The British philosopher and Nobel laureate (for literature) Bertrand Russell once wrote an essay titled “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.”
Of course, when he wrote the essay in 1931, nobody would have taken offense at the word “mankind.” But we live in a different era and such words, so we have been taught, qualify as sexist slurs. Hence, I’ll stick with “humanity” for the title of this blog post.
Over the course of his 98-year life, Russell was right more often than he was wrong. But even when he was wrong, he had good arguments for his conclusions. So he was almost always worth listening to.
And he didn’t just talk. His anti-war activism once got him fired from Cambridge University and sent to prison. Later, his book Marriage and Morals got him denied a teaching job at the City University of New York, an institution that should have thanked its lucky stars for the chance to hire an intellectual giant like Russell.
Although he was himself a man of ideas, he knew that people often used ideas merely as an excuse for cruelty and destruction:
“Ideas and principles that do harm are, as a rule though not always, cloaks for evil passions … When we pass in review the opinions of former times that are now recognized as absurd, it will be found that nine times out of ten they were such as to justify the infliction of suffering.”
Russell thought that traditional religion had been abused in just that way, but that its waning social influence had simply made people use different rationalizations:
“There is still much the same mentality: mankind are divided into saints and sinners; the saints are to achieve bliss in the Nazi or Communist heaven, while the sinners are to be liquidated, or to suffer such pains as human beings can inflict in concentration camps.”
We see the same attitude in many countries today, operating under different names and using different slogans.
Russell was also realistic about the limits of our knowledge. Predictions of the future were especially tricky:
“Whatever you think is going to happen ten years hence, unless it is something like the sun rising tomorrow that has nothing to do with human relations, you are almost sure to be wrong.”
He had plenty of ideas with which I disagree, but no matter: he changed his mind as new evidence came to light. If I don’t like what he believed at one point in his life, I can often find him saying the opposite thing 25 years later. His guiding principle was to follow the evidence wherever it led, whether or not it met with popular approval. As the American poet Walt Whitman wrote:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large.”
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a similar viewpoint:
“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Bertrand Russell had his shortcomings, but a “little mind” was never one of them.
Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”