The Wisdom of Bertrand Russell

One of the benefits of being sick with this miserable cold has been that I’ve only had the energy to read and not do much else. Last night, after deciding to go to bed at an unusually early hour, I looked at my shelves and decided that Bertrand Russell would make for good company on the plague ship (as I have now re-named my bedroom), and provide a nice counter-point to the darkness of the German Romantics that I’ve been reading too much of lately.

I first read Russell in high school; it was his essay, “How I Write.” I remember liking it, but the stronger memory is of my literature teacher getting into trouble for assigning that reading. It was a Catholic school, after all, and Russell was not known for being kind to religion. That incident only served to pique my interest all the more, and by the time I started college, I had read a substantial amount of his work, including last night’s read, Why I Am Not a Christian. 

By the time I first read him, I must have been in my junior year of high school, and I had certainly already started to question my faith. As I previously wrote, that process of questioning started in the early eighties after watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A question that always plagued me during those early years of questioning, however, dealt with morality. As someone raised Roman Catholic, morality was something relatively external; there were a set of rules you lived by, and if you transgressed, you were a sinner. If you had no religion, how would you know what was good? I found my answer in Russell, before I was even able to crack the spine of the book, in the preface.

The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from cooperation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.

Needless to say, a thorough reading of the book and its many essays (especially “What I Believe”) drove the point home that morality, true morality, did not have to come from a preset set of rules, but that it was and should be something internal. According to Russell, morality sprang from a confluence of love and knowledge, or as he states, “love guided by knowledge.”

So this morning, as my daughter watched her cartoons and I ran around the house singing the Spiderman theme song (thanks Marc), I remembered a BBC interview with Russell that I watched a while back. There was a part of it where he was asked what he would say to future generations, what hopes he would have for us and our children. I was lucky enough to find the exact clip, and here it is. Everyone must watch this.

The full interview can be found here, and is definitely worth the watch. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful man. “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Indeed.


12 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Bertrand Russell

  1. No problem! That’s a wonderful clip. I also like his point about the world becoming increasingly interconnected — quite perspicacious! My own experience with respect to religion was similar to yours — Roman Catholic background riddled with big questions about morality. My head was turned (at first, anyway) by Kurt Vonnegut.

  2. I vividly remember reading “Why I Am Not A Christian” the first time around the age of thirteen and being so moved, so freed. I was sitting on the floor of the public library in the back corner of the building, the cover of the book shielded by my palms in fear that my mother would find me in the aisles and realize what I was reading. I come from a very, very religious family and quite frankly, I think that might have been the first thing I ever experienced that spoke so frankly and openly about Christianity. It helped me feel less alone, and gave me the courage and the knowledge to know I had a choice — something I honestly didn’t believe I had before reading his work. Thank you so much for sharing this. Really.

    • All of it 😉

      He did write about a pretty wide variety of subjects, he was a logician, philosopher, mathematician, etc… and I admit that I have not read his Principia Mathematica or his other works on mathematics. But his essays and other writings on ethics, religion, culture, epistemology… those are brilliant, and anywhere is a good place to start.

  3. Get well soon!

    You visited my Bertrand Russell post yesterday — I mentioned a BBC radio documentary I was looking for. Tom Stanley of the Bertrand Russell Society Library was kind enough to give me this link:

    [audio src="" /]

    I hope that if you are eyes are too tired to read, this radio documentary might amuse you.

    • Thanks!

      I did, reading your Russell post made me think of pulling the Russell book off the shelf.

      One of the perks of bed rest is that now I have the time to listen to the radio broadcasts, and I’ve just started listening to the link you sent. Thank you 🙂

  4. Hi. Another fantastic post, if I may say so. You are so right to draw our attention to this man. He makes my own mental contortions seem superfluous. Russell and men like him, should be much more widely appreciated. Let’s hope that he was a man ahead of his time.

  5. Coincidentally, I’d posted on Spinoza this week, and quoted Russell on Spinoza’s God…but it is amazing how close Russell’s position (like Einstein’s) is to Spinoza’s…

  6. Morality was the thing I grappled with as a young Christian-soon-to-turn-apostate. It has fascinated me ever since, and fascinated my parents, who still find me to be loving and considerate and not terribly debauch. Finding a way to measure goodness without religion is a liberating experience. Thanks for the post.

  7. Pingback: Vonnegut’s Letter: Slaughterhouse Five | Intelligent Life

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