More from Russell’s In praise of idleness

I am about to complete Russell’s In praise of idleness. It is a thought provoking read (with lots of slyly humorous sentences).

[1] I was somehow under the impression that Russell is an agnostic if not an atheist; however, from these essays, I see that he was one of those who believed in Christ but opposed Christianity (or, organised religion); there are several places in the book where Russell writes approvingly about the good influence of Christianity on the Western civilization; he even goes to the extent of calling Fascism “a return to the worst in paganism”:

The root objection to Fascism is its selection of a portion of mankind as alone important. The holders of power have, no doubt, made such a selection, in practice, ever since government was first instituted; but Christianity, in theory has always recognised each human soul as an end in itself, and not a mere means to the glory of others. Modern democracy has derived strength from the moral ideals of Christianity, and has done much to divert Governments from exclusive preoccupation with the interests of the rich and powerful. Fascism is, in this respect, a return to what was worst in ancient paganism.

I do not know enough political history to know if it indeed is true that one of the main sources of moral strength behind democracy is Christianity; it would be interesting to follow this thought up.

[2] Russell has some interesting things to say about Anthropology. Specifically, this sentence, namely,

The anthropologist selects and interprets facts according to the prevailing prejudices of his day.

reminded me of this recent blog post at Savage Minds, wherein, Rex indicates that if not according to the prevailing prejudices of the day, the anthropologist and her/his hosts co-construct the fieldsite. In any case, Russell goes on to say,

What do we, who stay at home, know about the savage? Rousseauites say he is noble, imperialists say he is cruel; ecclesiastically minded anthropologists say he is a virtuous family man, while, advocates of divorce law reform say he practices free love; Sir James Fraser says he is always killing his god, while others say he is always engaged in initiation ceremonies. In short, the savage is an obliging fellow who does whatever is necessary for the anthropologist’s  theory.

The last sentence on theory reminds me of a quote I read in Barsoum’s book on ceramics, which goes something like this:

All sintering models can be made to fit all sintering data.

[3] Russell has very little to say about India, and most of what he has to say is not flattering; here is his views on why the Indian youth are not cynical, for example:

In India the fundamental belief of the earnest young is in the wickedness of England: from this premiss, as from the existence of Descartes, it is possible to deduce the whole philosophy. From the fact that England is Christian, it follows that Hinduism or Mohammedanism, as the case may be, is the only true religion. From the fact that England is capitalistic and industrial, it follows, according to the temperament of the logician concerned, either that everybody ought to spin with a spinning-wheel, or that protective duties ought to be imposed to develop native industrialism and capitalism as the only weapons with which to combat those of  the British. From the fact that the British hold India by physical force, it follows that only moral force is admirable. The persecution of nationalist activities in India is just sufficient to make them heroic, and not sufficient to make them seem futile. In this way the Anglo-Indians save the intelligent youth of India from the blight of cynicism.

I do not know about Russell’s views on India’s independence movement (whether he supported them or not); however, the attribution of  everything (including the belief in one’s own religion) to reactionary feelings does not make a pleasant reading.

[4] Here is Russell on why uniformity is usually achieved by lowering standards:

… good qualities are  easier to destroy than  bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards.

[5] Here is Russell on Christianity and its influence on education:

The educational machine, throughout Western civilization, is dominated by two ethical theories: that of Christianity, and that of nationalism. These two, when taken seriously, are incompatible, as is being evident in Germany. For my part,  hold that, where they differ, Christianity is preferable, but where they agree, both are mistaken.

I believe this distrust of nationalism is something that Tagore would have approved.

As these examples above show, Russell has many interesting things to say, and he says them in a nice style; some of what he says is not acceptable to me; but, that does not diminish the worthiness of the book; it is still a wonderful read and is highly recommended.

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2 Responses to “More from Russell’s In praise of idleness

  1. gaddeswarup Says:

    I have not read BR for a long time and have only a couple of his books left. In one of them ‘Legitimacy versus Industrialism 1814-1848’, he discusses india in passing in pages 141-143. He says on page 142 “Hindostan must be ruled by those who live on that side of the globe”.
    Look also at his article ‘Why I am not a Christian?’. I have forgotten much of the book you read. Perhaps what he says depends on the context. I remember of a collection of essays in honour of BR in which Einstein expressed some displeaure at Russel’s ‘intellectual flippancy’, I think.

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Swarup,

    I was also under the impression that Russell supported Indian freedom movement, and is generally a pacifist. However, as you note, sometimes, the “intellectual flippancy” is indeed visible in his writing. Some of the writing is also dated in the sense that the special attention he pays to Japan and China, he never seems to accord to India, possibly because at that time when he wrote these pieces (1930s) India was not considered as a separate entity worthy of consideration.


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