Bertrand Russell on How to Heal an Ailing and Divided World
“What is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”
By Maria Popova
“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more,” Albert Camus wrote as he contemplated how to live honorably thorough shameful times at the peak of World War II, a quarter century before he became the second-youngest Nobel laureate.
It took another seer of uncommon insight and unrelenting humanism to consider this necessary mending work as the maelstrom of injustice was only just beginning to seethe in the entrails of the world. That is what Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), who would himself receive the Nobel Prize shortly after the war for his “varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” examines in the preface to the 1935 edition of his book-length essay In Praise of Idleness (public library) — his insightful inquiry into the relationship between leisure and social justice.
Shortly after Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and Hitler instituted his most bigoted racial laws, Russell writes:
The world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.
Three decades later, as his ideas matured under the ferment of a war-savaged world, Russell would acknowledge that certain points of view are so unjust as to be unworthy of consideration in his remarkable response to a fascist. But he devoted his long life to the peaceable conciliation of humanity’s most divisive and self-destructive impulses — nowhere more pointedly than in the manifesto he issued a decade after Hitler’s death, when an even more explosive threat was looming over Earth in the midst of the Cold War.
Addressing the measureless danger of weapons of mass destruction, Russell enlisted a dozen of the world’s leading scientific minds in co-signing this document of reason and humanism, calling on world leaders to find peaceful paths to resolving international conflict. Albert Einstein signed the manifesto, now known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, days before his death in April 1955. It was presented at a London press conference on July 9, 1955, and became the guiding spirit of the inaugural Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, co-founded by Russell and held two years later. Its text contains an enduring appeal to our noblest nature, our deepest shared stakes, and the singular human faculty of foresight, evocative of Maya Angelou’s wakeful and mobilizing poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”
We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.
We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps.
There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.
A generation later, with our species having barely survived two World Wars and the Cold War, with the even graver new danger of planetary ecological collapse on the horizon, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would echo these sentiments in his inspiriting yet cautionary reflection on the wonders of possibility.
Couple with E.B. White on what it really takes to live in a peaceful world, then revisit Russell on our mightiest defense against political manipulation, the two types of knowledge that govern humanity, what makes a fulfilling life, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and his immensely insightful Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires driving all human behavior.
Published November 13, 2019