Intolerance and bigotry lie at the heart of all human suffering. So claims Bertrand Russell at the outset of In Praise of Idleness, a collection of essays in which he espouses the virtues of cool reflection and free enquiry; a voice of calm in a world of maddening unreason. From a devastating critique of the ancestry of fascism to a vehement defence of 'useless' knowledge, with consideration given to everything from insect pests to the human soul, this is a tour de force that only Bertrand Russell could perform.
His essay extolling the usefulness of useless knowledge is actually quite good. Rather than arguing - as its title might suggest - against a pragmatic view of knowledge (that only "useful" knowledge is worth anything), Russell argues to expand the definition of "useful." Knowledge that contributes to an individuals mental well-being, knowledge that is interesting, and knowledge that is just plain fun to think about, is every bit as useful to individuals as knowlege that helps us dig ditches, structure economies, etc. (To be useful, knowledge need not always be SOCIALLY useful.)
Much of the rest of Russell's naivete comes from offering good criticisms of fascism and communism only to forget that these criticisms may be applied to the socialism that Russell champions. The fact that centralizing power, for instance, in a dictator is a reason to jettison fascism and Marxism is every bit a reason to be wary of any attempts at political centralization - even socialist ones! To put it bluntly, Russell is so interested in his utopian vision of socialism in the abstract that he forgets to think about what socialism actually looks like in practice. (In Russell's mind, for instance, socialism somehow avoids consolidating power in an omnipotent central government. But doesn't planning need planners and delegators? And how do they differ from dictators?)
To be honest, I think Bertrand Russell shows evidence in this book of a huge blindspot. As an upper-cruster, he is appalled that people have to do such dastardly things as work and contract their labor. As an upper-cruster, he thinks that a decent way of life is possible without the type of industry that requires people to work more than four hours per day. And as an upper-cruster, he believes that everyone should be guaranteed a certain level of income regardless of what they accomplish.
In other words, Russell is simply not as penetrating as a social theorist as he is as a philosopher. This book is as clearly written and entertaining as other books by Russell, but he is clearly out of his element.
Although I agree with pretty much each and every argument in all the essays and love the polemic styling, I struggle with the cocksure armchair philostophizing. Posturing about how people "should" conduct their home life and how educators "should" deal with adolescents tend to come off as stinky academic arrogance. Although, having said that, this stuff was written 70+ years ago and all of it is relevant relevant relevant spot on spot on spot on for the beginning of the 21st century (+ 7).
I meant to include this quote in the above comments, but forgot or was too busy to do it. None of these essays are about physics, and there was plenty of quotable moments but I just liked this little rant one so much that the page number stuck in my head. Here it comes...
Bertrand Russell, What is the Soul? wrote:
This is all very well, but the physicist comes along and shows that you never bump into anything: even when you run your head against a stone wall, you do not really touch it. When you think you touch a thing, there are certain electrons and protons, forming part of your body, which are attracted and repelled by certain electrons and protons in the thing you think you are touching, but there is no actual contact. The electrons and protons in you body, becoming agitated by nearness to the other electrons and protons are distrubed, and transmit a distrubance along you nerves to the brain; the effect in the brain is what is necessary to your sensation of contact, and by suitable experiments this sensation can be made quite deeptive. The elecetrons and protons themselves, however, are only a crude first approximation, a way of collecting into a bundle either trains of waves or the statistical probabilites of various different kinds of events. Thus matter has become althogether too ghostly to be used as an adquate stick with which to beat the mind. Matter in motion, which used to seem so unquestionable, turns out to be a concept quite inadequate for the needs of physics.
Some judicious quotes:
From the introduction by Greive: "even in the most flattering photographs the great philosopher often resembles a bewigged ferret squinting into a hot wind." (13)
The rest of the quotes are Russell verbatim:
"a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work." (38)
"The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery." (43)
"The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich." (49)
"We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork." (58)
"the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect." (61)
"Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad." (63)
There were a number of ideas that will stay with me. For example, Russell, while discussing education, hypothesizes that it is the uneducated that bully and lynch others because the assertion of dominance is a source of self-respect for them. He also notes that education is extremely important for the populace of a nation as it offers them the chance to form intelligent opinions on matters of governance and finance. These are simple, almost basic ideas that are taken to their full potential in Russell’s essays.
He also writes about death and offers some words on how to broach the subject with kids. He advises parents to talk about death with their children but not to let them get too absorbed with it because it will reduce their all-round development. He also notes that children should be deterred from taking on a religious point of view regarding death, pointing out that death should not be made less terrible than what it is. His argument is to persuade the importance of the cause to which the person has given his/her life towards rather than the act of death itself.
In another essay he writes about designing arguments. He says we should focus our ideas towards like-minded people and not for opponents. Why? It’s due to the fact that the appeal to reason becomes difficult when there’s a large group because we have fewer assumptions to begin from. When the assumptions aren’t found, men begin to rely on intuition which leads to strife in power.
Further along, in another essay Russell contends that people use reason to persuade a group that is sympathetic to their cause. The person using that reason believes in it wholly but has trouble demonstrating it to those who question it. He adds that there has to be some universal assumptions for reason to survive; otherwise, it only leads to strife and power play, which we can see in the world around us right now.
Having said all this, some of the essays are insignificant. A few offer socially dated ideas—women staying behind to work in the house isn’t acceptable by modern standards, among other things. Despite all this, the essays themselves are straightforward in their language and presentation, discussing philosophical and social topics in a way that even laymen can perceive.
There are a lot more interesting concepts and opinions within the book. Many of these have become reality for our current society and some have fallen flat. I strongly suggest picking this book up if you’re looking to expand your view of the world. I had a most excellent time with this.