Bertrand Russell was emo

Another entry in the series of “towering early 20th century thinkers were emo” (previously:  B.F. Skinner was emo.)  Bertrand Russell, age 31, writing to his friend Gilbert Murray:

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

This quote is pretty famous but glancing through his letters, holy cow, I had no idea how brutal Russell’s thoughts were.  Here’s his take on math:

Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity: one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.

And on marriage:

It is ghastly to watch, in most marriages, the competition as to which is to be torturer, which tortured; a few years, at most, settle it, and after it is settled, one has happiness and the other has virtue.  And the torturer smirks and speaks of matrimonial bliss; and the victim, for fear of worse, smiles a ghastly assent.

All these letters are from the period when his first marriage was breaking up, so maybe he cheered up later?



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6 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell was emo

  1. I never knew he could be so intensely negative; it sure didn’t seem that way in his later words of advice to future generations:‎.

    Good find! This is great.

  2. Rogozev Rydak says:

    “Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity: one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.”
    Maybe something for future advertisements of the “Proof School”?

  3. r says:

    It’s not related to emo Bertrand Russell, but, as a Slate writer, could you please do something about this?

    It’s the most-read article on Slate right now, and it’s also making the rounds elsewhere; e.g.,

    I mean, I’m a mathematician, I know about zeta function regularization and everything (and maybe the person in the video does too; he mumbles it at the beginning). But the video drove me kind of crazy.

  4. JSE says:

    Phil is writing a followup; I talked to him about it and I think there’ll be a quote from me in his second piece.

  5. Frank says:

    @r: I disagree that this is a bad thing. Yes, the author says things which are false — but it seems harmless if people are convinced by them.

    After reading this, it’s possible to imagine water cooler debates on whether or not it is actually possible that 1 + 2 + 3 + … = -1/12. Anyone who ventures the position that it is totally impossible to add positive numbers to get a negative one — or the opposite position that we might broaden our perspective on what addition means — is engaging in first-rate mathematics: thinking critically about what mathematical concepts should mean.

  6. Dick Gross says:


    When Phil writes his follow up, he should include a reference to Euler’s paper of 1749 “Remarques sur un beau rapport…” where these sums were first evaluated and the functional equation of the zeta function was discovered. This is one of the greatest mathematical papers ever written, and it should be cited in a popular article. Euler is very clear that the values he obtained were not the limits of the series, in the traditional sense.


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