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.
The remedy for self-alienation is self-knowledge and self-acceptance: wholeness, in other words. Russell’s craving for someone who could see into his soul indicates a desire for some other to do for him what he needed to do for himself. Self-examination, however, is not to everyone’s taste and some are unaware that deep introspection is even possible.
Russell was one of those who believe that their conscious thinking mind is who they are. His identity was entirely confined to his ego’s notions of who and what he was. This common mistake cuts a person off from experiencing the larger self (in the broader psychological sense of that word), which in turn leads to that feeling of being trapped inside the self-made “walls” of the ego. Such a circumscribed definition of who you are quite naturally feels like a form of dry impoverished imprisonment. There is a permanent ill-defined sense of lack. The typical inaccuracy of the ego’s definition of “self,” the infamous false persona, or idealized self-image, only adds to the problem.
Fear of the unconscious is the usual reason for choosing to believe that ego is all there is to a person. If you have banished (via repression) your undesirable character traits, thoughts, and wishes to the netherworld, the last thing you want to do is examine them. They might re-emerge to enlarge the ego with all manner of (to the ego) undesirable things. Yet, if you are to avoid Russell’s terrible sense of imprisonment and the agonizing loneliness of self-alienation, this is precisely what you must do.