Bertrand Russell on the Salve for Our Modern Helplessness and Overwhelm
By Maria Popova
“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum concluded in considering how to live with our human fragility. And yet in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, when the world seems to splinter and crumble in the palm of our civilization’s hand, something deeper and more robust than blind trust is needed to keep us anchored to our own goodness — something pulsating with rational faith in the human spirit and a profound commitment to goodness.
That is what Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) explores in the out-of-print treasure New Hopes for a Changing World (public library), composed a year after he received the Nobel Prize, while humanity was still shaking off the dust and dread of its Second World War and already shuddering with the catastrophic nuclear threat of the Cold War.
Observing that his time, like ours, is marked by “a feeling of impotent perplexity” and “a deep division in our souls between the sane and the insane parts,” Russell considers the consequence such total world-overwhelm has on the human spirit:
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
And yet, with his unfaltering reasoned optimism, he insists that there is an alternate view of our human destiny — one that vitalizes rather than paralyzes, based on “the completest understanding of the moods, the despairs, and the maddening doubts” that beset us; one that helps mitigate the worst of Western culture — “our restlessness, our militarism, our fanaticism, and our ruthless belief in mechanism” — and amplifies the best in it: “the spirit of free inquiry, the understanding of the conditions of general prosperity, and emancipation from superstition.” He examines the root of our modern perplexity, perhaps even more pronounced in our time than it was in his:
Traditional systems of dogma and traditional codes of conduct have not the hold that they formerly had. Men and women are often in genuine doubt as to what is right and what is wrong, and even as to whether right and wrong are anything more than ancient superstitions. When they try to decide such questions for themselves they find them too difficult. They cannot discover any clear purpose that they ought to pursue or any clear principle by which they should be guided. Stable societies may have principles that, to the outsider, seem absurd. But so long as the societies remain stable their principles are subjectively adequate. That is to say they are accepted by almost everybody unquestioningly, and they make the rules of conduct as clear and precise as those of the minuet or the heroic couplet. Modern life, in the West, is not at all like a minuet or a heroic couplet. It is like free verse which only the poet can distinguish from prose.
This torment, Russell argues, is simply the growing pains of our civilization. When we reach maturity, we would attain a life “full of joy and vigour and mental health.” Building on his lifelong reckoning with the meaning of the good life and the nature of happiness, he writes:
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. Unhappiness is deeply implanted in the souls of most of us.
A way of life cannot be successful so long as it is a mere intellectual conviction. It must be deeply felt, deeply believed, dominant even in dreams.
He offers a lucid and luminous prescription for attaining the good life, individually and as a society:
What I should put in the place of an ethic in the old sense is encouragement and opportunity for all the impulses that are creative and expansive. I should do everything possible to liberate men from fear, not only conscious fears, but the old imprisoned primeval terrors that we brought with us out of the jungle. I should make it clear, not merely as an intellectual proposition, but as something that the heart spontaneously believes, that it is not by making others suffer that we shall achieve our own happiness, but that happiness and the means to happiness depend upon harmony with other men. When all this is not only understood but deeply felt, it will be easy to live in a way that brings happiness equally to ourselves and to others. If men could think and feel in this way, not only their personal problems, but all the problems of world politics, even the most abstruse and difficult, would melt away. Suddenly, as when the mist dissolves from a mountain top, the landscape would be visible and the way would be clear. It is only necessary to open the doors of our hearts and minds to let the imprisoned demons escape and the beauty of the world take possession.
Complement New Hopes for a Changing World with the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas on how to live with ourselves and each other and Virginia Woolf on finding beauty in the uncertainty of time, space, and being, then revisit Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior and how to grow old.
Published August 10, 2023