Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Challenge for our Time: Would You Rather Die Than Think?

Many people would rather die than think; in fact, most do.

-Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote extensively and profoundly throughout his long lifetime. He won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western Philosophy and co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead.

Two essays, however, are among his monumental contributions; they are must reads for lay people and non-professional philosophers today. One is entitled Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind and the other --Ideas That Have Helped Mankind. Despite his frail appearance, Russell was of the "tough minded" school of philosophy and, in that respect, had more in common with Jean-Paul Sartre than he would ever admit. In this short audio file, Russell states succinctly the stark choice that we faced in 1950 and still face today.

In his Autobiography, Russell wrote a fitting prologue for his work:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
Later, we find the source of that despair:
Communists, Fascists, and Nazis have successfully challenged all that I thought good, and in defeating them much of what their opponents have sought to preserve is being lost. Freedom has come to be thought weakness, and tolerance has been compelled to wear the garb of treachery.

-Bertrand Russell,Autobiography

Though much of Russell's lasting contribution to world culture rests upon his achievements in pure logic, he was primarily a humanist and a humanitarian. Social activism and politics "ran in the family". He not only wrote about the social issues of his day, he actively tried to influence the tide of history.

Russell was not content to write for academia and other philosophers. He reached a wider public with The Problems of Philosophy (1912) and A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Both books did much to educate several generations -including mine. Russell did not arbitrarily separate education from the pressing issues of the day; rather, he linked progress in education with social progress in general. He is famous for debunking fallacy, propaganda, and, most memorably, superstition and religion. He believed widespread superstition has unwelcome social consequences.

It is tragic that American society did not take to heart Russell`s simple admonition:
I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.
That simple doctrine might have replaced political ideologies of all sorts in America. The tragic regime of George W. Bush might have been avoided. We might have avoided the catastrophe that was Ronald Reagan.

It is easy to understand the rise of Reagan. The GOP faithful would say: "He made us feel good about ourselves". It was an era in which the rapacious greedy felt good about economic plunder. "Greed was good" became a motto. Reagan made it possible for republicans to sleep well at night even as "trickle down" economics was known to displace millions by exporting the very heart of America`s "heavy industry". Perhaps some people ought not feel good about themselves. Some ought not sleep so easily at night.

It is a mistake to think that Russell died a disappointed man because the world had not and could not live up to his hopes. Had he foreseen recent developments in modern America he might have. No! Though easily depicted as a "disembodied intellect", Russell was made of sterner stuff.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

-Prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography
Russell, though a logician who wrote disparagingly of Sartre's Existentialism which he considered to be almost incomprehensible, Russell was himself, in the finest existentialist tradition, the architect of his own life. Thus, he was himself an "Existentialist" --if not a cowboy.


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