Thursday, August 19, 2010

Some Bertrand Russell Quotations

I'm vaguely in the process of reading Bertrand Russell's "Unpopular Essays," a series of essays so titled not because they are offensive - though some very well may be - but rather because Russell is unapologetically not writing for a popular audience.  While still not his formal philosophy, per se, Russell makes frequent recourse to famous philosophers and ideas without fully explaining them, and uses language which may confuse, as he says, particularly dull children.  The latter point made in response to some reviewers who had lambasted some of his "popular essays" for not being reader-friendly enough, as if it's the writer's job to write to the lowest common denominator.

Reading Russell is always enjoyable for me, because I find him so eminently reasonable.  Of course, he get pinned into the "liberal socialist" camp, and is thus something of a polarizing figure in the history of both theoretical and popular philosophy, but no one would find that more absurd than Russell himself.  In fact, he was very much a man who believed that dogma of any kind was dangerous; the idea that he represents any particular ideology - except perhaps the ideology of avoiding ideology - is a reach.  Certainly he had a great many opinions which are classified in our modern era as liberal, but - and I would say the same about myself - those are, on the one hand, conditional ideas that don't represent "The Answer" to anything, and, on the other hand, are usually more nuanced than the expression of them as 'liberal' can possibly capture.

Russell was eminently quotable, as well, even though he is the kind of thinker who would resist the idea of summarizing someone's ideas with mere quotation.  With that in mind, I want to share a couple quotations of his - not necessarily from "Unpopular Essays" - and explicate them a bit.  Consider this the next post in the "More Interesting Than It Seems" series. 


Russell is well known as a philosopher, as well as an historian of philosophy.  Though he himself in fact pursued a great many philosophical thoughts, he was irreverent in his efforts. 

"That Plato's Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history."

I think he found, in the existing academic structures in the world of philosophy, the same deference and refusal to think that he so much despised in politics.  It was too easy to simply believe that Plato, because he was Plato, was making a good point about how societies should be organized.  Hence the dogmatism among philosophers that Plato is some kind of political all-father. 

"I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine."

One of the biggest critiques of Russell was that, while he was anti-dogmatic, he often spoke persuasively rather than inquiringly.  He, in fact, came across as extremely dogmatic about his anti-dogmatism.  That's a fair criticism, but I also think it does a bit of a disservice to Russell.  Ultimately it's not that satisfying to read an essay that begins every sentence with "I might be wrong about this but..." 

"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way."

However much he was irreverent, Russell was also well-aware of the history of philosophy, though the above quotation could just as easily apply in politics or religion.  Nevertheless, there's a Kantian notion* here.  In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant comes to very much this conclusion, that some especially metaphysical questions are impossible to answer, and that those same questions are also likely to have vehement debates surrounding them. 

* See what I did there?

"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."

Of course, this quotation could easily apply to Kant, as well as a great many other philosophers.  For his own part, Russell was rarely taken seriously as a pure philosopher, probably because he found the pure, academic efforts of contemporaries like Husserl to be, shall we say, ridiculous.  His moral, political, and social writings may not have been as academic, but were they less valuable? 


Russell was no apologist for the world in which he lived, however.  Though he was certainly an idealist, who believed very much in the capacity of people to be good, he approached his political and social philosophy with a great deal of cynicism. 

"If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years."

While not an anthropologist, Russell certainly does strive to undermine existing paradigms.  The above quotations tells a different story than the one we traditionally hear.  Usually, the problem is that we're too caught up in ourselves, and that we should care more about the happiness of others, but I think he makes a good point: people who sacrifice their own happiness entirely make a grave mistake as well.  We should, instead, find a better way to encourage individual happiness that comes not at the expense of others.  Which is really just the other half of the golden rule, so often (and ironically) shortened to "do unto others."  Let's not forget the "as you would have them do unto yourself." 

"It is a waste of energy to be angry with a man who behaves badly, just as it is to be angry with a car that won't go."

Nevertheless, Russell did not blame people for their shortsightedness.  The influence of culture, social norms, and political structures is extreme.  While this quotation is a bit too behaviorist for my liking, I appreciate the point: it's silly to rage against the man who is merely a symptom of a bigger problem, and not the disease itself. 

Work and Leisure

I've left out a number of good quotations that could go well here in favor of three particularly good ones.  In short, Russell was very much of the opinion that entirely too much work gets done in the world, and that we, in general, spend far too little time and effort thinking about what we want and ought to do with our spare time. 

"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

Not being dogmatic, Russell lacks the moralizing that comes with our modern conceptions of leisure.  Reading books is good, being on Facebook all the time is bad, we say.  Writing essays is good, playing computer games is bad.  I could go on.  The point is, though, that maybe the time you enjoy wasting, well, yeah. 

"Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid."

This quotation and the one after it are related.  The above trivializes work by showing what it is, in its essence.  While it is true that, in order to survive, we have to move matter at or near the earth's surface, it is also true that we get extremely caught up in how, why, where, and by whom all of that is done. 

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

I suspect you know someone for whom this applies.  You may even be someone for whom this applies.  Regardless, I think the point is a good one; even the most serious work in the world should be taken with proper perspective, not just because it makes life a little better, but also because you might be more effective anyway if you're not having a nervous breakdown. 


As an ardent thinker and believer in thinking, Russell has a lot to say about thought as such.  In particular, Russell is frequently distraught by the surprisingly negative relationship the majority of the world has with the process of thinking. 

"Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so."

I don't think this quotation is meant to mean that people don't think during their lives and then die.  Rather, I think it means that people, given the palpable choice between thinking and dieing, often actively choose death.  Cynical?  Extremely, but also likely true.  For example, consider how many people consume vast quantities of high fructose corn syrup every day. 

"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth -- more than ruin -- more even than death.... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."

Of course, if the short form of the quotation isn't enough, the long form is here to spell it out.  How ironic, in Russell's view, that the greatest accomplishment of mankind is also terrifying. 

"Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination."

Changing gears, this quotation makes me think of Einstein's famous sayings about imagination.  In much the same vein, Russell speaks to the desirability of imagination, and I would say elevates it over knowledge in the process.  Indeed, it may very well be that science is actually, at its core, about both. 


Russell was raised in a Christian household, and actually did hold that most of the traditional Christian virtues were good ones (except, for example, sexual abstinence, which he found absurd).  Even so, he was a staunch atheist - or at least a staunch agnostic, being generally undogmatic - and held that morality could be arrived at logically. 

"The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy - I mean that if you are happy you will be good."

Here is an example of a practical philosophy of morality, and also an example of a fantastic reversal of expectations.  The opening of the quotation seems innocuous enough, but his conception is non-traditional.  The point is well-taken, however.  It may very well be that if we focused more on making people happy, then they would be good more easily, rather than trying to make people good and hoping they'll also be happy.  The idea here is related to one authors and philosophers have been expressing for a long time: it's much rarer for wealthy - or at least comfortable - people to be thieves.  If so much is true with money, why not with morals as well? 

"The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others."

I think this is the most controversial quotation in the set, and I love it.  It takes on both the "Great Man" theory of history - if tangentially - and the unchallenged (and, really, almost unchallengeable) notion that self-sacrifice is desirable.  Moral luminaries are, as we often forget, people, and Russell sees in their willingness to give up their own pleasures a kind of sick desire to rob the same from others.  He is, of course, mainly challenging Christianity here, but we could say the same about any number of areas of human experience.  Consider the over-worked teacher who gives up everything so that her students might become stressed-out, over-worked adults themselves.  Consider the monk who surrenders sexual company in the hope of motivating others to do the same.  Consider the insurance executive who works 15 hours a day, so that he might better ensure that his profit margins are high (and therefore his coverage more scant).

In all, it's a polarizing quotation, but the seeds are visible even in some of the more mundane thoughts about happiness.  Of course, Russell would not be phased by the offense that many of his readers would take at such an idea, if only because he recognized that most popular opinions today were once extremely unpopular, to the point of being absurd.  And, on the balance, it's not really worth it to get angry with a dead philosopher, is it?  That sounds dangerously like wishing for the unhappiness of another more than wishing for the happiness of oneself.  Or, worse yet, confusing the two.

1 comment:

  1. Funny note: I didn't blink about the Kant reference until you pointed it out. Stupid classical education.

    Also, I like the "more interesting" series. It's quite entertaining.

    Go Rox!!!.....sigh.