Bertrand Russell: Mathematician, Philosopher, Pipe Smoker

A portrait of Bertrand Russell by Artur Lopes

Bertrand Russell's parents, Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, were progressive for their era in the late 1800s. They were advocates of birth control, for example, and Lord Amberley was an atheist. The couple asked John Stewart Mill, an English philosopher and political economist, to be their son's "secular godfather." Theirs was an aristocratic family that came into power during the Tudor Dynasty in the 1500s and was politically influential from that time forward. Russell's grandfather was twice prime minister under Queen Victoria, in the 1840s and again in the 1860s.

Russell's parents died within two years of each other, his mother in 1874, when Russell was two, and his father two years later of bronchitis exacerbated by depression. Russell was sent to live with his solidly Victorian grandparents, though his grandfather passed within a year of his arrival. Like his father, Russell was troubled by depression. He often considered suicide during his lonely adolescence, and said in his Autobiography that it was his discovery of mathematics that saved his life.

He enjoyed literature as well, becoming a great admirer of Percy Bysshe Shelley. At 15 he began thinking at length about the subject of Christian dogma, and by his 18th year considered himself an atheist. He thought Christianity little more than superstition and the cause of more harm than good in the world. In general, he felt that religion caused dependency and fear and was responsible for many wars and much human misery. Remembering that time in his Autobiography, in the section "Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday," he said, "I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken."

He earned a scholarship at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge to study mathematics, but he distinguished himself in both math and in philosophy. From there he would go on to advance a modern understanding of logic, become a founder of analytic philosophy, write seminal books on mathematics and philosophy, be awarded the Order of Merit for his contributions to philosophy and to logic, become 3rd Earl Russell in 1931 when his older brother died, and win the Nobel Prize for literature. He would also marry four times and have multiple affairs. He would advance pacifism and spend six months in prison for his disapproval in lectures of inviting the U.S. to join the British and enter WWI, and he would later work for nuclear disarmament and would protest the war in Vietnam. He was also imprisoned for seven days in 1961, when he was 89 years old, for breach of the peace while protesting in an anti-nuclear demonstration.

Even when in jail, Russell wrote for 12 hours a day and maintained a sense of humor. He had a cell slightly larger than average, "for which he had to pay a rent of 2s 6d a week. One of his first acts was to go to the Governor of the prison, a worthy retired soldier named Captain Haynes, and ask solemnly what the penalty was or falling behind with the rent, remarking that if it was eviction he would not pay a penny." (Wood)

Except for jail time, Russell never stopped smoking his pipe. Alan Wood, in his biography of Russell, wrote, "Of prison, Russell said, 'Life here is just like life on an ocean liner; one is cooped up with a number of average human beings, unable to escape except into one's own stateroom.' The main deprivations which Russell felt were lack of tobacco — almost the only break, apart from illness, in over sixty years continuous smoking."

He started smoking a pipe in his early 20's and never seemed to have stopped, as he professed in an interview on video when in his 90's, saying, "I smoke a pipe all day long except when I'm eating or sleeping." He goes on to say that he'd started smoking 70 years ago and it didn't seem to have had any effect.

Bertrand Russell on Smoking

In that video, he tells the story of having been in a plane that crashed. He had insisted on sitting in the smoking section, and everyone in non-smoking had perished, so he attributed his survival to smoking. Be sure to watch the video; it's a rarity.

Russell mentions his pipes in his autobiography but does not identify their brands. Photos indicate that he smoked primarily straight, traditional pipes, though there are some photos with traditional bent pipes. Though we don't know who their makers may have been. We do know that he always carried at least two pipes, however. A student of Russell's at Oxford, Richard Gregory, remembered that he alternated pipes in and out of his pockets so that he was always smoking the one that had rested longest and was coolest.

We know a little about his tobacco, however. Alan Wood's book reports that Russell maintained a regular order of tobacco, "a quarter-pound tin each week of Fribourg and Treyer's Golden Mixture. He remarked that 'When I was young I was told that smoking would shorten my life: after sixty years of smoking, it hasn't shortened much...Anyway I get much more pleasure from smoking than I would from a few more years in decrepitude. I smoke heavily and only stop to sleep or eat.'"

Russell was an extraordinarily important thinker who wrote volumes of work in multiple subjects, all of which he seemed to have a genius for. He was famous world-wide for his co-authored, three-volume work, A History of Western Philosophy and over his career published 60 books and more than 2,000 articles. He was among the brightest thinkers in history, enormously influential in the advancement of linguistics, epistemology, metaphysics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, set theory, the philosophy of language, mathematics, social justice, and philosophy.

He lived to be age 97. His mind remained sharp, and he smoked his pipe until his death, never seeing any reason to reduce his tobacco intake. Few minds have thought so deeply on so many subjects or benefited the world to the extent of Bertrand Russell.

Perhaps his own words are the best way to leave you with an idea of this man's thinking. Here are some of his more famous quotes.

  • "There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths."
  • "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
  • "War does not determine who is right — only who is left."
  • "I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe — because, like Spinoza's God, it won't love us in return."
  • "Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons."
  • "The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."
  • "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."
  • "So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence."


  • Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Skeptic, by Alan Wood
  • The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, by Bertrand Russell
Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers History Pipe Culture


    • Mark S on August 14, 2020
    • As a mathematician it took decades for me to understand one of his more famous quips: "Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true." Philosopher Colin McGinn emailed me to say that students of Russell often came under his spell and took up the pipe, along with F&T Golden Mixture. Though McGinn recalls it as being Golden Flake.

    • Joburgb on August 16, 2020
    • Bravo, Chuck! As always, an enjoyable read and discerning selection of subject. Still fighting ignorance since 1997 (it’s taking longer than you thought).

    • john m. on August 16, 2020
    • I wonder which side of the Tobacco Ban Ol' Bertie would have landed, considering his views of right and wrong, truth and fiction.

    • Caleb K on August 16, 2020
    • Thanks for the write up chuck. In undergrad, just 4 years ago, my classmates and I would take up smoking a pipe in the afternoons before our final classes and often during at night while we studied. Pipe smoking remained a great tradition for those of us in the Theology and Philosophy department. One professor shared the Russel story with us while we were taking analytic philosophy and reading Russel’s works. It’s great to see others share his story.

    • W. ADAM MANDELBAUM on August 16, 2020
    • Given his views on religion, he probably wouldn't have smoked Stanwell's Hans Christian Andersen pipes.

    • Maxwell Eaton on August 16, 2020
    • It is always illuminating to read of others with rational and sometimes unpopular viewpoints. It helps me question my own. Now, to light my briar.

    • W.Gallagher on August 16, 2020
    • Thanks, Chuck, for highlighting one of my favorite people. It was no coincidence that while reading his History of Western Philosophy in college that I began smoking a pipe.

    • StephenLahey on August 16, 2020
    • Thank you for the excellent article. I am a philosopher and have long been a student of Russell, whom I've admired since I was 18...coincidentally when I began pipe smoking! Russell wrote that as an undergrad, he was puzzled about Anselm's argument, and threw a tobacco tin up in the air, and upon catching it, suddenly understood the argument. It's in his autobiography somewhere, I think...

    • Tim Harris on August 16, 2020
    • Russell was a good logician but not a good man, and his atheism and "progressivism" is nothing to rack up as something praiseworthy.As Wittgenstein said, "Russell's books should be bound in two colors, those dealing with mathematical logic in red -- and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue -- and no one should be allowed to read them." Wittgenstein's comment on Russell's Marriage and Morals is the best single-sentence book review ever written. "If a person tells me he has been to the worst places I have no right to judge him, but if he tells me it was his superior wisdom that enabled him to go there, then I know he is a fraud."

    • Don Ward on August 16, 2020
    • I love all of these articles and read them all but I especially liked this one as Bertrand Russell is one of my favorite heroes of all time!

    • Andy Camire on August 16, 2020
    • Thank You for yet another inspiring and informative biography. Not being an academic or philosopher myself i'ts very interesting to read the thoughts and accomplishments of those that have passed before us. Especially being pipe smokers. Enjoying a pipe certainly has something to do with contemplation and educators, especially back in the day. Personally I think that professors and grandfathers had much to do with us being followers of the pipe and leaf emulating their actions. Cheers.

    • Rick Newcombe on August 16, 2020
    • When Bertrand Russell was on the plane that crashed into the water, he had told the flight attendant -- before takeoff -- "If I don't smoke, I shall die."

    • Fred Hanna on August 16, 2020
    • Hey Dr. Stanion! This is a thoroughly excellent essay on Bertrand Russell, who has long been one of my intellectual heroes. I think that, for me, this is the best article of any kind ever published on the entire Smoking Pipes website. Thank you, Chuck.

    • PD on August 16, 2020
    • Your articles on pipe smokers are very well done and this one is no exception. I was just reading one his essays this morning, and saw this by chance. Russell was a great intellectual, a brilliant mathematician, and a great human being. His essays on life, religion, and politics have been read by several generations, because they are timeless subjects, and presented with uncomplicated logic and common sense. I haven't tried F&T Golden mixture.

    • PD on August 16, 2020
    • Your articles on pipe smokers are very well done and this one is no exception. I was just reading one his essays this morning, and saw this by chance. Russell was a great intellectual, a brilliant mathematician, and a great human being. His essays on life, religion, and politics have been read by several generations, because they are timeless subjects, and presented with uncomplicated logic and common sense. I haven't tried F&T Golden mixture.

    • brian bailey on August 16, 2020
    • If you have not, I do not see them readily, I would suggest articles on Tolkien and Lewis.

    • Dennis Mahony on August 16, 2020
    • Dear Chuck,In the interest of fairness, and friendly intellectual debate, why not feature another “thinker’s heavyweight“ from the other side of the philosophical street, and pipe aficionado, C.S. Lewis. Now, while it is true that Lewis had none of the marital infidelities and intriguing desires to do himself in on a regular basis, he did have a rather annoying habit of an over joyous disposition and balanced his pipe smoking with the dreaded idea of regular walks.I send this note to you in the spirit of fun and friendship!Dennis Mahony,Muskego, Wisconsin

    • Joe Hampton Jr on August 16, 2020
    • Very well written piece! I came close to not reading article when “ progressive, and Atheist” was mentioned. I’m glad I continued. Though lost as last years Easter Eggs spiritually, he did have a brilliant mind albeit misdirected. I smoke F&T Golden mixture occasionally. It has always amazed me how an exceptional mind could discount Divine Order.

    • CSharp on August 16, 2020
    • Ha! Fribourg and Treyer's Golden Mixture is sold out already.

    • Mark S on August 16, 2020
    • @CSharp: "Ha! Fribourg and Treyer's Golden Mixture is sold out already" Proof positive that capitalism can profit even from atheism!

    • C Gonzales on August 16, 2020
    • Dear Chuck, thank you for your writing and for the inspiration.

    • Astrocomical on August 16, 2020
    • Although I don't think highly of morons AKA atheist, I suspect they do think the same of me. But their philosophy is selfish and gives me no one any hope and I suspect that is why they like it and why so many end up as commies.

    • Scott G. on August 16, 2020
    • Very well written, thank you.

    • Reginald Hartnagle on August 16, 2020
    • Interesting article. Apparently he smoked almost as much as MarkTwain. Three thumbs up!

    • Nelson Specchia on August 16, 2020
    • Bravo, Chuck, nice article and a very interesting character!

    • DAVID J SOMMER on August 17, 2020
    • Chuck, Chuck, etc!!!!!Where do you get these tidbits of interest from. I'm happy to say that I read that last one from cover to cover.I am happy to say that we are now considered a rare breed. But I thank you folks at Smoking Pipes and my sweet and favorite Uncle for introducing me to this form of relaxation. Chuck please keep the blurbs coming. GREAT JOB!!!!!!!!! Dave

    • Kris on August 17, 2020
    • Thank you, Chuck, for the wonderful stories and informative character revelations. That sitting in a smoking section could save your life! Who knew?!!

    • Thomas Aquin on August 17, 2020
    • He was an atheist but his god was tobacco. He served his master faithfully until his death. What a sad little life. He was against all war but supported extramarital affairs. What a sad little life. However, his life does teach us that intellect and wisdom are truly different things.

    • Mark S on August 17, 2020
    • @Thomas Aquin: "He was against all war but supported extramarital affairs" Maybe that's how he and his wife avoided war! Indeed most of us have sad little lives. But there's hope that they can become as long, as accomplished, and as happy as Russell's. The world will forget us, but it certainly won't forget him.

    • Mark on August 18, 2020
    • Thanks much for this article. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of Russell in some ways, but he was an enormously gifted and significant person. I especially appreciate reading his thoughts and habits on smoking and pipes. It makes him a little more likeable. Today there is almost nowhere he would even be allowed to smoke his pipe.

    • ECSteele on August 18, 2020
    • Well done, I have tremendous respect for Russell’s work. Thanks for the interesting article! He was a wise and critical thinker. Some of the comments here demonstrate the need for critical thinking skills and why his work is still relevant.

    • Dr J B Webb on August 21, 2020
    • Chuck - Your essay on Bertie Russell is delightful - content left out of my PhD programs! Both entertaining, amusing & of a marketing highlight. May I offer future pipe smokers as a focus? Sigurd F Olson, C. S. Lewis, J R R Tolkien & the Inkling group. Your ability’s are well shared! JBW

    • Dave Lipstreu on August 23, 2020
    • Good article! Russell's legacy is secure. Critical thinking skills are needed now more than ever.

    • Dave Lipstreu on August 23, 2020
    • Good article. Russell's legacy is secure. Critical thinking skills are needed now more than ever.

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