Bertrand Russell’s Relevance Today; Judy Toth, Leader

This talk is part of a series, interestingly enough. Three years ago I spoke about Albert Einstein, as one of my ethical heroes. What has evolved is an ethical heroes series, and last year I did Albert Schweitzer, and this year we have Bertrand Russell. So I find it so interesting to go back into these folk’s lives and find out not only what they think about life and their achievements in terms of their world view. How do they view the ethical dimension of life and how that view speaks to us as Ethical Society members?

Recently my friends Lynn and Todd came into town Thursday to teach relationship building on Saturday, Todd said to me, “Do you know that Bertrand Russell is in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of this century?” So I went to the magazine to see a summary of Bertrand Russell in two paragraphs — and I’m going to read that to you.

Bertrand Russell

In more than 50 books, penned over 74 years, Bertrand Russell set the terms of the debate in logic and philosophy in the first part of this century — most notably with Principia Mathematica, written with philosopher Albert North Whitehead.

He also married four times, lost three elections to Parliament, founded a school and led the movement for nuclear disarmament. He was twice jailed and dismissed from three jobs for his pacifism and unconventional views on sex. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and died two decades later at 97, a humane rationalist to the last.

So with that kind of framework, I’m going to spend a little more time than two paragraphs talking about Bertrand Russell. Russell’s personal life, as for all of us, shaped and influenced who he was not only as a thinker, but as a feeler, as a father, and as a husband. He was orphaned at an early age and raised by his grandparents, who were quite strict and Victorian. This of course was sensible because at this time England was held in the sway of Victorianism.

He spent a very lonely childhood with governesses and nurses — little contact with children his own age — and at the age of eleven began studying Euclid and he called this “one of the greatest moments of my life, as dazzling as my first love.” From that moment until he was thirty-eight years old, and finished Principia Mathematica, mathematics became his chief interest and source of happiness. As an adolescent he says his interest was divided between, math, religion, and sex. He studied languages and literature and philosophy and in one of the most profound paragraphs of his autobiography, he says he became an atheist at the age of fifteen, and abandoned the God concept. “I found to my surprise that I was quite glad to be done with the subject.”

He went to Cambridge and says that upon entering it he was a shy prig but by the fourth year he had become a gay and flippant student. He learned the virtue of intellectual honesty and absolute freedom to speculate about anything and everything. He finished his fellowship in 1897 and wrote the Foundations of Geometry and in 1901 wrote yet another book on mathematics, but continued to stay with his wife and supported her suffragette causes, even though he had very mixed feelings about her at this point.

Russell’s humor was always present in whatever he did. He had many colleagues, including Whitehead at his professorship school. Russell’s friend Hardy, who was professor of mathematics at Cambridge, once told him that if he could find a proof that Russell would die in five minutes time, he would naturally be very sorry to lose him, but the sorrow would be quite worthwhile for the pleasure of the proof. Russell, wise in the way of mathematics professors, observed, “I entirely sympathized with him and was not at all offended.

The period from 1910 to 1914 was a time of deep transition for Russell. He says, “I felt as sharply separated from the people of England as Faust’s life before and after he met Mephistopheles.” The great war shook him out of his prejudices and made him think afresh on the fundamental questions of life. Back in Cambridge, living with high emotional tension, he could not emotionally face the disaster the war would bring to his people. He was appalled that 90% of the population were excited and energized about the war and he said, “It caused me to review my own thoughts about human nature.”

However, love of England was his strongest emotion. He was tortured by wanting to be a patriot but abhorred the violence of war. Ostracized for his pacifist views, he wrote in 1915, Why Men Fight, and it was a huge success. His pacifism, however, causes him to lose his job, and he’s sent to jail for writing anti-war articles. He writes in prison that he actually enjoyed the experience. It was a holiday from responsibility and therefore it was delightful.

He emerged from that experience, no longer just an academic, deciding that he needed to write a broad range of books. He became less rigid and less prudish, remarried, and his first child was born in 1921. He and his wife decide to found their own school, to school their own children and he found his ambition to write books revived.

In 1938 he became a professor at UCLA and CCNY, and completed his History of Western Philosophy, which he cites as the major source of his income. Russell was to struggle throughout his life with financial trouble — especially during the first half of his life.

He would often travel between England and America and in a poignant section called “Christmas at Sea,” written in 1931, he says:

I am learning much about growing old. Thirty-five years ago I was lately married, childless, very happy, and beginning to taste the joys of success. Family appeared to me as an external power hampering to freedom: the world, to me, was a world of individual adventure. I wanted to think my own thoughts, find my own friends. … I felt strong enough to stand alone. … Now, I realize, [this is just due to my vitality and youth.]

Time, they say, makes a man mellow. I do not believe it. Time makes a man afraid, and fear makes him conciliatory, and being conciliatory he endeavours to appear to others what they will think mellow. And with fear comes the need of affection, of some human warmth to keep away the chill of the cold universe. When I speak of fear, I do not mean merely or mainly personal fear: the fear of death or decrepitude or penury. … I am thinking of a more metaphysical fear. I am thinking of a fear that enters the soul through experience of the major evils to which life is subject: the treachery of friends, the death of those whom we love, the discovery of the cruelty that lurks in average human nature.

During the thirty-five years since my last Christmas on the Atlantic, experience of these major evils has changed the character of my unconscious attitude to life. To stand alone may still be possible as a moral effort, but is no longer pleasant as an adventure. I want the companionship of my children, the warmth of the family fire-side, the support of historic continuity, and the membership of a great nation. These are ordinary human joys, which most middle-aged persons enjoy at Christmas. There is nothing about them to distinguish the philosopher from other men; on the contrary, their very ordinariness makes them the more effective in mitigating the sense of sombre solitude.

And so Christmas at sea, which was once a pleasant adventure, has become painful. It seems to symbolize the loneliness of the man who chooses to stand alone, using his own judgment rather than the judgment of the herd. A mood of melancholy is, in these circumstances, inevitable, and should not be shirked.

But there is something also to be said on the other side. Domestic joys, like all the softer pleasures, may sap the will and destroy courage. The indoor warmth of the traditional Christmas is good, but so is the South wind, and the sun rising out of the sea, and the freedom of the watery horizon. The beauty of these things is undiminished by human folly and wickedness, and remains to give strength to the faltering idealism of middle age.

He goes back to Cambridge to teach, comes home, and fame and fortune and his career flourishes. But he is always beset by money problems that still pile up even as his income increases, and social ostracism for his radical views. Russell says that traditional religion is the source of much evil and he viewed it with scorn and concern for its negative effect. Needless to say, he is attacked for these views and had to defend his position. He talks about fear in religion, yet again another theme in his writing.

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly on fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion go hand in hand.

When asked about evidence for an all-powerful and loving God in 1947, Russell became sarcastic.

There is a rather repulsive smugness and self-complacency in the argument that man is so splendid as to be evidence of infinite wisdom and infinite power in his creator. Those who use this kind of reasoning always try to concentrate our attention on the few saints and sages; they try to make us forget the Neros and Atillas and Hitlers. … And even what is best in us is apt to lead to disaster. Religions that teach brotherly love have been used as an excuse for persecution, and our profoundest scientific insight is made into a means of mass destruction.

I can imagine a sardonic demon producing us for his amusement, but I cannot attribute to a being who is wise, beneficent, and omnipotent, the terrible weight of cruelty, suffering, and ironic degradation of what is best: that has marred the history of man in an increasing measure as he has become more master of his fate.

His humor shows up in the area of religion too. “How would you describe Hell, Lord Russell?” “Hell is a place where the police are German, the motorists French, and the cooks English.”

And then someone said to him, “Lord Russell, have you missed anything by not being religious?”

I don’t feel I’ve missed anything through not believing in religion. I think, on the contrary, that the religious people have missed a very great deal. They’ve missed the kind of pride that stands upright and looks at the world, and says, “Well, you can kill me, but anyway, here I am. I stand firm.” And they miss that. And I think that’s a very valuable thing that a person should have.

I shouldn’t like at all to go through life in sort of a creepy-crawly way, full of terror, and being bolstered up all the time as if I were a fainting lady being kept from sprawling on the ground … because no human being whom I can respect needs the consolation of things that are untrue. He can face the truth.

What about death then? How would you view death if you don’t have a religious context for it?

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a spender of their own.

Still being attacked for his pagan views and his failure to subscribe to the traditional religions, Bertrand Russell in protest, wrote his own ten commandments. He called them a “Liberal Decalogue.” And he said, “Perhaps the essence of the liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that as a future I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:”

A Liberal Decalogue

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that is happiness.

These are taken from a New York Times article called “The Best Answer to Fanaticism — Liberalism,” in 1951.

Then I thought, well, if Russell was so anti-religious, how does he view humanism? It would be interesting to know his point of view about that.

Those who attempt to make a religion of humanism, which recognizes nothing greater than man, do not satisfy my emotions. And yet I am unable to believe that, in the world as known, there is anything I can value outside human beings. … Not the starry heavens, but their effects on human percipients, have excellence; to admire the universe for its size is slavish and absurd; impersonal non-human truth appears to be an delusion. And so my intellect goes with the humanists, though my emotions violently rebel.

Then Russell was asked to comment on human beings, on human nature, and character values. How does he view those kind of things?

I don’t know human nature is supposed to be. But your nature is infinitely malleable, and that is what people don’t realize. If you compare a domestic dog with a wild wolf you will see what training can do. The domestic dog is a nice comfortable creature, barks occasionally, and he may bite the postman, but on the whole, he’s all right; whereas the wolf is quite a different thing. You can do exactly the same thing with human beings. Human beings, according to how they’re treated, will turn out totally different, and I think the idea you can’t change human nature is silly.

What traits then would an ideal character have?

Four characteristics seem to me jointly to form the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. I do not suggest that this list is complete, but I think it carries us a good way. Moreover, I firmly believe that by proper physical, emotional, and intellectual care of the young, these qualities could all be made very common.

But then, since you are a rationalist, Mr. Russell, how can love and rationality be reconciled?

I regard love as one of the most important things in human life, and I regard any system as bad which interferes unnecessarily with its free development. Love, when the word is properly used, does not denote any and every relationship between the sexes, but only one involving considerable emotion, and a relation which is psychological as well as physical. It may reach any degree of intensity. Such emotions as are expressed in “Tristan and Isolde” and in accordance with the experience of countless men and women. The power of giving artistic expression to the emotion of love is rare, but the emotion itself, at least in Europe, is not.

The three main extra-rational activities in modern life are religion, war, and love; all of these are extra-rational, but love is not anti-rational, that is say, a reasonable man may reasonably rejoice in its existence.

Now, as you know, Russell was a pacifist. It was a major thrust of his life. He founded the Bertrand Russell Foundation, for the purpose of promoting world peace. And it is important to him that we look at war’s destruction and find it unacceptable. He says about peace:

Our own planet, in which philosophers are apt to take a parochial and excessive interest, was once too hot to support life, and will in time become too cold. After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it has generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, I believe is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.

After the founding and formation of Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Russell received a letter from U Thant, who was Secretary General of the United Nations. He said:

It is good to know that it is proposed to start a Foundation in the name of Lord Russell, to expand and continue his efforts in the cause of peace. Lord Russell was one of the first to perceive the folly and danger of unlimited accumulation of nuclear armaments.

When we look at Russell’s life and what he strived for, what we see is a degree of excellence which he endeavored and strived for and accomplished in so many fields — whether it was philosophy or mathematics or world peace or looking at the structure of religion and what it can mean to us as human beings. So he’s always looking at what is excellent, and he says:

It would be necessary to the creation of [a society of excellence] to secure three conditions: first, a more even distribution of the produce of labor; second, security against large-scale wars; and third, a population which was stationary or very nearly so.

Until these conditions are secured, industrialism will continue to be used feverishly, to increase the wealth of the richest individuals, the territory of the greatest empires, and the population of the most populous nations, no one of which is of the slightest benefit to mankind. These three considerations have inspired what I have written and said [in terms of how to strive for excellence in our society.]

But then what would you hope to see the world achieve? What is your ideal for it?

I think I should put first, security against extreme disaster such as threatened by modern war. I should put second, the abolition of abject poverty throughout the world. Third, as a result of security and economic well-being, a general growth of tolerance and kindly feeling. Fourth, the greatest possible opportunity for personal initiative in ways not harmful to the community.

All these things are possible, and all would come about if men chose. In the meantime, the human race lives in a welter of organized hatreds and threats of mutual extermination. I cannot but think that sooner or later people will grow tired of this very uncomfortable way of living.

He said one of the Nobel Prizes was for his book Marriage and Morals, interestingly enough — it even surprised him — in 1950. What is the essence of a good marriage? It only took Russell four wives to come to this conclusion.

The essence of a good marriage is respect for each other’s personality combined with a deep intimacy, physical, mental, and spiritual, which makes a serious love between man and woman the most fructifying of all human experiences.

Russell’s fame continued to grow and he lectured around the world. He was constantly pursued for interviews as he grew older. At one point in China, he had a serious illness and he refused to grant interviews. A resentful press decided to carry the news in Japan that he had died. Russell appealed to them but they refused to retract the story. On his way home he stopped in Japan and the press again sought to interview him. He had his secretary hand out a printed announcement to the reporters that said, “Since Mr. Russell is dead, he cannot be interviewed.”

In his harvest years — his senior years — he was asked, “What has given you the greatest personal pleasure?”

That’s rather a difficult question, isn’t it? Passionate private relations perhaps would come first of all. I get immense pleasure from natural beauty. And intellectual pleasure, understanding something that has been puzzling, and the moment comes when you understand it, that is a very delightful moment.

Russell’s relevance today I think is quite obvious. He challenges us to face and destroy all false beliefs and illusions, that keep us from being free in thought and action and capable of self-responsibility. He challenges us to think about war, to stop nuclear proliferation, and create a safe, peaceful world. He begins his autobiography with a foreword, which I think really sums Russell up.

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy — ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy.

I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness — that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss.

I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it may seem too good for human life, this is what — at last — I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I try to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.