Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Wisdom Of Bertrand Russell

I unearthed the other day a volume that has been mouldering on one of my bookshelves for more than thirty years, called “The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell”. It is, as you might surmise, a collection of the essays of the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, culled from the many books he wrote over his very long life (1872 – 1970).

Here are some of his epigrammatic insights from these essays.

“His life, for all its waywardness, had a certain consistency, reminiscent of that of the aristocratic rebels of the early nineteenth century”. His Own Obituary.


“I had a letter from an Anglican bishop not long ago in which he said that all my opinions on everything were inspired by sexual lust, and that the opinions I expressed were among the causes of the Second World War". BBC Interview with John Freeman, The Listener, March 19, 1959.


“Boredom as a factor in human behaviour has received, in my opinion, far less attention than it deserves”. The Conquest of Happiness.


“Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility”. Power: A New Social Analysis.


“In spite of the fundamental importance of economic facts in determining politics and beliefs of an age or nation, I do not think that non-economic factors can be neglected without risks of error which may be fatal in practice”.
The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.


“The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this; (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgement”. Sceptical Essays.


“I should make it my object to teach thinking, not orthodoxy, or even heterodoxy. And I should absolutely never sacrifice intellect to the fancied interest of morals”. On Education Especially in Early Childhood.


“I mean by wisdom a right conception of the ends of life. This is something which science itself does not provide. Increase of science by itself, therefore, is not enough to guarantee any genuine progress, though it provides one of the ingredients which progress requires”. The Scientific Outlook.


“Rational apprehension of dangers is necessary; fear is not”.
On Education Especially in Early Childhood.


"The main things which seem to me important on their own account, and not merely as a means to other things, are knowledge, art, instinctive happiness, and relations of friendship or affection”. The Problem of China.


"Instinct, mind and spirit are all essential to a full life; each has its own excellence and its own corruption”. The Analysis of Mind.


“We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practise, and another which we practise but seldom preach”. Sceptical Essays.


“No nation was ever so virtuous as each believes itself, and none was ever so wicked as each believes the other”. Justice in War-Time.


“But if human conceit was staggered for a moment by its kinship with the ape, it soon found a way to reassert itself and that way is the ‘philosophy’ of evolution. A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress – though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known”. Our Knowledge of the External World.


“Philosophy should be piecemeal and provisional like science; final truth belongs to heaven, not to this world”. An Outline of Philosophy.


“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction”. Sceptical Essays.


“To save the world requires faith and courage: faith in reason, and courage to proclaim what reason shows to be true”. The Prospects of Industrial Civilization.


“If it is the devil that tempts the young to enjoy themselves, is it not the same personage that persuades the old to condemn their enjoyment? And is not condemnation perhaps merely a form of excitement appropriate to old age?” (Nobel Acceptance Speech) Human Society in Ethics and Politics.


“There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths”. Human Society in Ethics and Politics.


“There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths”. Unpopular Essays.


”……the Crotonians burnt the Pythagorean school. But burning schools, or men for that matter, has always proved singularly unhelpful in stamping out unorthodoxy”. Wisdom of the West.