The Outerward-focused Life versus the Inward-focused Life

Russell is very clear that the outward-focused life is the only one that leads to happiness. "Where outward circumstances are not definitely unfortunate, a man should be able to achieve happiness, provided that his passions and interests are directed outward, not inward." [page 187] (And yet, some of his advice -- particularly concerning the sense of sin in Chapter 7 or worry in Chapter 5 -- would seem to require a great deal of introspection.) All happiness, he says in Chapter 1, depends on "natural zest and appetite for possible things". These are active, rather than passive traits. There would seem to be no room here for passive or contemplative sources of happiness. Later in the book he says: "We are all prone to the malady of the introvert, who, with the manifold spectacle of the world spread out before him, turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within. But let us not imagine that there is anything grand about the introvert's unhappiness." [page 126]

His dismissal of the monastic life (which is in many ways not all that different from the academic life) struck me as abrupt and condescending: "The monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from being a crossing-sweeper, provided he were compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way." [pages 18-19] We can only speculate whether Russell would have changed his mind if he could have met the Dalai Lama.

If this devaluing of the inner life seems puzzling, part of the answer lies in the way that Russell draws the boundary between internal and external pursuits. Much of his life was devoted to mathematics and philosophy, pursuits that most of us would classify as passive and contemplative -- not all that different from theology. In particular, the early work that made his name (Principia Mathematica, which he coauthored with Alfred North Whitehead, who later founded process theology) was focused on the logical roots of mathematics and the possibility of finding absolutely certain knowledge there. One could imagine looking on this activity as a spiritual quest, an introspection into the laws that governed his own thinking. To Russell, though, this was an external pursuit.

A great source of happiness is centered on those moments in life when the boundaries between the internal world and the external world seem meaningless. In the contemplation of great art, for example, external object and internal response form an undifferentiated whole. Russell, I believe, would claim these experiences for the external world, while others might claim them for the internal world.

A further clue lies in statements in Chapter 1 about Russell's own path to happiness: "Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly on external objects." [page 18] Contemplation of the self seems (to Russell) inescapably connected with contemplation of the deficiencies of the self. In Buddhist terms, this would not be a contemplation of the self at all, but of the ego, the self image. Russell appears to see no difference between contemplating the self (which Buddhists are taught to do in an open, accepting manner) and judging the self image. The examples of self-absorption that Russell gives -- the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac -- are all absorbed in judging their self-images.

Even in Christian terms Russell does an injustice to the contemplative life. One can certainly find numerous stories of Christian saints absorbed by their sense of guilt and unworthiness in the face of God's judgment. This is balanced, however, by the saints who describe the ecstasies they experience as objects of God's love. The annals of crossing-sweepers contain no comparable testimony.

In short, I think that Russell inappropriately universalizes his childhood experiences of Christianity and Christian contemplation, and enlarges these experiences to encompass religion and the contemplative life in general. His desire to see nothing of value in the contemplative life causes him to draw the line between the internal and external world in an unusual way.