Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell 1, his human wisdoms

Here is BR on human matters.  Let me kick off with these because it gives a clue to BR ‘s mind in the sphere of human wisdom.  You may feel it’s ignoble to snipe at a ‘great’ who’s dead, but this is what I think: 

On his own life:

In the prologue to his autobiography, Russell wrote that three passions had always governed him: ‘the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and[my]unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’ (here).

Also that love brings about ‘ecstasy’. — (What on Earth did that word mean!  Was there some Ancient Greek meaning?  Or was he just talking about the physical ecstasy during you know what? Or was he saying that just loving someone like God does, is ecstasy?  He wrote he had  now found it with his fifth wife.)

As for his search for knowledge, he ‘wished to understand the hearts of men’ and ‘why the stars shine’ and to apprehend the ‘power by which number holds sway above the flux’; this latter obviously referring to his love for mathematics.

As for the suffering of mankind, he lists some of the general evils and injustices which he cannot alleviate, and therefore he too suffers.

He didn’t mention that he had any passions for the self-interests, pleasures and instinctual drives of Number One, which I would have thought was the most interesting and fundamental thing about each of us and at the root of the tragedy of mankind.  


On social and political matters:  He said: ‘I won’t believe anything for which there is insufficient evidence’. (Again, what rational virtue!)

He favoured democratic socialism, apparently throughout his life.

He visited the Soviet Union as early as 1920, and the following two quotations are from from the book he then wrote: The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920).  Unlike many others of socialist opinion, BR did tell  himself the truth about the evidence he saw.

“I went to Russia a Communist; but….[I had] my own doubts…. as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.”

“I am compelled to reject Bolshevism for two reasons: First, because the price mankind must pay to achieve Communism by Bolshevik methods is too terrible; and secondly because, even after paying the price, I do not believe the result would be what the Bolsheviks profess to desire.”

BR’s other political opinions are summarized below.  [They have been edited, unless otherwise stated, from philosopher James Mannion (in what used to be the site netplaces) and from here,] 

He protested against Western colonization (from here).

He opposed militarism and warfare. His protests against World War I lost him his Cambridge job and landed him in prison for six months.  

He supported  appeasement in the years up to World War II, but later agreed that Hitler had to be defeated.

Russell called this stance “Relative Pacifisim” — that war was always a great evil, but in extreme circumstances (such as when Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it might be a lesser one. (So what’s the difference from everyone else’s stance?)

On November 20, 1948 Russell advocated a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, arguing that war was inevitable so best get it over with before both sides had greater stockpiles of greater weapons.  He later changed his mind and argued for mutual disarmament.  (That summary of mine may be incomplete and unfair, but as it stands it looks like BR eventually had the brilliant idea that one shouldn’t just drop bombs but come to an agreement not to!) 

He protested against every major conflict from World War I to the Vietnam War.  He took a pro-Allies stand during World War II, but in the Cold War he remained an antinuclear activist, and at age 89 was imprisoned for a week for his protests.  He released a manifesto with Einstein and organized conferences.  

He opposed the Vietnam War, and with Jean-Paul Sartre organized a tribunal to expose American war crimes.

He was an early critic of the official story of the J. F. K. assassination.  His “16 Questions on the Assassination[?]” from 1964 is still considered a good summary of the apparent inconsistencies in the case.

On religion and on sexual morality:

The substance of the next two paragraphs comes from here, and from philosopher Mannion in what used to be the site netplaces;

Russell wrote the books What I Believe, Why I Am Not a Christian, Marriage and Morals, and A Free Man’s Worship.  These and others were disapproved of by some American academics. (The books presumably gave the regular rationalist view that Faith lacked objective evidence.)

He wrote that millennia of philosophers trying to prove  that God existed, hadn’t worked. He mentioned the atrocities committed in the name of God as well as other side-effects of Christianity. He gave his evaluation of the teachings of Jesus (from here).  He was in favour of ‘freedom of sexual expression’ and against the hypocrisy and destructiveness of bourgeois morality.

From here: Russell called himself a philosophical agnostic but practical atheist, in that he couldn’t absolutely disprove that God existed but the available evidence was overwhelmingly that He didn’t.  (I would have thought that this was just the old discovery by Kant(?) that the only things you can be absolutely sure of are logical truths like ‘all bachelors are unmarried’, but that statements about the world are never absolutely certain.  One can never be absolutely certain that the sun is  going to rise tomorrow. 

From here:  Russell wrote against Victorian morality; and that unmarried sex was not necessarily immoral if the two loved one another.  ( Love, love, love!  Is sex alright as long as there’s love, but not if it’s just pure lust?  Is married sex morally alright even if there’s no love?)   

From here are a couple of typical public statements by him:  ‘Men are born ignorant, not stupid.  They are made stupid by education.’  ‘The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.  Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion.’

Russell was also a schoolteacher. He taught in China and was headmaster of the exclusive Beacon Hill School in England.  It existed from 1927 till 1942, and taught pupils an openness to progressive ways of thought on social matters(from here).

On Palestine and Israel:  (From here, which is now the only reference I could find to it):  Perhaps shortly after 1948, BR said that the founding of Israel was a bad thing because Arab states would now spend their money on arms rather than on uplifting their peoples.    (But, think I, was there evidence that uplifting their peoples is the kind of thing that Arab governments do?  BR just presumed it was.)

In a letter to a Tel Aviv journal in 1963, he wrote (here):

“…if Israel were to make a magnanimous gesture, which might take the shape of agreeing to accept the return of all Arabs….and to finance the re-settlement of all those refugees who did not wish to return – then it might be possible to have serious talks with Arab Governments, which could lead to the normalisation of relationships.”

“A further point would be a non-aggression pact, guaranteeing that Israel accepts her present boundaries to be final.”

“…the Arabs feel themselves to have been…wronged and are, therefore, not able to take the initiative.  It is in Israel’s…interest quickly to settle her dispute with the Arab world. It is, therefore, for Israel to make…generous steps which would remove the major source of grievance without endangering the basic Israeli requirement of acceptance.”

BR further concluded (here) in 1970 that ‘Justice requires that the first step towards a settlement must be an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June, 1967.’  (I think that people forget that the occupation resulted from the Arab nations gathering up their newly-bought arms and promising for months beforehand to wipe Israel and most of its population off the map.) 

(There is more of the same from BR here.) 

BR’s words above are all perfectly reasonable, as if the Arabs are like jolly decent Englishmen on the cricket field .  Someone has called this attitude the ‘mirror-image fallacy’ (from here):  When moralist-liberals look at the Arabs, they see a mirror-image of chaps like themselves. They have a one-size-fits-all liberal idealism which simply doesn’t fit the reality of the Arabs.  They assume that the Palestinians are just like they themselves, so why can’t the Zionists be more accommodating? 

There is a huge hidden assumption here, that human beings are all the same: God did after all create them equal — it’s racist to think otherwise.  It’s a minimum requirement for decency in the post-1945 world to believe that all peoples are like oneself.

The trouble is that, after God created them, the stork dropped them into different cultures, the differences between which are unforeseeable, unbelievable.  We all thought for example that after the destruction of settler-society in sub-Saharan Africa, there would then be human-rights democracy because that kind of system was surely the natural default position for the whole of humanity.  But the political classes of  liberated sub-Sahara just emptied their countries’ money-boxes into their own pockets, and presided over famines and blood-baths; because that was the political culture. 

In another post, here, I give insights from three authors who aim to understand the unique features of the Arab way of mind, which is what shapes their own personal behaviour and that of their nations. 

The subtleties of the human situation are simply beyond BR.  To that accusation, one can imagine him with his mind calm and rational, whirring like a clock on logico-mathematical puzzles, and applying it to human matters.


No Comments Found

Leave a Reply