Philosopher Bertrand Russell Talks About the Time When His Grandfather Met Napoleon

Maybe our gen­er­a­tional enmi­ty has grown too great these days, but once upon a time, pri­ma­ry school teach­ers would ask stu­dents to inter­view an elder as an eye­wit­ness to his­to­ry. Most of our elders didn’t par­tic­i­pate in His­to­ry, big H. Few of them were (or stood adja­cent to) world lead­ers. But in some way or anoth­er, they expe­ri­enced events most of us only see in pho­tographs and film: the Viet­nam War, seg­re­ga­tion and the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, the Cold War and its end…. It’s not hard to see how this rel­a­tive­ly recent his­to­ry has shaped the world we live in.

Hear­ing from peo­ple who lived through such world-his­tor­i­cal events can give us need­ed per­spec­tive, if they’re still liv­ing and will­ing to talk. It offers a sense that the apoc­a­lyp­tic dread we often feel in the face of our own crises – cli­mate, virus, war, the seem­ing end of demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions – was also acute­ly felt, and often with as much good rea­son, by those who lived a gen­er­a­tion or two before us. And yet, they sur­vived — or did so long enough to make chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. They saw glob­al cat­a­stro­phes pass and change and some­times wit­nessed turns of for­tune that brought empires to their knees.

Indeed, when we step back just a gen­er­a­tion or two before the oft-maligned boomers, we find peo­ple whose elders lived through the event that has come to stand for the hubris­tic fall of empires — Napoleon’s defeat and cap­ture at Water­loo on March, 20, 1815. The philoso­pher, writer, social crit­ic, and pub­lic fig­ure Bertrand Rus­sell was such a per­son. Both of Rus­sel­l’s par­ents died when he was very young, and his grand­par­ents raised him. In the restored, col­orized and “speech adjust­ed” 1952 inter­view just above, you can hear Rus­sell rem­i­nisce about his grand­fa­ther, the 1st Earl Rus­sell, who was born in 1792.

Rus­sel­l’s grand­fa­ther was a world leader. He served as prime min­is­ter between 1846 and 1856 and again from 1865 to 1866. Or as Rus­sell puts it to his Amer­i­can inter­view­er, “He was prime min­is­ter dur­ing your Mex­i­can War, dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tions of 1848. I remem­ber him quite well. But as you can see, he belonged to an age that now seems rather removed.” A time when one man could and did, in just a few years time, place near­ly all of Europe under his direct con­trol or the con­trol of his sub­or­di­nates; before mod­ern war­fare, guer­ril­la war­fare, cyber and drone war.…

Earl Rus­sell not only met Napoleon, but became a late ally. After a 90-minute meet­ing with Bona­parte dur­ing the self-pro­claimed Emper­or’s exile, “Rus­sell denounced the Bour­bon Restora­tion and Britain’s dec­la­ra­tion of war against the recent­ly-returned Napoleon,” notes the video’s poster, “by argu­ing in the House of Com­mons that for­eign pow­ers had no right to dic­tate France’s form of gov­ern­ment.” The younger Rus­sell, him­self born in 1872, also saw his­to­ry swept away. He lived in “a world where all kinds of things that have now dis­ap­peared were thought to be going to last for­ev­er,” he says.

One may be remind­ed of the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo’s “all that is sol­id melts into air.” Rus­sell gives no indi­ca­tion that his grand­fa­ther, a con­tem­po­rary of that world-his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­t’s author, ever inter­act­ed with Karl Marx. But Rus­sell him­self met an impos­ing his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who looms just as large in world his­to­ry. Hear him above, in 1961, describe how he met Vladimir Lenin in 1920.

via @TamasGorbe

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Orson Welles Crossed Paths With Hitler (and Churchill): “He Had No Per­son­al­i­ty…. I Think There Was Noth­ing There.”

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Inter­ests Grad­u­al­ly Wider and More Imper­son­al”

Bertrand Russell’s Advice to Peo­ple Liv­ing 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.