Bertrand Russell (1999)
by John Patrick Michael Murphy
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) could have received the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his Principia Mathematica. After all, it did explode the logic of Aristotle, which had stood for 2200 years. It also reorganized mathematics, which helped make computers a reality. Instead, the Presentation Speech, which accompanied his Nobel Prize for Literature, said it was his because "his whole life's work is a stimulating defense of the reality of common sense." It referred to the other 88 books he wrote which attacked superstition, hatred, and error. Russell could corner and confound both professor and parson, but preferred to write to "a public of laymen." He had the ability to see beyond and through tradition, dogma, and pretense so he could discern real rational reasons for our culture and its taboos. This passionate rationalist laughed at the gods and this allowed him to love humanity. He made us see ourselves whether we wanted to or not. He shocked Victorian England as a young man and insulted the hawks of the Viet Nam war as an old man. His mind never went into a dotage although his body became frail. Near the end he said, "I do so hate to leave the world."
He saw humanity burdened by the treacherous baggage of religion that divided and deceived an ignorant world. He noted that humans have demanded religion for tens of thousands of years-even though it brought them great harm and little good. He explained why:
"Mainly fear. Man feels himself rather powerless. There are three things that cause him fear. One is what nature can do to him. It can strike him by lightning or swallow him up in an earthquake. And one is what other men can do-they can kill him in war. And the third, which has a great deal to do with religion, is what his own violent passions may lead him to do-things which he knows in a calm moment he would regret having done. For that reason, most people have a great deal of fear in their lives, and religion helps them to be not so frightened by these fears."A few paragraphs later he tells the danger of this phenomenon: "Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion go hand in hand." Today's ethnic cleansing is just a diversionary term for religious warfare - cruelty and religion taking another walk together.
Lord Russell had wit and humor with him at all times. He often told an apocryphal story of the London School Inspector who knocked on the front door of Girton College, the liberal private school his mother helped found, only to have it opened by a naked co-ed. "My God!" said the inspector. The co-ed frowned and said, "There is no god," as she slammed the door on him.
What makes a fellow who has title, wealth, and social standing want to ignore the mores of his time - to go around tossing dead cats through stained glass windows, saying "everyone is crazy, and here's why"? It is called the pursuit of happiness. I think Lord Russell was looking at his own life when he described freethinkers and their passion for truth:
"The love of free inquiry and free speculation has never been common. When it has existed, it has existed only in a tiny minority and has always roused furious hatred and opposition in the majority. There have been times when it has seemed wholly extinct, but over and over again it has revived. Although the life that it inspires is arduous and dangerous, the impulse which leads some men to adopt it has been so overwhelming that they have braved all the obliquity to which they were exposed by devoting themselves to the greatest service that man can do to man."
"Bertrand Russell" is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.
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