This is not, one of its authors, Apostolos Doxiadis, tells us, Logic for Dummies or a “textbook or treatise in the unlikely guise of a graphic novel.” It is a story—the story of “a man who hoped to find a way of getting absolutely right answers.” The man in question was one of the 20th century’s great philosophers, Bertrand Russell, who, from an early age, sought to establish the foundations of logic and mathematics.
Logicomix presents the illustrated tale of his failure to realize his dream: to “find the perfect logical method for solving all problems, from Logic all the way up to Human Life.” And so the story has an argument and a moral—that there is “no Royal Road to Truth” and that “if even in Logic and Mathematics, the paragons of certainty, we cannot have perfect assurances of Reason, then even less can this be achieved in the messy business of human affairs—either private or public.”
The story begins with Russell—already famous both as a philosopher and a protestor who was jailed for his pacifism during the first World War—at an American university on the eve of the second. Confronted by hecklers, he persuades them to come inside and listen to his lecture on the role of logic in human affairs. He recounts his own life as an example: his lonely childhood, his failed marriages, the pursuit of his intellectual dream, and, above all, his unsatisfying encounters with the century’s great logicians.
It is a brilliant way of approaching the story, for it portrays Russell, of all people, confronting isolationists who object to engaging in the European war. His own position is that Europe must be saved from being taken over by Hitler and Stalin, but, of course, he cannot convince them by producing a clinching argument, so he seeks to shift their sense of certainty by telling his story.
There is a further layer of reflectiveness on the book’s themes. Throughout the book, the two co-authors are shown debating with the two artists while creating Logicomix together in Athens. At various points, they disagree: The co-authors, for instance, argue over whether Russell’s quest was a tragic failure or the prelude to triumphant progress. Other grand themes, such as an alleged link between logic and madness, emerge as Russell visits logicians such as Gottlieb Frege (who ended up writing rabid, paranoid, anti-Semitic pamphlets) and Georg Cantor, who was repeatedly hospitalized and died in a mental asylum. At the end of the story, the book poses a striking parallel between Russell’s story and the question of what lessons are to be drawn from the Greek tragedy the Oresteia—on this point, too, the book’s creators disagree.
The book’s visual impact is vivid and immediate: Characters and scenery are exceptionally well drawn, initially in color but then in black and white. The dark times in Europe through which the story proceeds are ever-present, and the narrative drive is unmistakable: The reader is in continual suspense about how Russell’s life story will answer the isolationists’ burning question: “Why should we join someone else’s war?”
It was a good question—the same one we asked about the Iraq war and that we now ask about the war in Afghanistan. Russell’s answer, as related in Logicomix, was to admit that “Logic is a most powerful tool.” He still tried, “and very hard,” to remain a pacifist; but, he says, “I can’t stand in your shoes and tell you what to do. My contribution to your present dilemma was my tale.” In the end, people must think for themselves. It is the same answer that Immanuel Kant gave to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s answer was “sapere aude”—“have the courage to use your own understanding.” It isn’t clear that Russell took us much further, but his story, so vividly told and engagingly pictured here, makes the message all the more compelling.