For a number of reasons, it is very rarely that I dare to suggest that everyone read a specific book. In this case, even though the writing and publishing happened more than 80 years ago, it would be a worthwhile endeavour for those individuals who still believe in the value of reading to muse on Bertrand Russell’s In praise of Idleness and other essays (Routledge, 1935, 2007). By chance, the format of the book- 15 short essays – is most suited to our fast, fluid, fragile daily life. And, if readers are in a great hurry, then the one that should be read is “In praise of idleness”, now available also freely on the web. Overall, Russell’s style is clear without being obnoxious.
A society that promotes, above all, entrepreneurship, profit, money, as well as navel-gazing, needs some counter-balance which used to belong to the universities and colleges, but they abandoned this purpose along with their dignity some years back. This book may restore some of the balance, even if the suggestions Russell gives may have to be re-thought and brought up to date. What follows is only a smidgen of the ideas that were striking, either because of the timeliness and modernity of their reach, or because of their appalling nature. Therefore, this book review is very different from the others found on our Reading rascal blog.
In the essay “ ‘Useless’ Knowledge”, Russell writes a very timely description of our times, and he gives some proposals as to what would constitute a better life:
The world at present is full of angry self-centered groups, each incapable of viewing human life as a whole, each willing to destroy civilization rather than yield an inch. To this narrowness no amount of technical instruction will provide an antidote. The antidote, in so far as it is a matter of individual psychology, is to be found in history, biology, astronomy, and all those studies which, without destroying self-respect, enable the individual to see himself in his proper perspective. What is needed is not this or that specific piece of information, but such knowledge as inspires a conception of the end of human life as a whole: art and history, acquaintance with the lives of heroic individuals, and some understanding of the strangely accidental and ephemeral position of man in the cosmos – all this touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctively human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs. (pp. 26-27)
I let some of the ideas expressed by Russell in his 15 short essays speak for themselves.
In praise of idleness 1932
22 Better economic organisation, allowing mankind to benefit by the productivity of machines, should lead to a very great increase of leisure, and much leisure is apt to be tedious except to those who have considerable intelligent activities and interest. If a leisured population is to be happy, it must be an educated population, and must be educated with a view to mental enjoyment as well as to the direct usefulness of technical knowledge.
23 the narrowly utilitarian conception of education ignores the necessity of training a man’s purposes as well as his skill.
Architecture and social questions
Women to work would be useful; having communal kitchens where cooks who know about cooking would cook rather than the unskilled mothers who feed kids who knows what
The modern Midas
After the first world war, Germany to pay the winning forces products that the winning forces were producing
52 One of the impediments to successful democracy in our age is the complexity of the modern world, which makes it increasingly difficult for ordinary men and women to form an intelligent opinion on political questions, or even to decide whose expert judgement deserves the most respect. The cure for this trouble is to improve education, and to find ways of explaining the structure of society which are easier to understand than those at present in vogue. Every believer in effective democracy must be in favour of this reform. But perhaps there are no believers in democracy left except in Siam and the remoter parts of Mongolia.
56-7 I think that what we mean in practice by reason can be defined by three characteristics. In the first place, it relies upon persuasion rather than force; in the second place, it seeks to persuade by means of arguments which the man who uses them believes to be completely valid; and in the third place, in forming opinions, it uses observation and induction as much as possible and intuition as little as possible. The first of these rules out the Inquisition; the second rules out such methods as those of British war propaganda, which Hitler praises on the ground that propaganda ‘must sink its mental elevation deeper in proportion to the numbers of the mass whom it has to grip’; the third forbids the use of such a major premise as that of President Andrew Jackson apropos of the Mississippi, ‘the God of the Universe intended this great valley to belong to one nation,’ which was self-evident to him and his hearers, but not easily demonstrated to one who questioned it.
The Ancestry of Fascism
Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism
He is against both
79 Preoccupation with machines has produced what may be called the manipulator’s fallacy, which consists in treating individuals and societies as if they were inanimate, and manipulators as if they were divine beings.
The case for socialism
108 …the degree of forethought involved in any act is measured by three factors: present pain, future pleasure, and the length of the interval between them.
109 We may define civilisation as: A manner of life due to the combination of knowledge and forethought.
110 The one prominent distinctive contribution of the Greeks to civilisation was deductive reasoning and pure mathematics.
110 The Romans seem to have invented the virtue of devotion to the impersonal State as opposed to loyalty to the person of the ruler. …The Roman conception of devotion to the State has been as essential element in the production of stable government in the West.
111 When Rome fell, the Church preserved in a singular synthesis what had proved most vital in the civilization of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. From Jewish moral fervour came the ethical precepts of Christianity; from the Greek love of deductive reasoning came theology; from the example of Roman imperialism and jurisprudence came the centralised government of the Church and the body of Canon Law.
113-4 Science itself does not offer us any moral ideas, and it is doubtful what moral ideas are going to replace those that we owe to tradition. Tradition changes slowly, and our moral ideas are still in the main those that were appropriate to a pre-industrial regime; but it cannot be expected that this will continue to be the case. Gradually men will come to have thoughts that will be in conformity with their physical habits, and ideas not inconsistent with their industrial technique. … It is a curious fact that the new ideas of modern times have almost all been technical or scientific. Science has only lately begun to foster growth of new moral ideas, through the liberation of benevolence from the shackles of superstitious ethical beliefs. Wherever a conventional code prescribes the infliction of suffering (e.g. in the prohibition of birth control), a kindlier ethic is thought to be immoral; consequently those who allow knowledge to influence their ethics are held by the apostles of ignorance to be wicked. It is, however, very doubtful whether a civilisation so dependent upon science as ours is can, in the long run, successfully prohibit forms of knowledge which are capable of greatly increasing human happiness.
115 It seems not improbable that the movement towards individual liberty which characterised the whole period from the renaissance to nineteenth-century liberalism may be brought to a stop by the increased organisation due to industrialism. The pressure of society upon the individual may, in a new form, become so great as in barbarous communities, and nations may com increasingly to pride themselves upon collective rather than individual achievements. This is already the case in the United States: men are proud of skyscrapers, railway stations, and bridges, rather than of poets, artists, or men of science. The same attitude pervades the philosophy of the Soviet government. It is true that in both countries, a desire for individual heroes persists: in Russia, personal distinction belongs to Lenin; in America, to athletes, pugilists, and movie stars. But in both cases the heroes are either dead or trivial, and the serious work of the present is not thus associated with the names of eminent individuals.
118 The distinctive note of Western civilization is rather to be found in Plutarch’s account of the defence of Syracuse by mechanical contrivances invented by Archimedes.
119 It was the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that first gave occasion for the full expression of those persecuting impulses by which Europe has distinguished itself from Asia. During the last hundred and fifty years, it is true, there has been a brief interval of liberalism, but now the white races are reverting to the theological bigotry which the Christians took over from the Jews. The Jews first invented the notion that only one religion could be true, but they had no wish to convert all the world to it, and therefore only persecuted other Jews. The Christians, retaining the Judaic belief in a special revelation, added to it the Roman desire for worldwide dominion and the Greek taste for metaphysical subtleties. The combination produced the most fiercely persecuting religion that the world has yet known. In Japan and china, Buddhism was peaceably accepted and allowed to exist along with Shinto and Confucianism; in the Mohammedan world, Christians and Jews were not molested so long as they paid the tribute; but throughout the Christendom death was the usual penalty for even the smallest deviation from orthodoxy.
On youthful cynicism
123 Let us first take some of the old ideals one by one and see why they no longer inspire the old loyalties. We may enumerate among such ideals: religion, country, progress, beauty, truth. What is wrong with these in the eyes of the young?
Religion – Even believers are concerned much more with the effects of religion in this world than with that other world that they profess to believe in; they are not nearly so sure that this world was created for the glory of God as they are that God is a useful hypothesis for improving this world. By subordinating God to the needs of this sublunary life, they case suspicion upon the genuineness of their faith.
124 country – patriotism in the Western nations is still immensely powerful: it controls politics, public expenditure, military preparations, and so on. But the intelligent youth are unable to accept it as an adequate ideal; they perceive that it is all very well for oppressed nations, but as soon as an oppressed nation achieves freedom, the nationalism which was formerly heroic becomes oppressive.
125 progress – Measurable progress is necessarily in unimportant things, such as the number of motor-cars made, or the number of peanuts consumed. The really important things are not measurable and are therefore not suitable for the methods of the booster. Moreover, many modern inventions tend to make people silly. I might instance the radio, the talkies, and poison gas. Shakespeare measured the excellence of an age by its style in poetry (see Sonnet XXXII), but this mode of measurement is out of date.
125 beauty – There is something that sounds old-fashioned about beauty, though it is hard to say why. A modern painter would be indignant if he were accused of seeking beauty. Most artists nowadays appear to be inspired by some kind of rage against the world so that they wish rather to give significant pain than to afford serene satisfaction. Moreover many kinds of beauty require that a man should take himself more seriously than is possible for an intelligent modern. A prominent citizen of Athens or Florence could feel himself important, Aeschylus or Dante could take their own joys or sorrow seriously. They “could feel that the emotions of the individual matter, and that tragic occurrences deserve to be celebrated in immortal verse. But the modern man, when misfortune assails him, is conscious of himself as a unit in a statistical total; the past and the future stretch before him in a dready procession of trivial defeats.
126 truth – In the old days, truth was absolute, eternal and superhuman….But a whole host of enemies have arisen to slay truth: pragmatism, behaviourism, psychologism, relativity-physics. … it is difficult to worship a merely human and relative truth.
126-7-8 So far we have been considering modern cynicism in a rationalistics manner, as something that has intellectual causes. Belief, however, as modern psychologists are never weary of telling us, is seldom determined by rational motives, and the same is true of disbelief, though sceptics often overlook this fact. The causes of any widespread scepticism are likely to be sociological rather than intellectual. The main cause always is comfort without power. Until the advent of education, democracy, and mass production, intellectuals had everywhere a considerable influence upon the march of affairs, which was by no means diminished if their heads were cut off. The modern intellectual finds himself in a quite different situation. It is by no means difficult for him to obtain a fat job and a good income provided he is willing to sell his services to the stupid rich either as propagandist or as Court Jester. … But if a man’s education has been literary, as is still too often the case, he finds himself at the age of twenty-two with a considerable skill that he cannot exercise in any manner that appears important to himself. Men of science are not cynical even in the West, because they can exercise their best brains with the full approval of the community; but in this they are exceptionally fortunate among modern intellectual.
128 cynicism cannot be cured by the existing education, it “will have to be an education taking some account of real cultural values and not only of the utilitarian desire to produce so many goods that nobody has time to enjoy them. A man is not allowed to practise medicine unless he knows something of the human body, but a financier is allowed to operate freely without any knowledge at all of the multifarious effects of his activities, with the sole exception of the effect upon his bank account. How pleasant a world would be in which no man was allowed to operate on the Stock Exchange unless he could pass an examination in economics and Greek poetry, and in which politicians were obliged to have a competent knowledge of history and modern novels! …Causation in the modern world is more complex and remote in its ramifications than it ever was before, owing to the increase of large organisations; but those who control these organisations are ignorant men who do not know the hundredth part of the consequences of their actions. The rulers of the world have always been stupid, but have not in the past been so powerful as they are now. It is therefore more important than it used to be to find some way of securing that they shall be intelligent. Is this problem insoluble? I do not think so, but I should be the last to maintain that it is easy.
131 I have seen orange groves in Sicily and orange groves in California; the contrast represents a period of about two thousand years. Orange groves in Sicily are remote from trains and ships; the trees are old and gnarled and beautiful; the methods are those of classical antiquity. The men are ignorant and semisavage, mongrel descendants of Roman slaves and Arab invaders; what they lack in intelligence toward trees they make up for by cruelty to animals. With moral degradation and economic incompetence goes an instinctive sense of beauty which is perpetually reminding one of Theocritus and the myth about the garden of the Hesprides. In a Californian orange grove the garden of the Hesperides seems very remote. The trees are all exactly alike, carefully tended and at the right distance apart. The oranges, it is true, are not all exactly of the same size, but careful machinery sorts them so that automatically all those in one box are exactly similar. They travel along with suitable things being done to them by suitable machines at suitable points until they enter a suitable refrigerator car in which they travel to a suitable market. –man is the master of his environment-
132 people in America are the same. When one considers the difference between a Norwegian and a Sicilian, and compares it with the lack of difference between a man from (say) North Dakota and a man from southern California, one realises the immense revolution in human affairs which has been brought about by man’s becoming the master instead of the slave of his physical environment. Norway and Sicily both have ancient traditions; they had pre-Christian religions embodying men’s reactions to the climate, and when Christianity came it inevitably took very different forms in the two countries. The Norwegian feared ice and snow; the Sicilian feared lava and earthquakes. Hell was invented in a southern climate; if it had been invented in Norway, it would have been cold. But neither in North Dakota nor in Southern California is Hell a climatic condition: in both it is a stringency on the money market. This illustrates the unimportance of climate in modern life.
134 It must not be supposed that the tendency towards uniformity is either wholly good or wholly bad. It has great advantages and also great disadvantages: its chief advantage is, of course, that is produces a population capable of peaceable co-operation; its great disadvantage is that is produces a population prone to persecution of minorities. This latter deficit is probably temporary, since it may be assumed that before long there will be no minorities. A great deal depends, of course, on how the uniformity is achieved. Take, for example, what the schools do to southern Italians, Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility. The Public Schools effectively cure them of the last of these three, and to that extent assimilate them to the native American population, but in regard to the other two distinctive qualities, I gather that the success of the schools is less marked. This illustrates one of the dangers of uniformity as an aim: good qualities are easier to destroy than bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards. It is, of course, clear that a country with a large foreign population must endeavour, through its schools, to assimilate children of immigrants, and therefore a certain degree of Americanization is inevitable. It is, however, unfortunate that such a large part of this process should be effected by means of a somewhat blatant nationalism. America is already the strongest country in the world, and inspires fear in Europe, and the fear is increasinged by everything suggesting militant nationalism. It may be the destiny of America to teach political good sense to Europe, but I am afraid that the pupil is sure to prove refractory.
With the tendency towards uniformity in America there goes, as it seems to me, a mistaken conception of democracy. It seems to be generally held in the United States that democracy requires all men to be alike, and that, if a man is in any way different from another, he is ‘setting himself up’ as superior to that other. France is quite as democratic as America, and yet this idea does not exist in France. The doctor, the lawer, the priest, the public official are all different types in France; each profession has its own traditions and its own standards, although it does not set up to be superior to other professions. In America all professional men are assimilated in type to the business man. It is as though one should decree that an orchestra should consis only of violins. There does not seem to be an adequate understanding of the fact that society should be a pattern or an organism, in which different organs play different parts. Imagine the eye and the ear 136 quarrelling as to whether it is better to see or hear, and deciding that each would do neither since neither could do both. This, it seems to me, would be democracy as understood in America. There is a strange envy of any kind of excellence which cannot be universal, except, of course, in the sphere of athletics and sport, where aristocracy is enthusiastically acclaimed. It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regard to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration for brains. The flood of popular scientific books in America is inspired partly, though of course not wholly, by the unwillingness to admit that there is anything is science which only experts can understand. The idea that a special training may be necessary to understand, let say, the theory of relativity, causes a sport of irritation, although nobody is irritated by the fact that a special training is necessary in order to be a first-rate football player.
Achieved eminence is perhaps more admired in America than in any other country, and yet the road to certain kinds of eminence is made very difficult for the young, because people are intolerant of any eccentricity or anything that could be called ‘setting one’s self up’, provided the person concerned is not already labelled ‘eminent’. …
Standardisation, though it may have disadvantages for the exceptional individual, probably increases the happiness of the average man, since he can utter his thoughts with certainty that they will be thoughts of his hearer. Moreover it promotes national cohesion, and makes politics less bitter and violent than 137 where more marked differences exist. I do not think it possible to strike a balance of gains and losses, but I think the standardisation which now exists in America is likely to exist throughout Europe as the world becomes more mechanised. Europeans, therefore, who find fault with America on this account should realise that they are finding fault with the future of their own countries, and are setting themselves against an inevitable and universal trend in civilisation. Undoubtedly internationalism will become easier as the differences between nations diminish, and if once internationalism were established, social cohesion would become of enormous importance for preserving internal peace. There is a certain risk, which cannot be denied, of an immobility analogous to that of the later Roman Empire. But as against this, we may set the revolutionary forces fo modern science and modern technique. Short of a universal intellectual decay, these forces, which are a new feature in the modern world, will make immobility impossible, and prevent that kind of stagnation which has overtaken great empires in the past. Arguments from history are dangerous to apply to the present and the future, because of the complete change that science has introduced. I see therefore no reason for undue pessimism, however standardisation may offend tastes of those who are unaccustomed to it.
Men versus insects
140 So long as war continues, all scientific knowledge is double-edged. (nitrogen – process invented to fix nitrogen in soil, but used to manufacture explosives) … The more we know, the more harm we can do each other. If human beings in their rage against each other, invite the aid of insects and micro-organisms, as they certainly will do if there is another big war, it is by no means unlikely that the insects will remain the sole ultimate victors. Perhaps, from a cosmic point of view, this is not to be regretted; but as a human being I cannot help heaving a sigh over my own species.
Education and discipline
141 The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilisation, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own progression, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of 142 life. In communities, civilisation demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends.
(what can be done to realise this purpose of education)
142 On the question of freedom in education there are at present three main schools of thought, deriving partly from differences as to the ends and partly from differences in psychological theory. There are those who say that children should be completely free, however bad they may be; there are those who say they should be completely subject to authority, however good they may be; and there are those who say they should be free, but in spite of freedom they should always be good.This last party is larger than it has any logical right to be; children, like adults, will not all be virtuous if they are all free. The belief that liberty will ensure moral perfection is a relic of Rousseausim, and would not survive a study of animals and babies. Those who hold this belief think that education would have no positive purpose, but should merely offer an environment suitable for spontaneous development. I cannot agree with this school, which seems to me too individualistic, and unduly indifferent to the importance of knowledge. We live in communities which require co-operation, and it would be utopian to expect all the necessary co-operation to result from spontaneous impulse. The existence of a large population on a limited area is only possible owing to science and technique; education must, therefore, hand on the necessary minimum of these.
Stoicism and mental health (1928)
What is the soul? (1928)