An hour after I awoke this morning (thanks to a sinus-drip-induced fit of coughing), I found myself reading about Bertrand Russell. As I read about his contributions to philosophy and political discourse, I found myself admiring the man for his willingness to put himself at risk of ridicule, and even imprisonment, for standing firm on his convictions.
Skimming some of his writings, a segment of one piece was especially meaningful to me this cold, dark, rainy, windy morning. It was the ninth item in his Liberal Decalogue, which appeared at the end of an article entitled The Best Answer to Fascism: Liberalism; Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity, in the New York Times Magazine on December 16, 1951:
Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
Russell’s philosophies parallel my own, though probably I should say mine parallel his, inasmuch as he was the chicken and I am the egg. Reading a bit about his life, I find myself torn between honoring his contributions to philosophy and being dumbfounded by a society that still hasn’t progressed to his (and my) point of view sixty-four years later.
I think what appeals to me most about Russell is the fact that he thought, deeply, and shared his thoughts without regard to how they would be received. In 1929, he wrote a book entitled Marriage and Morals, which argued, among other things, that modern (at the time) laws on marriage and sex were outdated, vestiges of thinking invalidated by modern means of contraception, because sex acts were no longer tied strictly to conception. His public thinking on the subject led to the loss of his professorial appointment at the City College of New York ten years after the book was published.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1950 was awarded to Russell “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”
I read the text of the Nobel Prize awards ceremony speech, delivered by Anders Österling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which included the following:
The great work on Western philosophy which Bertrand Russell brought out in 1946, that is, at the age of seventy-four, contains numerous characteristic reflections giving us an idea of how he himself might like us to regard his long and arduous life. In one place, speaking of the pre-Socratic philosophers, he says,
“In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held.”
And in another place in the same work he writes,
“It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”
It may seem arrogant for someone like me, someone who does not possess the intellectual horsepower of a man like Russell, to compare myself to him. But I do, not because I am in the same league, but because I continue to do as he always urged people to do. I continued to try to question all the answers, even my own, and I ask all the questions over and over again, trying each time to frame the answers from a different perspective.
I believe passionately that everyone, regardless of age or experience or philosophical bent, should routinely study other philosophies and should challenge one’s own philosophies.
Russell called it scrupulous truthfulness; I call it scrupulous honesty. The first person with whom one must be honest in such a pursuit is oneself; that may be the most difficult challenge of all.