A few days ago it was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s birthday. I can’t say that taking them as a job lot I go very much for the great philosophers. Some of them were truly great men of course. But some of them seem to have been, to me anyway, a teeny weeny bit off piste, and others downright funny (in the sense we use funny in Lancashire that is, as in “Next door’s a funny won. Reads Times Literary Supplement ever week”). Still, they’re what we’ve got so we’d better make the best of them. St Augustine thought that having erections was disgusting and it was an act worthy of damnation to steal a few pears. Aquinas taught that it will be part of the heavenly pleasures experienced by the just to witness the eternal tortures of the damned. John Locke invented the concept of universal human rights, but this didn’t prevent him from becoming President of the Board of Trade with responsibility for overseeing slavery in the West Indies nor from making some profitable investments in slave plantations himself. Hume thought that you couldn’t see causality at work in the world. You see the cue striking the ball and then see the ball moving but you can’t actually see the cue causing the ball to move. This didn’t stop him from playing billiards but, funnily enough, lack of direct evidence for causality did stop him believing in religion. The Vienna Circle made it a big principle that nothing can be taken to be true unless it can be verified in the external world. And how do you verify the principle itself, pray? Nietzsche, great prophet of orgiastic Dionysian frenzy, spent much of his life in bed in a boarding house, bemoaning his unhappy lot and writing lists of his ailments down in a diary. You want to say, for God’s sake do something. Get laid or do some shop-lifting. Sadly, he obliged by mistaking himself for the god Dionysos and commanding the head of the classics faculty in Basel University to come round to his lodgings and worship him. Don’t you get the feeling that here was a chap somewhat out of contact with reality – whatever that is.
Jeremy Bentham was frightfully keen on doing useful things which would result in the greatest happiness of the greatest number. If everybody started living usefully in this way there would be great quantities of happiness around. He thought it would be a particularly useful thing if he got himself stuffed after his death. Mind you, in this particular case it may have been just as well that the idea didn’t catch on even if it would have made us all incredibly happy. By this time every household in Britain would have about fifty stuffed ancestors. Imagine the palaver getting them all sitting down at meal times. Actually he proved to be right about getting yourself stuffed increasing the amount of happiness in the world. He now resides in the foyer of University College, London, where his auto-icon has brought immeasurable happiness to generations of rival college rugby fifteens, who have stolen him as part of the rituals attending intercollegiate cup competitions. Hegel thought that the Absolute was the thing to keep your eye on. In the late nineteenth century the arrowhead of inevitable dialectical progress towards it was going through Germany and especially through Prussia which was top German state at the time. The most absolutely important people in Prussia were the civil servants who were guiding its dialectical progress. The most absolutely absolutely important part of the civil service was the department of philosophy in Berlin University. I am sure I will not need to tell you who the most absolutely absolutely absolutely important chap in the Dep. Phil. was.
Some of the twentieth century ones have been really frightful. Bertrand Russell was formidably bright as a mathematician and a logician. But he seems to have been proportionately lacking in what you might call moral or feeling intelligence. This great apostle of pacifism and universal love behaved less than lovingly towards his own family. That’s par for the course, of course (no pun intended) for prophets. But in Russell’s case you get the feeling from the biographies that he didn’t even notice. Actually that’s a bit unfair. If you’re that pre-occupied with stopping humanity destroying itself with the H bomb maybe you can be forgiven for forgetting a few birthdays. Heidegger got into bed with the Nazis. And nobody’s going to tell me that all that stuff about freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s writing isn’t really at bottom just a spoilt child having its own way. When Sartre was a little boy he had beautiful golden curls which were much admired by everybody. One day his mother said “Jean-Paul you’re growing up now, I’m going to cut them off”. Little Sartre looked in the mirror and was horrified to find he had a squint. Funny how he spent the rest of his life finding everything and everybody else disgusting. The patron’s braces? Ugh! The root of that chestnut tree? Errgh! And as for people who get out of bed in the morning and get to work on time! Unspeakable! But this sense of disgust doesn’t seem to have extended to pretty women. Both A.J. Ayer and Sartre ran pretty briskly between the wickets. .
None of this can be said about Wittgenstein. Here was a man who came from the richest family in Europe and really did give all his money away. He really did join the Austrian army as a private in the first world war so as not to escape supping of life’s horrors and to try to be brave. He was tortured for the rest of his life by self-reproaches that once he hadn’t ventured far enough out beyond the barbed wire to succour a dying comrade in no-man’s land. He really was a world famous writer who in the second war became a porter at Guy’s Hospital. Mind you he must have been hell to live with. Having given away all his money he then had to borrow bus fares from Russell. Russell’s never failing kindness to Wittgenstein is one of the redeeming features of his character. As a young man in Vienna Wittgenstein was so affected by the anti-semitism all around him, he thought that if you were a Jew you were so loathsome it was your duty to commit suicide. Unless, that is, you could show that you were a genius with something of irreplaceable value to offer to the human race. That was why he went to Cambridge to study under Russell, to prove to himself that he was a genius. For Wittgenstein it was a matter of life and death. When he arrived at Cambridge he asked Russell to set him a few philosophical problems. “Oh, prove that there’s not a hippopotamus hiding under the table without looking” said Russell. Bertie, speeding down King’s parade to an appointment with his current mistress, must have found it decidedly irritating to be pursued by a very very serious and heavily accented Austrian shouting “But you CANNOT prove there is no hippopotamus hiding under the table”. At one stage Wittgenstein became so convinced that the only truth and goodness in the world are to be found in the minds of children he threw up his post at Cambridge and went back to Austria to teach in a primary school. It was a disaster. He was so maddened by the stupidity and naughtiness of the children he was accused of physical assault and was lucky to escape a gaol sentence. Well we all have our little ways. He must have been the only philosophy lecturer in the whole of history who actually tried to stop people coming to his lectures. Needless to say they poured in to listen to this wonderful man, not just lecturing about but creating philosophy before their very eyes. In spite of this, he thought philosophy was a kind of sickness and that people would be much better off making things in factories. He said you always knew you were back in Cambridge because as soon as you stepped off the train you could hear people saying “Oh really”. He didn’t think much to women either, except his fellow philosopher Miss Anscombe to whom he was devoted. He honoured her by regularly addressing her as old chap.
Yet everybody who met him agrees on one thing. Truth and integrity shone out of him. You only have to look at that beautiful profile to know that this must have been true. It is said that to be in his presence was spell-binding. People were dazzled and enchanted by him. Here was a good and a truthful and a noble man. If you can’t believe in Jesus at least believe in Wittgenstein. If there are not a hundred or fifty or even ten just men in the city of Sodom, can we produce even just one? Yes. Ludwig Wittgenstein.