There is a consistent thread running through much of the new age spiritualism of our times, it is most easily rendered apparent through the understanding of the dichotomy between the head and the heart, the measurable of rational science and the immeasurable of non-rational wisdom; I have more than a passing familiarity with both; and I know in which direction I find the greater value. The debate polarises even the lowliest and most benighted thinkers, so of course it became especially interesting to me after reading Bertrand Russell’s classic of philosophical thinking: “The Conquest of Happiness”, because he makes a direct reference – albeit unintentionally – when he deconstructs the concept of Byronic Unhappiness. Ironically, Russell argues entirely from the head against the Byronic heart. When I first read the discussion – which I will summarise forthwith – I was initially sympathetic to Russell’s argument; but then, after walking ten miles by the sea and thinking it through, I am far less enamoured and I feel quite comfortable with declaring for Byron at this point.
Here is the argument. Russell claims that Byronic Unhappiness is propounded in the great man’s poetry, in the underlying angst of it which seems to suggest that “all is futility”, in the sense that people toil throughout the long days of their lives and in the end, it all comes to nought; thus – according to Byron, implicitly at least – the enlightened man understands this futility innately and is thus filled with a great yearning discontent, a void that cannot be filled – and here I am adding, because I feel that Byron would have understood this – by normal means. Russell argues though that this in itself does not make life an exercise in futility (and again, I don’t believe that even Byron would have drawn this conclusion, I actually think that Russell’s argument was based upon a false, or at least somewhat shaky premise) because there is still a practical point to things, yes, you may toil your whole life to procure material gain and then you can pass those results of your toil onto your children; the world goes on, all is as it should be and (crucially) there is no requirement to feel this existential angst as a result.
I think though that Russell has missed the point. Byron, surpassing the limiting strictures of the logical mind has entered into the numinous state; his angst is an end in itself, it is a feeling-toned experience of life that is its own justification; Byron lived (and died) in a near ongoing state of reverential ecstasy; he was the world’s first, and the archetypal birthing point of the rock star.
There is a story that tells of how Byron with the poet Shelley (and Shelley’s future wife Mary), spent a “wet, ungenial summer” at the home of his personal physician, John William Polidori in Switzerland, at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva. In that short, difficult time, Polidori wrote The Vampyre after being inspired by a tale of Byron’s making, the first example of the entire vampire genre; while Mary Shelley began the story that was eventually to become Frankenstein, while Byron himself composed the first fleeting thoughts which were to become his never fully-realised magnum opus: Don Juan.
Quite frankly, when one reads of such moments in time, Russell, and his theories, can get stuffed. Bertrand Russell for his own part is probably best known for his collaboration with Alfred Whitehead on Principia Mathematica (which has an alarmingly Newtonian ring to it), an attempt to prove that rational logic could answer the profound; I have not read it (nor shall I, I am no great mathematician), but detractors will tell you that it presupposes a prosaic universe, one that is intrinsically passionless and therefore by definition, does not require any grand Byronic tradition. Put simply, it appears that Russell, through a trick of fate that divested him of subjectively experiencing any great and raging emotional force, did not need to answer to such a condition. Russell went on to achieve another form of immortality, and it seems that each of these men became figureheads for their respective movements, Byron for the feeling man, and Russell for the thinking one, Russell, very much a man of his time has won out, and we live in a singularly rational age, and are undoubtedly the poorer for it. A pox on his philosophy (I say with only the gentlest malice), because neither he nor Byron for that matter, can escape the damning indictment of their individual astrologies. This (of course) is why there is an inevitable and inescapable realisation awaiting any person who has a view to discover meaning in this life; it is the blind watchmaker in reverse…
Byron then evinces an astrology with one very clear defining feature; a Neptune that is the focal planet of a tee-square and tightly configured into a grand trine with Jupiter and Pluto; a true leader then, driven to express his dominance through Neptunian ideals, poetry, music, sensitivity. The Byronic hero of course does evince more than a dash of Pluto and some Jupiter as well, he is dashing, brave, tortured by God and his fellow man alike, and through it all he is unrepentant, and unbowed. This latter is contained in the tee-square, wilful and emotionally driven (Mo/Ur) and he communicates his indomitable discontent (me/Cap/8th by square). Neptune in Libra in the 5th, is dreamily romantic of course, but that is too the attracting principle; his 7th is ruled by Saturn which itself applies hard to the midheaven; thus a career marriage, and Byron certainly evinced that quality, marrying women until their money ran out and finding a new ‘sponsor’ accordingly. Mars rising in Cancer seems to suggest someone who is willing to fight for his homeland, and he was adopted by the Greeks in his latter days and actually died, if not in battle, at least due to the peculiar fatigue and tension that derived from a battle fought far from the usual domain of poets and dreamers: some say that had he lived, he might even have been made king of Greece, so esteemed was Lord Byron by that people.
How ironic then that the major feature of Russell’s own chart is a tee square to Neptune! Here though there is no grand trine to create an intrinsic sense of ease and enjoyment, it is just grating, hard and uncomfortable, and he is forced to address it; here in the 6th, it is almost trivial, and he makes it his life’s work of course. Feeding tension into that focal point however, is Saturn, in its domicile, in the 3rd of communication and writing, so he feels a need to structure Neptune; to rein it in and systematise it, he places a yoke about it, and decries the soft abandon of Neptune’s gently lapping tides that Byron felt so keenly in his soul. Russell’s rationality, and his denouncement of Byronic Unhappiness, is just a function of an overly comfortable Saturn in a not easily impressed Capricorn; and in the third, there is something of a ‘pull your socks up, stop pansying about and let me tell it like it is’ quality that is rather hard to deny.
Thus Russell, brilliant but dull. Byron, brilliant but mad. Both having lived their astrology like there was no tomorrow.
Can as astrology tell everything about future? How long will be economy bad? Will we ever have good times like before?
Jeremy, have you ever seen the movie ‘Gothic’?
I’m a Gabriel Byrne fan (another Neptunian figure) and a while ago, was renting any movie I could get my hands on that had him in it. Anyway, Gothic is a somewhat dated and cheesy re-enactment of the visit you mentioned between Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley (Byrne plays Byron). Although I did a lot of fast-forwarding through this film, I was captivated by some scenes, and the mad passion of Byron/Byrne.
CB, I hadn’t seen the movie, but I shall certainly seek it out. I am too hoping to read a biography of Byron in the near future.
I do like Gabriel Byrne also, most especially as Uther in Excalibur, which was a movie I watched endlessly when it came out 🙂
I want to comment on this interesting piece but first I will concisely review my understanding of the two arguments:
Byron said – All is futility, we toil all day and night and the results ultimately come to nought. He continues by saying the ‘enlightened’ man understands this futility innately and is thus filled with a yearning discontent, a void that cannot be filled (by normal means, Jeremy’s addition).
Russell – agrees about the toiling all day and night part, but claims that there is a ‘practical point’ to things, and there is ‘no need’ for existential angst (namely because what one does has a ‘purpose’, which involves leaving the products of your work to your proginy, etc. etc.) (quotation marks mine and simply suggesting that their use of the terms seem a little confusing or wrong to me.
I see that both have a cardnal T square with Neptune at the focal point which is interesting given that they are both talking about, in fact heavily focused on, life as Dharma, work/labor/toil and the (Sisyphus syndrome).
Anyway, Russell’s point in this argument make no sense to me whatsoever. It is like he is operating in some kind of denial system, the same one that drives so many people in the world today, (or maybe Americans in particular, I don’t know) but his argument seems to have nothing spiritual about it, and no sense of questioning anything such as why we are here really.
I totally agree with Byron when he states all is futility, but, I disagree in that I don’t believe in angst as an end in itself. I believe that one has to fall deeply into the angst state and even into the abyss in order to realize that this is all there is, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do nothing that really matters, and if one does not go about using addictions to suppress the angst and fear of the void, then one might suddenly find him/herself in a state of spiritual Enlightenment.
Ignoring deeper reality or re-framing it the way Russel seems to be doing is not ever going to lead to any kind of spiritual Enlightenment in my opinion, an opinion that I offer, by the way, without any expertise in the field of philosophy whatsoever.
What I am saying is that the void is GOOD, the yearning discontent is good, and the void/or perception of emptiness or existential emptiness cannot be filled by anything other than that which is spiritual, which is, perhaps what Jeremy meant when he added words to Byron.
Interesting that he lived generally in a state of bliss, doesn’t sound like angst to me, sounds like Enlightenment.
Alison, I completely agree with you 100%. I’m not very enamoured of Russell, neither here nor anywhere else; his philosophy has that rather dull sense of pragmatism about it, a pull-you-sock-up Baden-Powellesque style of looking at the knottier conundrums of existence. It is extremely insightful that they share such an outstanding feature in their astrology too and that Russell took particular trouble to denounce the Byronic interpretation of it all. Once again I think it proves that there are (and ought to be) as many relevant and workable approaches to philosophy as there are people, philosophy is as subjective as the astrology which promulgates it and that in itself speaks to a profound realisation.