Unpopular Essays

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The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.

Unpopular Essays (1950) is a book by Bertrand Russell. It constitutes a collection of his more controversial essays.

Quotes[edit]

Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.

Chapter 1: Philosophy and Politics[edit]

  • Change is one thing, progress is another. "Change" is scientific, "progress" is ethical; change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy.
    • p. i
  • A fanatical belief in democracy makes democratic institutions impossible.
    • p. 15
  • The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.
    • p. 15
  • After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.
    • Sardonic comments on human inclinations, p. 19

Chapter 2: Philosophy for Laymen[edit]

  • The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.
    • p. 27
  • Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.
    • p. 27

Chapter 3: The Future of Mankind[edit]

  • Extreme hopes are born of extreme misery, and in such a world hopes could only be irrational.
    • Sometimes misquoted as "Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery."
    • p. 36

Chapter 4: Philosophy's Ulterior Motives[edit]

  • In a man whose reasoning powers are good, fallacious arguments are evidence of bias.
    • p. 47
  • The apparent world goes through developments which are the same as those the logician goes through if he starts from Pure Being and travels on to the Absolute Idea... Why the world should go through this logical evolution is not clear; one is tempted to suppose that the Absolute Idea did not quite understand itself at first, and made mistakes when it tried to embody itself in events. But this, of course, was not what Hegel would have said.
    • p. 54
  • Admiration of the proletariat, like that of dams, power stations, and aeroplanes, is part of the ideology of the machine age.
    • p. 63
  • All movements go too far...
    • p. 69

Chapter 6: On Being Modern-Minded[edit]

  • Pragmatists explained that Truth is what it pays to believe. Historians of morals reduced the Good to a matter of tribal custom. Beauty was abolished by artists in a revolt against the sugary insipidities of a philistine epoch and in a mood of fury in which satisfaction is to be derived only from what hurts. And so the world was swept clear not only of God as a person but of God's essence as an ideal to which man owed an ideal allegiance.
    • p. 69

Chapter 7: An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish[edit]

Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told.
As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles.
  • Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.
    • p. 71
  • As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles.
    • p. 81
  • The whole of theology, in regard to hell no less than to heaven, takes it for granted that Man is what is of most importance in the Universe of created beings. Since all theologians are men, this postulate has met with little opposition.
    • p. 84
  • Since evolution became fashionable, the glorification of Man has taken a new form. We are told that evolution has been guided by one great Purpose: through the millions of years when there were only slime, or trilobites, throughout the ages of dinosaurs and giant ferns, of bees and wild flowers, God was preparing the Great Climax. At last, in the fullness of time, He produced Man, including such specimens as Nero and Caligula, Hitler and Mussolini, whose transcendent glory justified the long painful process. For my part, I find even eternal damnation less incredible, certainly less ridiculous, than this lame and impotent conclusion which we are asked to admire as the supreme effort of Omnipotence.
    • p. 84
  • Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.
    • p. 99
  • Every advance in civilization has been denounced as unnatural while it was recent.
    • p. 100
  • For my part I distrust all generalizations about women, favourable and unfavourable, masculine and feminine, ancient and modern; all alike, I should say, result from paucity of experience.
    • p. 102
  • Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.
    • p. 103
  • The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion.
    • p. 104
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
  • Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life.
    • p. 106
  • Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one.
  • Education, which was at first made universal in order that all might be able to read and write, has been found capable of serving quite other purposes. By instilling nonsense, it unifies populations and generates collective enthusiasm. If all governments taught the same nonsense, the harm would not be so great.
  • Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.

Chapter 9: Ideas That Have Helped Mankind[edit]

  • Christ said "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," and when asked "who is my neighbour?" went on to the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you wish to understand this parable as it was understood by his hearers, you should substitute "German" or "Japanese" for Samaritan. I fear many present-day Christians would resent such a substitution, because it would compel them to realize how far they have departed from the teachings of the Founder of their religion.

Chapter 10: Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind[edit]

  • In America everybody is of opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors.
    • p. 159