love & lust

Bertrand Russell on Sex, Love & Zest

Bertrand Russell was a Nobel Prize-winning British philosopher who advocated individual freedom, including sexual freedom in an era in which Victorian values still held sway.

Russell’s unconventional views, expounded in his 1929 treatise Marriage and Morals, cost him a job at an American college after a court ruled him “morally unfit” to teach. In an open letter of support for Russell, Albert Einstein wrote

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.

Russell, who was married four times and had numerous affairs, believed that both men and women should be allowed to have pre-marital and extra-conjugal sex. In Marriage and Morals, he argued that the sexual mores of the times were outdated—decreasing religious beliefs were making a Christian association of sex with sin moot, and the increasingly reliability of birth control reduced the doubts around paternity that had spawned (so to speak) monogamy to begin with.

The book does not suggest, however, giving into every libidinous impulse. Sex is a natural need, like food, but gluttony is to be avoided.

In regard to food we have restraints of three kinds, those of law, those of manners, and those of health…Restraints of a similar kind are essential where sex is concerned, but in this case they are more complex and involve much more self-control.

An ample dose of self-control (and perhaps a stiff drink) are also needed to confront the jealousy that naturally arises from sharing one’s partner…

In the system that I commend, men are freed, it is true, from the duty of sexual conjugal fidelity, but they have in exchange the duty of controlling jealousy.

Russell felt that the trade-off of the negative emotion of jealousy was worth it for the life force liberated by loving freely. He goes as far as to credit Eros for the creative impulse: “Sex is connected with some of the greatest goods in human life,” including art, he wrote. Creating art requires “joy of life”, which “depends upon a certain spontaneity in regard to sex.”

While one might think that a stance for freer sexuality (or four marriages for that matter) might imply a cynicism about love, Russell was in fact a romantic.

Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give.

Love provides an escape from loneliness, addressing our fear of exclusion and our human longing for affection. With echoes of Plato’s Symposium, Russell writes that

Passionate mutual love while it lasts…breaks down the hard walls of the ego, producing a new being composed of two in one.

Nor does Russell promote promiscuity. He held that sex without love has little value—”civilized people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love.” Furthermore, he believed that the sexual instinct is not really satisfied if it involves only the physical aspect. Men who visit prostitutes, for example, “disassociate the carnal from the uplifting aspects of love…leading to difficult relations with women.”

In The Conquest of Happiness, his 1930 pre-cursor to a self-help book, Russell put forth that the feeling of being loved promotes zest—an appetite for life, and the marker of a happy individual—more than any other factor. Demanding affection tends to backfire, however, as—rather poignantly—

Human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it.

Ideally affection should be “reciprocally life-giving; each receives affection with joy and gives it without effort, and each finds the whole world more interesting in consequence of the existence of this reciprocal happiness.”

Love, then, requires self-confidence, so you’re not looking to your partner for validation, without overconfidence, which prevents you from relating to your partner.

A too powerful ego is a prison from which a man must escape if he is to enjoy the world to the full. A capacity for genuine affection is one of the marks of the man who has escaped from this prison of self.

While this virtuous circle of confidence and affection is clear, Russell offers little by way of advice on what to do if your starting point is one of insecurity. For that we must turn to more modern self-help guides, which might counsel us to systematically tune into our self-talk and let go of any thoughts of I’m not worthy.

For Russell, as love fuels zest, which is in turn a prerequisite to happiness, avoiding relationships for fear of being hurt is a losing strategy.

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.

To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.

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