The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell

Overview

The following notes are based on a handful of essays from his "Basic Writings": My Religious Reminiscences, Why I Took to Philosophy, How I Write, A Free Man's Worship, St. Thomas Aquinas, What I Believe, The Expanding Mental Universe, Why I am not a Communist,

Throughout the essays, it is clear that Russell thought like a Scientist. His writing is a means to an end. He starts with a hypothesis, with a question and provides arguments and examples to prove or refute his position. In fact, as the editors note, He adopted a version of the scientific method as his guide to philosophizing . And, as can be summarized by his phrase "Whatever one may believe to be true, one ought to be able to convey without any apparatus of Sunday sanctification", he always tried to keep as rational and as objective a mind as possible.

Notes & Highlights

Religion

Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.

Russell was born into a very religious family. Both his parents were forward thinkers but they died early and he was raised by his very Orthodox grand mother. This must have instilled a rejection and an obsession with Religion since an early age. In fact, he tells us that between the ages of 15 and 18 he spent most of his free time thinking about Religion and trying to understand Christianity arguments.

He became an agnostic and used logic to reason about his position.

For example, with regards to the First Cause—the notion that God was self-created and everything else is caused by him or we can trace a chain of events going all the way back to him—he argued that in mathematics there exist numerical series that have no first nor last term so the First Cause argument of religion makes no sense.

Put it another way, if everything requires a cause to exist, so then God must require one as well.

Having said this, and convinced that man "is the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms" (a position that reminds me of Carl Sagan's beautiful "we are made of stardust" statement), he was rational enough to say that

One can tell he was a scientist and a Logician. He thought deeply about many Christian dogmas and found in them contradictions and cognitive dissonance.

A great example is the following:

I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious—for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply ‘Oh, but you forget the good God. ’ Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.

Similar reasoning is applied when talking about prayer. He couldn't understand how if Providence is unchangeable (not sure if this is the current Christian view) then prayer could not be useful in changing anything. Personally, I find that prayers can only be seen as a meditative experience that has no power outside our own mind. Russell went further and arrived at the contradiction thatIf the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence. This is clearly impossible since only God is supposed to be omnipotent.

Yet another contradiction can be found when talking about birth-control. How, Russell argued, does the Church forbid birth control as being unnatural but does not forbid celibacy. Both actions lead to the same result of preventing new life to be born.

The most interesting part of his position on Religion though is his view that "fear is the basis or religious dogma".  Humans have always tried to understand Nature and justify Fate, our urge to find some higher meaning is almost innate, but as Russell argues over and over, Religious dogmas in their present form do more harm than good.

Politics

Russell was above all opposed to Wars and was a proponent of free speech in a way similar to George Orwell. So much so that he was expelled from Cambridge's Trinity College for his opposition to World War I and because he would not pretend to be a Christian nor avoid stating that he was an agnostic (having done so would've granted him a Fellowship and hence prevented his rejection from the college).

In this regard though, it is almost paradoxical that he supported World War II:

The Second World War I thought necessary, not because I had changed my opinions on war, but because the circumstances were different. In fact, all that made the second war necessary was an outcome of the first war. We owe to the first war and its aftermath Russian Communism, Italian Fascism, and German Nazism.

He also suggested that revolutions (like the American and French) had their place but that in order to build "the good life, a life of intelligence, self-control, and sympathy" there are no shortcuts but they're a matter of gradual improvement.

As with Religion (and all other topics) he attacked the issues from a rational and scientific point of view. His framework when studying politics was based on two questions:

  1. Are the theoretical tenets of this political doctrine true?
  2. Is its practical policy likely to increase human happiness?

In "Why I'm not a Communist" he answer these questions as follows:

I think the theoretical tenets of Communism are false, and I think its practical maxims are such as to produce an immeasurable increase of human misery

Education

Russell was educated at home first by his grandmother and then by a series of tutors. He said that this served him well because he had "abundant leisure for reflection" .

In his view, education is a double-edged sword. While it can do a lot of great things for the world, it can also be used to indoctrinate people: "by instilling nonsense it unifies populations and generates collective enthusiasm". One can infer that he was referring to the rise of Nazism and Communism.

Given his views on Religion, it is no wonder that he also thought that any notion of superstition or religious dogma was bad when used in Education . He promoted independent thought and freedom of speech and went so far as to say that

Most of what I learnt at Cambridge had to be painfully unlearnt later; on the whole, what I had learnt for myself from being left alone in an old library had proved more solid.

And also that in order to truly learn and reason we should be able to understand views opposite to ours so he recommended to always seek people with whom you disagree and reading newspaper belonging to a party that you don't support . (This advice would be very useful in the current political climate.)

Writing

Being a such a prolific writer, Russell spent also time thinking about how to write well. Here is some advice from the essay How I Write:

  • Try to say everything you want to say in the smallest number of words in which it can be said clearly .
  • Always re-write. He did this focusing on form rather than substance since he usually found his first draft to be good enough. Personally though, I always need to rewrite (my first drafts are beyond awful haha).
  • "Never use a long word if a short will do".
  • "Do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end"
  • It's OK to feel a minimum amount of worry and anxiety when writing.  This echoes John McPhee's line "if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer" . Writing, it seems, never gets easy.
  • A writer must find their "intimate and almost involuntary expression". Direct imitation is to be cultivated only as a way to gain familiarity with good prose.

Sex

Russell was way ahead of his time with regard to sex and sexuality. Similar to his late parents, he advocated for equality of men and women and viewed sex just as "a natural need, like food and drink".

He despised the obsession that Clergymen had with sex and thought their views of unmarried sex and birth-control as totally unreasonable. In this respect, he said "Most of them condemn birth control. None of them condemns the brutality of a husband who causes his wife to die of too frequent pregnancies."

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