Bertrand Russell

Understanding History and Other Essays

How to Read and Understand History

10: Most children wish to know things until they go to school; in many cases it is bad teaching that makes them stupid and uninquiring.

14: Individuals can achieve great things, and the teacher of history ought to make this clear to his pupils. For without hope nothing of importance is accomplished.

16: Like the early Christians, Marx expected the millennium very soon; like their successors, his have been disappointed--once more, the world has shown itself recalcitrant to a tidy formula embodying the hopes of some section of mankind.

17: The Preacher said there is no new thing under the sun, but he would not have said so if he could have seen a large power station or a battle in the stratosphere. These things, it must be confessed, might not have prevented him from saying "all is vanity," but that is a different question.

19: Sometimes he (Herodotus) is merely repeating travelers' tales, but very often he is confirmed by modern research.

20: The theme is one that appealed to the Greek mind. A great impersonal Power, called indifferently Fate or Justice or Necessity, ruled the world, and was superior to the gods. Whatever person or country or thing overstepped the ordained boundaries suffered the punishment of pride. This was the real religion of the Greeks, and Thucydides in his history magnificently illustrated it.

21: His (Plutarch's) heroes are not statuesque figures of perfection; they are concrete men, who could have existed even if they never in fact did.

21: (Gibbons) His wit and irony - particularly when he uses them to condemn superstition - are inimitable.

22: The professors must not prevent us from realizing that history is fun, and that the most bizarre things really happen.

22: Some great men become greater the more they are studied; I should mention Spinoza and Lincoln as instances. Napoleon, on the other hand, becomes, at close quarters, a ridiculous figure. Perhaps it was not his fault that on the night of his wedding to Josephine her pug-dog bit him in the calf as he was getting into bed . . .

23: If (the Germans) could have laughed at him, they could have had their revenge at less cost to mankind.

27: Wars had been an affair of kings or small aristocracies; the armies were composed of mercenaries, and the general population looked on with indifference . . . every peasant who had been freed from feudal burdens and had acquired some portion of his seigneur's land felt that he had something to fight for . . . governments have increasingly realized the necessity of making wars popular and have used the potent weapon of popular education to that end.

36: Men of supreme ability are just as definitely congenitally different from the average as are the feebleminded.

38: The Duke of Wellington remarked about the battle of Waterloo: "it was a damned nice thing. I do believe if I had not been there we should not have won." Probably he was right. Such instances show that the main course of great events may sometimes depend upon the actions of an individual.

39: ...the solemnity and humbug in which it has been steeped . . . is that certain famous men were great and good, and must on no account be criticized while certain others were clever but wrong-headed, and committed foolish mistakes . . . Yet others . . . are to be not even mentioned, because their ideas were shocking . . . Above all, no idea must be admitted which could cause even a moment's discomfort to complacent middle age. Not so are great men to be conceived, and not such is the monument to be raised to them in our thoughts.

40: No, the greatest men have not been "serene." They have had, it is true, an ultimate courage, a power of creating beauty where nature has put only horror, which may, to a petty mind, appear like serenity. But their courage has had to surpass that of common men, because they have seen deeper into the indifference of nature and the cruelty of man. To cover up these things with comfortable lies is the business of cowards; the business of great men is to see them with inflexible clarity, and yet to think and feel nobly. And in the degree in which we can all be great, this is the business of each one of us.

42: There was a serpent in the philosophic paradise, and his name was Pythagoras. From Pythagoras this outlook descended to Plato, from Plato to Christian theologians, from them, in a new form, to Rousseau and the romantics and the myriad purveyors of nonsense who flourish wherever men and women are tired of the truth.

42-3: There is, however, in our day, a powerful antidote to nonsense, which hardly existed in earlier times - I mean science. Science cannot be ignored or rejected, because it is bound up with modern technique; it is essential alike to prosperity in peace and to victory in war. That is, perhaps from an intellectual point of view, the most hopeful feature of our age, and the one which makes it most likely that we shall escape complete submersion in some new or old superstition.

47: If none of the existing Churches satisfies you, your neighbors view you with suspicion as an eccentric, their wives fight shy of your wife, and your business career suffers.

48: The State, when it educates you, has the public object of supplying you with useful knowledge, and the private object of making you willing to pay taxes for the benefit of corrupt politicians....As for the Churches - but hush! at this point we must draw the line; no church dignitary, I am sure, ever considers for a moment anything but the eternal welfare of his flock.

49: There is nothing surprising in this development; if the Saint had had more worldly wisdom he would have foreseen it...but I am not content to draw a moral of lazy cynicism.

50: Consequently an organization which can only do good if its leaders are saints is sure to begin to do harm before long. This is an important truth, which saints are slow to realize.

53: If you have been taught that it is as wicked to swear is it is to steal, you may, when you decide that swearing is permissible, conclude that there is no harm in stealing, but if so that only shows that you are not intelligent and that you were taught a foolish morality.

54: No nation can long flourish unless it tolerates exceptional individuals, whose behavior is not exactly like that of their neighbors. Everyone knows that men who achieve great things in art or literature or science are apt, in youth, to be eccentric; ...Our bodily life is confined to a small portion of time and space, but our mental life need not be thus limited....Our private lives are often exasperating, and sometimes almost intolerably painful...

56: Men are born and die; some leave hardly a trace, others transmit something of good or evil to future ages. The man whose thoughts and feelings are enlarged by history will wish to be a transmitter, and to transmit, so far as may be, what his successors will judge to have been good.

The Value of Free Thought

57: To be worthy of the name, he must be free of two things: the force of tradition and tyranny of his own passions.

58: If he holds them because his elders told him . . or because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought, he finds a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.

65: Not only have believers been prone to sin, but unbelievers have often been exceptionally virtuous; it would be difficult to point to any set of men more impeccable than the earnest free thinkers of the 19th Century. ...they are the fanatical adherents of absurd creeds...

67: Kindliness and intelligence are the chief sources of useful behavior and neither is promoted by causing people to believe, against all reason, in a capricious and vindictive deity who practices a degree of cruelty which, in the mathematic sense, surpasses infinitely that of the worst human beings that have ever existed. Modern liberal Christians may protest that this is not the sort of god in whom they believe, but they should realize that only the teachings of persecuted freethinkers have caused this moral advance in their beliefs.

70: There is to my mind something pusillanimous and sniveling about this point of view, which makes me scarcely able to consider it with patience.

79: In regard to mundane affairs, the capacity to assimilate what is unpleasant is a condition of success, and for this reason, if for no other, it is a mistake to wrap oneself around with comfortable fairytales.

79: Fear of hell, fear of extinction, fear lest the universe be purposeless, are regarded as noble emotions, and men who allow themselves to be dominated by such fears are thought superior to men who face what is painful without flinching.

80: In the best character there is an element of pride - not the sort of pride that despises others, but the sort that will not be deflected from what is thinks good by outside pressure.

83: This is a pretty fable, and I will not deny that it is logically possible, but that is the utmost that I will concede.

87: Furious at his own misery, he sought the cause in the misdeeds of other men, and turned upon them in savage battle, thus magnifying a thousand times the ills that Nature has provided.

90: Whether artificial man will be better or worse than the natural sort I do not venture to predict.

94: Practically all philosophers of any intellectual eminence are openly or secretly freethinkers; the insistence on orthodoxy therefore necessitated the appointment of a nonentity or a humbug.

95: Christian orthodoxy, however, is no longer the chief danger to free thought. The greatest danger in our day comes from new religions, Communism and Nazism...They advocate a way of life on the basis of irrational dogma; they have a sacred history, a Messiah, and a priesthood.

97: No such tissue of nonsense could have been believed by any population trained to examine evidence scientifically, and to base its opinions on rational grounds...Nowhere, therefore, except among the esoteric elite of a few universities, is anything done to promote an honest attempt to decide questions according to the evidence. And so credulous populations are left defenseless against the wiles of clever politicians, who lead them through inflated self-esteem to hatred, from hatred to war, from war to universal misery. The modern advances in the art of propaganda have been met with no corresponding advances in training to resist propaganda. And so the populations of the world, one by one as "civilization" reaches them, go down into a dark pit of madness where all that is worth preserving perished in aimless slaughter.

102: But the pursuit of truth, when it is profound and genuine, requires also a kind of humility which has some affinity to submission to the will of God. The universe is what it is, not what I choose that it should be. If it is indifferent to human desires, as it seems to be; if human life is a passing episode, hardly noticeable in the vastness of cosmic processes; if there is no superhuman purpose, and no hope of ultimate salvation, it is better to know and acknowledge this truth than to endeavor, in futile self-assertion, to order the universe to be what we find comfortable.

Towards facts, submission is the only rational attitude, but in the realm of ideals there is nothing to which to submit. The universe is neither hostile nor friendly; it neither favors our ideals nor refutes them. Our individual life is brief, and perhaps the whole life of mankind will be brief if measured in astronomical scale. But that is no reason for not living it as seems best to us. The things that seem to us good are none the less good for not being eternal, and we should not ask of the universe an external approval of our own ethical standards.

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