Quotations from Bertrand Russell’s Writings


“All history shows that, as might be expected, minorities cannot be trusted to care for the interests of majorities.”

Power (1938) 287


“The human race is a strange mixture of the divine and the diabolic, both equally real, making both good and evil inevitable. Complete despair is no more rational than blind optimism.”

‘On Keeping a Wide Horizon’, Russell, nos. 33-34 (Spring-Summer 1979) 7


“I have always ardently desired to find some justification for the emotions inspired by certain things that seemed to stand outside human life and to deserve feelings of awe. I am thinking in part of very obvious things, such as the starry heavens and a stormy sea on a rocky coast; in part of the vastness of the scientific universe, both in space and time, as compared to the life of mankind; in part of the edifice of impersonal truth, especially truth which, like that of mathematics, does not merely describe the world that happens to exist.”

“Those who attempt to make a religion of humanism, which recognizes nothing greater than man, do not satisfy my emotions. And yet I am unable to believe that, in the world as known, there is anything that I can value outside human beings, and, to a much lesser extent, animals. Not the starry heavens, but their effects on human percipients, have excellence; to admire the universe for its size is slavish and absurd; impersonal non-human truth appears to be a delusion. And so my intellect goes with the humanists, though my emotions violently rebel. In this respect the ‘consolations of philosophy’ are not for me.”

‘My Mental Development’, The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell (1944) 19-20


“In the ordinary man and woman there is a certain amount of active malevolence, both special ill will directed to particular enemies and general impersonal pleasure in the misfortunes of others. It is customary to cover this over with fine phrases; about half of conventional morality is a cloak for it. But it must be faced if the moralists’ aim of improving our actions is to be achieved. It is shown in a thousand ways, great and small: in the glee with which people repeat and believe scandals, in the unkind treatment of criminals in spite of clear proof that better treatment would have more effect in reforming them, in the unbelievable barbarity with which all white races treat Negroes, and in the gusto with which old ladies and clergymen pointed out the duty of military service to young men during the War. Even children may be the object of wanton cruelty: David Copperfield and Oliver Twist are by no means imaginary. This active malevolence is the worst feature of human nature and the one which it is most necessary to change if the world is to grow happier. Probably this one cause has more to do with war than all the economic and political causes put together.”

‘What I Believe’, Why I Am Not a Christian (1957) 77-8


“If human nature were unchangeable, as ignorant people still suppose it to be, the situation would indeed be hopeless. But we now know, thanks to psychologists and physiologists, that what passes for ‘human nature’ is at most one-tenth nature, the other nine-tenths being nurture. What is called human nature can be almost completely changed by changes in early education.” Sceptical Essays (1928) 254-5

“Fear and hatred ... can now be almost wholly eliminated from human nature by means of educational, economic and. political reforms. The educational reforms must be the basis, since men who feel hate and fear will also admire these emotions and wish to perpetuate them, although this admiration and wish will probably be unconscious.” Why I Am Not a Christian (1957) 46


“When I examine my own conception of human excellence, I find that, doubtless owing to early environment, it contains many elements which have hitherto been associated with aristocracy, such as fearlessness, independence of judgment, emancipation from the herd, and leisurely culture. Is it possible to preserve these qualities, and even make them widespread, in an industrial community? And is it possible to dissociate them from the typical aristocratic vices: limitation of sympathy, haughtiness, and cruelty to those outside a charmed circle?”

“These bad qualities could not exist in a community in which the aristocratic virtues were universal. But that could only be achieved through economic security and leisure, which are the two sources of what is good in aristocracies. It has at last become technologically possible through the progress of machinery and the consequent increased productivity of labor, to create a society in which every man and woman has economic security and sufficient leisure—for complete leisure is neither necessary nore desirable.”

“But although the technical possibility exists, there are formidable political and psychological obstacles. It would be necessary to the creation of such a society to secure three conditions: first, a more even distribution of the production of labor; second, security against large-scale wars; and third, a population which is stationary or very nearly so.”

‘Things That Have Moulded Me’, The Dial (September 1927) 181-6; reprinted as ‘Introduction’, Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (1927) xv-xvi


“To see one’s civilization in a true perspective is by no means easy. There are three obvious means to this end, namely travel, history, and anthropology ... but no one of the three is as great a help to objectivity as it appears to be. The traveler sees only what interests him; for example, Marco Polo never noticed Chinese women’s small feet. The historian arranges events in patterns derived from his preoccupations: the decay of Rome has been variously ascribed to imperialism, Christianity, malaria, divorce, and immigration—the last two being the favourites in America with parsons and politicians respectively. The anthropologist selects and interprets facts according to the prevailing prejudices of his day. 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 theories. In spite of these drawbacks, travel, history, and anthropology are the best means, and we must make the most of them.”

‘Western Civilization’, In Praise of Idleness (1935) 106-7


“When Rome fell, the Church preserved in a singular synthesis what had proved most vital in the civilization of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans.” In Praise of Idleness 111

“In the general decay of civilization that came about during the incessant wars of the sixth and succeeding centuries, it was above all the Church that preserved whatever survived of the culture of ancient Rome.... [E]cclesiastical institutions created a solid framework, within which, in later times, a revival of learning and civilized arts became possible.” History of Western Philosophy 335

“We owe to Christianity a certain respect for the individual....” In Praise of Idleness 113


“The influence of our wishes upon our beliefs is a matter of common knowledge and observation, yet the nature of this influence is very generally misconceived. It is customary to suppose that the bulk of our beliefs are derived from some rational ground, and that desire is only an occasional disturbing force. The exact opposite of this would be nearer the truth: the great mass of beliefs by which we are supported in our daily life is merely the bodying forth of desire, corrected here and there, at isolated points, by the rude shock of facts. Man is essentially a dreamer, wakened sometimes for a moment by some particularly obtrusive element in the outer world, but lapsing again quickly into the happy somnolence of imagination. Freud has shown how largely our dreams at night are the pictured fulfilment of our wishes; he has, with an equal measure of truth, said the same of daydreams; and he might have included the daydreams which we call beliefs.”

‘Dreams and Facts’, Sceptical Essays (1928) 26


“The break-up of the family, if it comes about, will not be, to my mind, a matter for rejoicing....”

“Sex cannot dispense with an ethic....”

“We believe that instinct should be trained rather than thwarted....”

“The morality which I should advocate does not consist simply of saying to grown-up people or adolescents: ‘Follow your impulses and do as you like’.”

“I should not, however, regard self-control as an end in itself, and I should wish our institutions and our moral conventions to be such as to make the need for self-control a minimum rather than a maximum.”

“It is ... a very good thing when a husband and wife love each other so completely that neither is ever tempted to unfaithfulness; it is not, however, a good thing that unfaithfulness, if it does occur, should be treated as something terrible, nor is it desirable to go so far as to make all friendship with persons of the other sex impossible.”

“A good life cannot be founded upon fear, prohibition, and mutual interference with freedom. Where faithfulness is achieved without these, it is good, but where all this is necessary it may well be that too high a price has been paid, and that a little mutual toleration of occasional lapses would be better.”

“[However], given the present system of biparental family, as soon as there are children it is the duty of both parties to a marriage to do everything that they can to preserve harmonious relations, even if this requires considerable self-control.”

‘Conclusion’, Marriage and Morals (1929) 300-13

“In 1929, I published Marriage and Morals,... It was this book chiefly which, in 1940, supplied material for the attack on me in New York. In it, I developed the view that complete fidelity was not to be expected in most marriages, but that a husband and wife ought to remain good friends in spite of affairs. I did not maintain, however, that a marriage could with advantage be prolonged if the wife had a child or children of whom the husband was not the father; in that case, I thought, divorce was desirable. I do not know what I think now about the subject of marriage. There seem to be insuperable objections to every general theory about it. Perhaps easy divorce causes less unhappiness than any other system, but I am no longer capable of being dogmatic on the subject of marriage.”

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, volume 2 (1968) 238


“For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipine is philosophy. But if philosophy is to serve a positive purpose, it must not teach mere scepticism, for while dogmatism is harmful, scepticism is useless.”

“Dogmatism and scepticism 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 of ignorance. Knowledge is not so precise a concept as is commonly thought. Instead of saying, ‘I know this’, we ought to say ‘I more or less know something more or less like this’. It is true that this proviso is hardly necessary as regards the multiplication table, but knowledge in practical affairs has not the certainty or precision of arithmetic....”

“It is not enough to recognize that all our knowledge is, in a greater or less degree, uncertain and vague; it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.... [And] when you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false....”

“Among most of the philosophers of antiquity there was a close connection between a view of the universe and a doctrine as to the best way of life.... If philosophy is to play a serious part in the lives of men who are not specialists, it must not cease to advocate some way of life. In doing this it is seeking to do something of what religion has done, but with certain differences. The greatest difference is that there is no appeal to authority....”

“To begin with the intellectual virtues: The pursuit of philosophy is founded on the belief that knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful. A man imbued with the philosophic spirit, whether a professional philosopher or not, will wish his beliefs to be as true as he can make them, and will, in equal measure, love to know, and hate to be in error....”

“There is another intellectual virtue, which is that of generality or impartiality. I recommend the following exercise: When, in a sentence expressiing political opinion, there are words that arouse powerful but different emotions in different readers, try replacing them with symbols, A, B, C, and so on, and forgetting the particular significance of the symbols. Suppose A is England, B is Germany and C is Russia. So long as you remember what the letters mean, most of the things you believe will depend upon whether you are English, German or Russian, which is logically irrelevant. When, in elementary algebra, you do problems about A, B and C going up a mountain, you have no emotional interest in the gentlemen concerned, and you do your best to work out the solution with impersonal correctness. But if you thought A was yourself, B your hated rival and C the schoolmaster who set the problem, your calculations would go askew, and you would be sure to find that A was first and C was last....”

“Thinking in abstract terms is of course not the only way to achieve ethical generality; it can be achieved as well, or perhaps even better, if you can feel generalized emotions. But to most people this is difficult. If you are hungry, you will make great exertions, if necessary, to get food; if your children are hungry, you may feel an even greater urgency. If a friend is starving, you will probably exert yourself to relieve his distress. But if you hear that some millions of Indians or Chinese are in danger of death from malnutrition, the problem is so vast and so distant that unless you have some official responsibility you probably soon forget all about it. Nevertheless, if you have the emotional capacity to feel distant evils acutely, you can achieve ethical generality through feeling....”

“The interrelation of logical and emotional generality in ethics is an interesting subject. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ inculcates emotional generality; ‘ethical statements should not contain proper names’ inculcates logical generality. The two precepts sound very different, but when they are examined it will be found that they are scarcely distingishable in practical import. Benevolent men will prefer the traditional form; logicians may prefer the latter. I hardly know which class of men is smaller....”

“It is not to be supposed that young men and women who are busy acquiring valuable specialized knowledge can spare a great deal of time for the study of philosophy, but even in the time that can easily be spared without injury to the learning of technical skills, philosophy can give certain things that will greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen. It can give a habit of exact and careful thought, not only in mathematics and science, but in questions of large practical import. It can give an impersonal breadth and scope to the conception of the ends of life. It can give to the individual a just measure of himself in relation to society, of man in the present to man in the past and in the future, and of the whole history of man in relation to the astronomical cosmos. By enlarging the objects of his thoughts it supplies an antidote to the anxieties and an­guish of the present, and makes possible the nearest approach to serenity that is available to a sensitive mind in our tortured and uncertain world.”

‘Philosophy for Laymen’, Unpopular Essays (1950) 27-32


“I have never been able to believe whole-heartedly in any simple nostrum by which all ills are to be cured. On the contrary, I have come to think that one of the main causes of trouble in the world is dogmatic and fanatical belief in some doctrine for which there is no adequate evidence. Nationalism, Fascism, Communism, and now anti-Communism have all produced their crop of bigoted zealots ready to work untold horror in the interest of some narrow creed. All such fanaticisms have in a greater or less degree the defect which I found in the Moscow Marxists, namely, that their dynamic power is largely due to hate.”

“Throughout my life I have longed to feel that oneness with large bodies of human beings that is experienced by the members of enthusiastic crowds. The longing has often been strong enough to lead me into self-deception. I have imagined myself in turn a Liberal, a Socialist, or a Pacifist, but I have never been any of these things in any profound sense. Always the scepticial intellect, when I have most wished it silent, has whispered doubts to me, has cut me off from the facile enthusiasms of others, and has transported me into a desolate solitude. During the First War, while I worked with Quakers, non-resisters and Socialists, while I was willing to accept unpopularity and the inconvenience belonging to unpopular opinions, I would tell the Quakers that I thought many wars in history had been justified, and the Socialists that I dreaded the tyranny of the State. They would look askance at me, and while continuing to accept my help would feel that I was not one of them.”

Portraits from Memory (1956) 38-9

“I am sorry to leave so many questions unanswered and so many answers uncertain, but uncertainty is, at any rate, better than mistaken certainty. I have frequently experienced a passage from the latter to the former. This degree of success, at least, I can claim.”

‘Replies to Critics, Addendum‘, The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, 5th ed. (1965)

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