Bertrand Russell – 1927

Lessons for Today



To write an Introduction to a selection from one’s own works is no easy task. If I might be permitted an Irish bull, I should say that it would be much easier if I were dead. Until then, it is impossible to see oneself as a whole, or to distinguish between a phase and a permanent change. However, I will do what I can to narrate the causes which have made my present style of writing different from that of earlier years.

From the age of eleven, when I began the study of Euclid, I had a passionate interest in mathematics, combined with a belief that science must be the source of all human progress. Youthful ambition made me wish to be a benefactor of mankind, the more so as I lived in an atmosphere in which public spirit was taken for granted. I hoped to pass from mathematics to science, and lived a solitary life amid day-dreams such as may have inspired Galileo or
Descartes in adolescence. But it turned out that, while not without aptitude for pure mathematics, I was completely destitute of the concrete kinds of skills which are necessary in science. Moreover, within mathematics it was the most abstract parts which I understood best: I had no difficulty with elliptic functions, but could never succeed in mastering optics. Science was therefore closed to me as a career.

At the same time, I found myself increasingly attracted to philosophy, not, as is often the case, by the hope of ethical or theological comfort, but by the wish to discover whether we possess anything that can be called knowledge. At the age of fifteen (1887), I recorded in my diary that no fact seemed indubitable except consciousness. (Now, I no longer make this exception.) Mathematics, I thought, had a better chance of being true than anything else that passed as general knowledge. But when, at the age of eighteen, I read Mill’s Logic, I was horrified by his credulity: the arguments which he advanced for believing in arithmetic and geometry were such as to confirm my doubts. I therefore decided that, before doing anything else, I would find out whether any grounds were ascertainable for regarding mathematics as true.

This task turned out to be considerable; it occupied me, with a few intervals, until the year 1910. In that year Dr. Whitehead and I completed the MS. of Principia Mathematica, which contained all that I could hope to contribute towards the solution of the problem which had begun to trouble me more than twenty years earlier. The main question remained, of course, unanswered; but incidentally we had been led to the invention of a new method in philosophy and a new branch of mathematics.

After the completion of Principia Mathematica. I felt that it was no longer necessary to concentrate so narrowly as hitherto upon one kind of work. I cannot remember an age when I was not interested in politics; I was taught English constitutional history almost before I could read. My first book, published in 1896, was a study of German Social Democracy. From 1907 onwards, I took an active part in the campaign for women’s suffrage. In 1902 1 wrote: “The Free Man’s Worship,” and two other essays (one on mathematics and one on history) expressing a similar outlook. But it is probable that I should have remained mainly academic and abstract but for the war. I had watched with growing anxiety the policies of all the European Great Powers in the years before 1914, and was quite unable to accept the superficial melodramatic explanations of the catastrophe which were promulgated by all the belligerent governments. The attitude of ordinary men and women during the Inst months amazed me, particularly the fact that they found a kind of pleasure in the excitement, as well as their readiness to believe all kinds of myths. It became obvious that I had lived in a fool’s paradise. Human nature, even among those who had thought themselves civilized, had dark depths 1 hat 1 had not suspected. Civilization, which I had thought secure, showed itself capable of generating destructive forces which threatened a disaster comparable to the fall of Rome. Everything that I had valued was jeopardized, and only an infinitesimal minority seemed to mind.

While the war lasted, abstract pursuits were impossible to me. As much as any soldier who enlisted, I felt the necessity of “doing my bit,” but I could not feel that the victory of either side would solve any problem. During 1915, I wrote Principles of Social Reconstruction (or Why Men Fight, as it is called in America), in the hope that, as men grew weary of fighting, they would become interested in the problem of building a pacific society. It was obvious that this would require changes in the impulses and unconscious desires of ordinary human beings; but modern psychology shows that such changes can be brought about without great difficulty. It was obvious also that nothing could be achieved by writings addressed exclusively to specialists. Thus throughout the years of the war I was endeavoring, however unsuccessfully, to write so as to be read by the general public. When the war was over, I found it impossible to return to a purely academic life, although the opportunity was open to me. The problems which interest me are no longer those with which I was concerned before 1914, and I find it impossible now to shut the world out of my thoughts when I enter my study. I do not pretend that this is an improvement; I merely record it as a fact.

The effect which the war had upon me was intensified by travels after the war was over. Western Europe and America were familiar to me, but I had never come across any non-occidental culture. In 1920 I spent five weeks in Soviet Russia; I had interviews with many leading Bolsheviks, including an hour’s conversation with Lenin; I stayed in Leningrad and Moscow, and traveled down the Volga from Nijni-Novgorod to Astrakhan, visiting all the towns and many of the villages on the way. The Bolshevik philosophy appeared to me profoundly unsatisfactory, not because of its communism, but because of the elements which it shares with the philosophy of Western financial magnates. While the problems raised by the spectacle of Russia were still unsolved in my mind, I went to China, where I spent nearly a year. In that country I found a way of life less energetically destructive than that of the West, and possessing a beauty which the West can only extirpate. There appeared no hope that the traditional merits of non-industrial civilizations could survive; the problem was to combine industrialism with a humane way of life, more especially
with art and with individual liberty. No Western nation has yet begun to solve this problem; but one may hope that it will be solved first in those countries which have assimilated industrialism most completely, since it can only be solved by a community which uses machines without being enthusiastic about them.

Everything in which the modern world differs from that of the Renaissance, whether for good or evil, is traceable ultimately to the influence of science. The scientific nations are the strongest in war, in commerce, and in prestige. Nothing that goes against science has any chance of lasting success in the modern world. Consequently certain things which we inherit from the Middle Ages are rapidly disappearing. Religion has already been profoundly modified by its reluctant concessions to science, and will doubtless be modified still further. The hereditary principle is rapidly disappearing in politics and will probably disappear in economics. The ideal of contemplation, which the monks took over from the neo-platonists, and modern men of learning from the monks, is being hustled and bustled out of existence by those who urge that everything should be “dynamic.” In Asia, the revolutionary effect of science, and its offspring industrialism, is beginning to be even more pronounced than in Europe; for in Europe science grew spontaneously out of the Renaissance, whereas in Asia there was nothing indigenous to prepare the way for it. Throughout the world, therefore, science and industrialism must be accepted as irresistible and our hopes for mankind must all be within this framework.

At the same time, when I examine my own conception of human excellence, I find that, doubtless owing to early environment, it contains many elements which have hitherto been associated with aristocracy, such as fearlessness, independence of judgment, emancipation from the herd, and leisurely culture. Is it possible to preserve these qualities, and even make them widespread, in an industrial community? And is it possible to dissociate them from the typical aristocratic vices: limitation of sympathy, haughtiness, and cruelty to those outside a charmed circle? These bad qualities could not exist in a community in which the aristocratic virtues were universal. But that could only be achieved through economic security and leisure, which are the two sources of what is good in aristocracies. It has at last become technically possible, through the progress of machinery and the consequent increased productivity of labor, to create a society in which every man and woman has economic security and sufficient leisure—for complete leisure is neither necessary nor desirable. But although the technical possibility exists, there are formidable political and psychological obstacles. It would be necessary to the creation of such a society 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 is 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 on political and social questions since the outbreak of the war, and more particularly since my visits to Russia and China.

At bottom, the obstacles to a better utilization of our new power over nature are all psychological, for the political obstacles have psychological sources. It is evident that, in a world where there was leisure and economic security for all, the happiness of all would be greater than that of ninety-nine per cent of the present inhabitants of the planet. Why, then, do the ninety-nine per cent not combine to overcome the resistance of the privileged one per cent? Partly from inertia; partly because they can be swayed by appeals to hatred, fear, and envy. Instead of combining to produce collective happiness, men compete to produce collective misery. Since this competition among subject populations is useful to the holders of power, they encourage it, under the name of “patriotism,” in the schools and the Press. Consequently the worst elements in human nature are artificially strengthened, and everything possible is done to prevent the realization that cooperation, not competition, is the road to happiness.

A radical reform of education is, therefore, an essential preliminary to the creation of a better world. Without this preliminary, a happy world, if it could be created, would speedily make itself miserable, because each nation would find the happiness of other nations intolerable. In schools for the sons of the well-to-do, there is a practical compulsion to acquire military training, while everything possible is done to secure an artificial ignorance on matters of sex. That is to say, everything concerned with the creation of life is thought to be abominable, while everything concerned with taking life is exalted as noble. This is the morality of suicide. It springs from the fact that we attach value to power, rather than to fullness of life: we think a man a line fellow when he can cause others to be miserable rather than when he can achieve happiness for himself. All that is needed is to give men a just conception of what constitutes their own happiness. Traditional moralists have made a mistake in preaching sacrifice, for several reasons. In the first place, very few men will follow such preaching. In the second place, it leads to hypocrisy and self-deception: persuade yourself that you desire A, when in fact you desire B, and you will think you are practicing self-sacrifice in renouncing the few who do genuinely make sacrifices become self-righteous and envious, and feel that those who will not sacrifice voluntarily deserve to be forced into unhappiness. Morality, therefore, should not be based upon self-sacrifice, but upon correct psychology. There is less pleasure to be derived from keeping a beggar hungry than from filling your own stomach. This may not sound a very exalted maxim, but if it were acted upon war and oppression would cease throughout the world; for war and oppression, as a rule, diminish the happiness of victors and oppressors, not only of the vanquished and oppressed. Generally they do so by actual impoverishment; but in any case they produce the fear of revenge.

But although a rational pursuit of personal happiness, if it were common, would suffice to regenerate the world, it is not probable that so reasonable a motive will alone prove sufficiently powerful. Emotions of expansive affection, generosity, and pleasure in creation also have their part to play. There is no one key: politics, economics, psychology, education all act and react, and no one of them can make any great or stable advance without the help of the others. Narrow specialization, therefore, cannot produce a philosophy which shall be of service to our age. It is necessary to embrace all life and all science—Europe, Asia, and America, physics, biology, and psychology. The task is almost superhuman. All that the present author can hope to o is to make some men conscious of the problem, and of the kind of directions in which solutions are to be sought.

Bertrand Russell

Photograph 1927: Conde Nast Archive/Corbis

London, March, 1927.