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 The Reasoning of Europeans  (1957)*

By Bertrand Russell

It is a curious fact that if you ask a cultivated Western European and a well-informed Asian to characterize Western civilization you will get replies which have almost nothing in common. A Western man is considered by his colleagues to be a worthy representative of European culture if he knows Greek and Latin literature, the philosophy of Plato, and the influence which Christianity is supposed to have had upon Western life. He should also know something of Western literature since Dante and should be well informed about Western painting and music and architecture. If he has these qualifications he will pass muster in any Western academic society and will run no risk of being thought an ignoramus.

But such a man is likely to be completely ignorant of everything that the East regards as important and distinctive in the West. Eastern nations have had art and architecture and philosophy and literature. Some virtues, which it is the custom nowadays to regard as especially Christian, have been at most times more worthily practised in the East than in the West. I am thinking in particular of religious toleration. Christian heretics in the early days of Islam were much more kindly treated by the Mohammedans than by the orthodox Byzantine Emperors. Anti-Semitism, of which the most shocking examples are nowadays given by non-Christians, was originally and until the nineteenth century closely associated with Christianity. It is not what it has become common to call “Western values” that the East regards as typical of the West, for in such matters the record of the East is, if anything, better than that of the West.


But there is one respect—and an immensely important one—in which the West has made a contribution to which there has, as yet, been nothing parallel in the East. This contribution is due in its earlier form to the Greeks, and in its later form to the Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Greeks invented mathematics and the apparatus of deductive reasoning. The Europeans who followed the Renaissance invented the technique of discovering natural laws, more particularly laws of change. We may select as two outstanding representatives of these discoveries Pythagoras and Galileo. Pythagoras is a strange character. His mystical philosophy and his belief in transmigration had, presumably, an Eastern origin and in no way distinguished European from Asian thought. But he and his school, utilizing Egyptian and Babylonian beginnings, developed the science of mathematics and applied it with brilliant success to astronomy. The Babylonians and Egyptians could predict eclipses, but it was Pythagoreans who discovered their cause. What the Greeks contributed to civilization in the way of art and literature and philosophy, however excellent, was not so very different from what was done in other nations, but their contribution in mathematics and astronomy was something new and distinctive, and it is for this, above all, that they deserve to be honoured.

The sudden rise of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the work of Europe as a whole. The first step was taken by Copernicus, who was a Pole. Kepler was a German; Galileo, an Italian; and Newton, an Englishman. The Greeks, in the main, were able to deal scientifically only with things that were either unchanging or strictly periodic, like the day and the year. The great step, that was due chiefly to Galileo, was the scientific treatment of changes which were not periodic. This was an intellectual achievement which was new in human history.


The men of the seventeenth century who invented modern scientific method had an advantage over their predecessors in a new mathematical technique. But, in addition to this technical advance, there was another almost more important. Before their time, observation had been haphazard, and baseless traditions were accepted as if they recorded facts. The laws which were invented to account for phenomena were not legitimate inferences from observation, but were infected by a belief that nature conformed to human tastes and hopes and fears. The heavenly bodies were supposed to move in circles or complications of circles, because the circle appealed to aesthetic taste as the perfect figure. Pestilences and earthquakes were sent to punish sin. Refreshing rain was sent as the reward for virtue. Comets foretold the death of princes. Everything on earth and in the heavens had reference to Man or to aesthetic tastes which closely resembled those of human beings. The scientific temper abandoned this point of view. To find out how nature works, we must forget our own hopes and fears and tastes, and be guided only by careful investigation of facts. Although this may now seem a simple idea, it was, in truth, revolutionary. When Kepler discovered that the planets moved in ellipses, not in circles or epicycles, he dealt a death-blow to the interpretation of nature through the medium of human emotions. The essence of the scientific attitude thus inaugurated is this: Nature does what it does, not what we should wish, nor yet what we should fear, but something blandly unconscious of our existence.

From the realization of this fact, the modern world, for good or evil, has inexorably developed. It is, I repeat, a curious circumstance that most of the men who are thought in the West to be embodiments of Western culture are ignorant of this development, which was due, at first, to a tiny minority and is still, in the main, confined to people whom their literary confrères regard as narrow and uncouth specialists.

It is not pure science, however, but scientific technique which represents most fully the influence of the West upon mankind. The Industrial Revolution, which is still in its infancy, began in a humble way in Lancashire and Yorkshire and on the Clyde. It was execrated in the country of its origin by most cultured gentlemen, and was tolerated only because it contributed to the defeat of Napoleon; but its explosive force was so great that, by its own momentum, it spread first to the other countries of the West and, later, to Russia and Asia, which it is completely transforming. It is this, and this alone, that the East is willing to learn from the West. Whether the discovery of this kind of skill is to prove a boon or a disaster is, as yet, an open question. But, whether for good or ill, it is industrial technique that is the main cause of the changes that the world is undergoing.


There are two very different ways of estimating any human achievement: you may estimate it by what you consider its intrinsic excellence; or you may estimate it by its causal efficacy in transforming human life and human institutions. I am not suggesting that one of these ways of estimating is preferable to the other. I am only concerned to point out that they give very different scales of importance. If Homer and Aeschylus had not existed, if Dante and Shakespeare had not written a line, if Bach and Beethoven had been silent, the daily life of most people in the present day would have been much what it is. But if Pythagoras and Galileo and James Watt had not existed, the daily life not only of Western Europeans and Americans but of Russian and Chinese peasants would be profoundly different from what it is. And these profound changes are still only beginning. They must affect the future even more than they have already affected the present.

For all this the Western world has the major share of responsibility; and, because of this responsibility, it is incumbent upon Western man to supplement his scientific discoveries by the discovery of how to live with them. At present, scientific technique advances like an army of tanks that have lost their drivers, blindly, ruthlessly, without goal or purpose. This is largely because the men who are concerned with human values and with making life worthy to be lived are still in imagination in the old pre-industrial world, the world that has been made familiar and comfortable by the literature of Greece and the preindustrial achievements of the poets and artists and composers whose work we rightly admire.

It is not the first time in history that a revolution in technique has caused a revolution in daily life. The same sort of thing happened, though much more gradually, with the adoption of agriculture as opposed to a nomadic existence. It is said, and no doubt with truth, that nomads have certain excellences which cannot be preserved in a stationary, agricultural life. Nevertheless, the spread of agriculture has been inevitable, although it was accompanied by ages of serfdom and oppression. Gradually, agriculture has been humanized, and we may hope that industrialism will be humanized more quickly.


From a political and social point of view, the most important change resulting from industrialism is the greater interdependence of men and groups of men upon one another. Important industrial undertakings require the co-operation of large numbers of men, but what is more important, they require, if they are to be useful, the right kind of relations between the men concerned in the undertaking and the populations which it is to affect. Consider such projects as the St Lawrence waterway, the irrigation of the Punjab, and the high dam at Aswan. All these raise international issues of the utmost delicacy. In a world of international laissez faire the issues they raise can be decided, if at all, only after long, turbulent debates and contests of power. In such questions, as in the internal affairs of single States, there is much less room than there used to be for laissez faire and much less room for individual enterprise, or even for the enterprise of a single nation.

It is growing increasingly difficult, in the world to which modern technique is giving rise, to preserve for the individual a sphere of initiative sufficient to stimulate his energies and give zest to his efforts. If the individual is not to shrivel and become desiccated through feeling himself merely an unimportant member of vast, impersonal organizations, something that seems both interesting and important will have to be found outside the main economic activities of communities. Many kinds of liberty, both personal and national, have become dangerous and need to be curbed. But liberty must have its place if men are not to lose stature. I am thinking not so much of liberty in the abstract as of the possibility of important achievement through individual effort. I hope that Europe, which has unwittingly created this problem, may also lead the way to its solution.

*  Bertrand Russell, “The Reasoning of Europeans,” a talk on the B.B.C. Overseas Service, 1957  Repr. Fact and Fiction, 1961