, one of his contemporaries at Trinity College, and is full of Moore’s annotations.
In November 1911, a young engineering student called Ludwig Wittgenstein began attending Russell’s lectures. Russell quickly became convinced of Wittgenstein’s talent for mathematical philosophy after reading Wittgenstein’s writing, and offered himself as a PhD supervisor. The notebook pictured below belonging to Wittgenstein states that in the event of his death Wittgenstein wishes his notebooks to be given to Russell. In later years, their relationship soured as each expressed dissatisfaction with the other’s work.
Russell was an active pacifist campaigner during the First World War. In 1916, he published a leaflet supporting an imprisoned conscientious objector, and identified himself as the author in a letter to The Times. He was convicted and fined £100 under the Defence of the Realm Act (1914).
Russell was a well-known public figure, and the Council of Trinity College dismissed him from his lectureship after his conviction, partly to avoid being seen to endorse his pacifist views. The majority of the Fellows of Trinity College opposed his dismissal, and many of them submitted a letter to the Council in protest.
In 1925, in a move which signified the College’s attempts to continue its association with him after his expulsion, Russell was asked by the Council of Trinity College to give the third series of Tarner Lectures in the Philosophy of the Sciences. These were delivered in the Michaelmas Term of 1926 and published in an expanded form the following year incorporating ideas developed prior to the lectures, as The Analysis of Matter (O.11.1).
G.H. Hardy, one of the signatories of the letter of protest, later wrote a pamphlet – Bertrand Russell & Trinity – explaining the events surrounding Russell’s dismissal. He attempted to correct four key myths, which he outlines on the pamphlet’s opening pages:
In this letter to Elizabeth Trevelyan, Russell seems to see the lighter side of his conviction:
I think it quite likely that the Order against me will be rescinded but I cannot pretend that I am particularly anxious it should be … Personally I find the whole matter very amusing, and I should find the papers dull if they contained nothing about myself.
By 1940, the rise of Hitler and other fascist powers seems to have changed Russell’s views. In another letter to Elizabeth Trevelyan he expands on his shifting views:
I am still a pacifist in the sense that I think peace the most important thing in the world. But I do not think there can be any peace in the world while Hitler prospers, so I am compelled to feel that his defeat, if at all possible, is a necessary prelude to anything good. I have always thought some wars worth fighting.
Russell lived in America for much of the Second World War and admits in this letter from 1941 that he is struggling with being “so far from England – one feels ashamed of comfort and safety” and informs Elizabeth that he has decided, “I am not pacifist this time.” (TRER_5_227)
Russell spent six years in America in total, and his final position was a lectureship at the Barnes Foundation, where he clashed with its eccentric founder, the art collector Albert C. Barnes. His friend George Trevelyan, by then Master of Trinity College, informs his brother Robert that he is doing his best to find Russell a position to allow him to return to England – which he did, accepting a Fellowship at Trinity College in the autumn of 1944.
Russell’s pacifism would become more fervent in the face of the nuclear threat. The autograph manuscript – ‘The Implications of the H-Bomb’ – was from a radio lecture first broadcast in 1954 (O.15.74). A vocal opponent of atomic weapons, Russell joined with other scientists including Albert Einstein to produce what is known as the ‘Russell-Einstein Manifesto’, calling for nuclear disarmament. Russell was involved in the establishment of the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), becoming its first president in 1958.
Russell continued to be a vocal advocate for nuclear disarmament and anti-imperialist causes throughout his later years. After his death from influenza in February 1970, his daughter Katharine founded the Bertrand Russell Society in his memory. It continues to promote his work, as well as the humanitarian causes and ideas he championed during his lifetime.
 Bertrand Russell, ‘Some of my contemporaries at Cambridge’ in Portraits from memory and other essays, p. 64.