Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell

My teenage daughter expressed an interest in philosophy so I borrowed Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays from my Chico Chica colleague, Barbara Snow. Before I returned the it I decided to read it myself. So this is a book which fate somehow placed in my hands. I read the book in the period just prior to the Chico Chica UK tour. It was a busy period of rehearsing, doing some last minute PR and worrying about how the atrocious storms would effect the tour’s travel arrangements and ticket sales. The book’s essay format made it easy to read in short snatches.

My decision to read Unpopular Essays was influenced by my memories of reading another collection of Russell’s essays when I was eighteen years of age. I was at the crossroads of my life and I was attracted by the book’s title: In Praise Of Idleness. In hindsight, it may well have had a profound influence on forming my attitudes which governed my subsequent adult life. I have never been attracted to philosophy as a genre but I remember being struck by Russell’s simple language and how clearly he expressed his ideas.

Reading Russell again, nearly forty years later, I was less impressed. Even, I, without any grounding in the subject, could spot fallacies. I thought the whole point of philosophy was to inspect every step in logic to make sure it was fallacy-free. He rightly says that people become quarrelsome over things they are unsure about. He offered the example of a religious heretic being burnt at the stake whereas someone who insisted 2+2=5 was left unmolested. But challenging a king’s divine right to rule is treasonous in a way that faulty arithmetic is not.

At one point he tells us how a thinker should think for all time and avoid looking dated a few years later. But he fails his own test my a peculiar obsession with the Soviet Union and  something no-one ever talks about today: world government. Russell Brand, Bob Geldof and others, including members of my family, are in favour of ditching capitalism, the nation state and democracy in order to save the environment and Bertrand Russell, though sincerely appreciative of parliamentary democracy, thought it best suspend it for a few hundred years to try out this world government thingy.

Reading this book made me realise just how influential he is and how he helped lay the foundations of current mainstream thinking especially regarding war, marriage, religion and human rights. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on finding ways to stop people being cruel to each other.  Those people who met Russell always attest he was a kind and  agreeable man but I found his writing lacking humour and his outlook unduly pessimistic. When he looks back at history he sees only cruelty and ignores the other bits. History books, like newspapers of full of instances of cruelty but don’t tell the whole story. Russell was a progressive so felt he had to exaggerate how bad the past was just as conservatives exaggerate how good it was.

Ludicrous sentences:

‘It is also now generally known by those who have taken the trouble to look into the matter that only an international government can prevent war.’  Who are these people who have gone to so much trouble? Russell doesn’t say. But if they’d gone to just a little bit more trouble they may have come up with the idea of asymmetrical warfare – but they didn’t.

‘Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of these possibilities will have been realised. These three are:

  1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
  2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
  3. A unification of the world under a single government.’

The idea that humanity might just muddle along didn’t occur to him because I believe, deep down, he doesn’t like or trust people.

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