The book called Unpopular Essays is a collection of ten essays on various subjects, a chapter containing Russell’s impressions of some of the eminent men with whom he had come in contact, and a piece called “Obituary”, in which Russell anticipates his own death and expresses briefly his own view of his character and his achievement.
In the preface to the book, Russell tells us that these essays were intended “to combat in one way or another, the growth of dogmatism whether of the Right or of the Left, which has hitherto characterized our tragic century”. Russell also tells us that these essays were inspired by a serious purpose, even though at times they seem flippant. He also explains, in the ironical manner so characteristic of him, why he has called this book “Unpopular Essays”. There are several sentences in this book, says Russell, which some unusually stupid children of the age of ten may find difficult to understand. That being so, he could not claim that the essays would be popular; and so, if not popular, then, unpopular.
In actual fact, however, these essays have proved to be far from unpopular. The ideas expressed in them possess a popular appeal, and they are written in a style which is easily intelligible even to the layman. Besides, these essays have been made interesting, and almost entertaining, by Russell’s unique treatment of the subjects chosen by him, and by his ironical and satirical wit. Nor can the serious purpose of these essays be questioned. A critic has made the following comment on the essays in this collection: “The frivolous wit on the surface almost disguises the serious task of mental slum-clearance to which they are addressed”.
These essays cover a fairly wide range of subjects. We here see Russell as a philosopher, as a political theorist, as a social scientist, as an educationist, as a moralist, as a propagandist, as a close observer, and as an analyst of human life and character. Indeed, these essays reveal Russell’s many-sided genius and his intellectual breadth.
The following are the contents of this collection of essays: (1) “Philosophy and Politics”; (2) “Philosophy for Laymen”; (3) “The Future of Mankind”; (4) “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives”; (5) “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”; (6) “On Being Modern-Minded”; (7) “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”; (8) “The Functions of a Teacher”; (9) “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind”; (10) “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind”; (11) “Eminent Men I Have Known”; and (12) “Obituary”. A brief synopsis of each of these chapters in this collection of essays is given below in order that the student may be able to have a bird’s eye-view of the book as a whole.
(1) “Philosophy and Politics”
This essay is an attack on the political consequences of Hegel’s philosophy and a defence of Locke’s philosophy of empiricism. After briefly explaining Hegel’s belief in what Hegel called the Absolute Idea, Russell tells us that this philosophy had disastrous consequences in the political field. From Hegel’s metaphysic, it follows that true liberty consists in obedience to an arbitrary authority, that free speech is an evil, that absolute monarchy is good, that war is desirable, and that an international organization for the peaceful settlement of disputes would be a misfortune. A philosophy which leads to such consequences is evidently something obnoxious, and it is really surprising how at one time this philosophy held a sway over the minds of intellectuals not only in Germany but even in Britain and America.
Russell then brings out the merits in Locke’s philosophy of empiricism which, he tells us, offers a theoretical justification of democracy. Locke also preached religious toleration, representative institutions, and the limitations of governmental power by the system of checks and balances.
Russell concludes this essay by recommending empiricism not only on the ground of its greater truth but also on ethical grounds. Empiricist liberalism is the only philosophy that can serve mankind’s purposes in our times.
(2) “Philosophy for Laymen”
In this essay, Russell explains very briefly the uses of philosophy. Philosophy, he says, means a love of wisdom. Philosophy in this sense is what people must acquire if the new technical powers achieved by man are not to plunge mankind into the greatest conceivable disaster. However, the philosophy which the ordinary people should be taught is not the same thing as the philosophy of specialists.
Philosophy has always had two different objects: to arrive at a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world; and to discover and propagate the best possible way of life. Philosophy has thus been closely related to science on the one hand and to religion on the other. On its theoretical side philosophy partly consists in the framing of large general hypotheses which science is not yet in a position to test. (When it becomes possible to test such hypotheses they become part of science, and no longer belong to philosophy,) There are a number of purely theoretical questions, of everlasting interest, which science is unable to answer at present. Do we survive after death? Can mind dominate matter, or does matter completely dominate mind? Does this universe have a purpose, or is it driven by blind necessity? To keep alive the interest in such questions is one of the functions of philosophy.
On its practical side, philosophy can greatly increase a man’s value as a human being and as a citizen. It can give a habit of exact and careful thought. It can give an impressive breadth and scope to the conception of the aims of life. It can give to the individual a correct estimate of himself in relation to society, and of man in the present to man in the past and in the future. It can offer a cure, or at least a palliative, for the anxieties and the anguish which afflict mankind at present.
(3) “The Future of Mankind”
Here Russell visualizes the consequences of the next world war and expresses the view that only the establishment of a world-government can bring about lasting peace in the world. Russell would like the establishment of a world-government to take place under the leadership of America because there is greater respect in America for a civilized life than there is in Russia. By a civilized life, Russell means freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and humane feeling. If Russia dominates the world, all these freedoms will be crushed, and there will be a narrowing of science, philosophy, art, and literature. Only democracy and a free circulation of opinion can prevent a powerful government from establishing a servile State, with luxury for the few and overworked poverty for the many. Such a servile State has been established by the Soviet Government wherever it is in control.
Mankind has to guard against three dangers: (a) the extinction of the human race; (b) a going back to barbarism; and (c) the establishment of a universal servile State, involving misery for the vast majority, and the disappearance of all progress in knowledge and thought. The only way to guard against these dangers is the establishment of a world-government through peaceful means, if possible, and through war if necessary.
(4) “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives”
In this essay, Russell dwells upon the dangers and pitfalls faced by philosophers. It often happens that a philosopher is led by certain preconceived notions into a false reasoning, and in this way arrives at false conclusions. Russell takes the case of Descartes first. Descartes had a passionate desire for certainty, and so he started thinking out a new method of achieving certainty. He found that, while everything else could be doubted, he could not doubt his own existence. This became an excellent starting-point for him. He existed because he could see himself clearly and distinctly; and so he came to the conclusion that the things which he conceived very clearly and very distinctly were all true. He then began to conceive all sorts of things very clearly and very distinctly; for example, that an effect could not have more perfection than its cause. Since he could form an idea of God—that is, of a being more perfect than himself—this idea must have had a cause other than himself, which could only be God; therefore, God existed. Since God was good, He would not perpetually deceive Descartes; therefore the objects which Descartes saw when awake must really exist. And in this way Descartes went on throwing all intellectual caution to the winds. Everything that followed from this kind of reasoning was loose and slipshod and hasty. His method of reasoning thus showed the distorting influence of his own desire.
After showing us the absurdity of the conclusions which Descartes reached by his way of reasoning, Russell goes on to expose the absurdity of the reasoning and the conclusions arrived at by certain other philosophers. The other philosophers whom Russell considers here are Leibniz, Bishop Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and finally Marx.
(5) “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”
In this essay Russell illustrates his view that there is a tendency on the part of writers, especially moralists, to attribute some superior virtue to those classes of people who are oppressed. Russell gives us five examples of the classes of people who have been, or who are, oppressed and who therefore are thought to possess some superior virtue.
The first example to illustrate the central idea of this essay is that of the poor people. The poor people were long regarded as morally better than the rich. The next example is that of nations which have been under foreign domination. Subject nations were believed to have possessed certain superior gifts and some special charm. However, as soon as the subject nations became independent, the belief in their superior gifts also disappeared. Then there is the case of the female sex. Women were believed to have a certain spiritual quality as long as they were dominated by men; but as soon as they achieved equality with men, their angelic qualities also vanished. Next is the example of children. Children were thought to be innocent and pure as long as parents could tyrannize over them; subsequently these superior qualities disappeared, and a new belief arose, namely that there was great wickedness in children in their unconscious minds. Lastly, a superior virtue has been found in the proletariat or the working-class, because this class has been oppressed for a long time. As soon as the proletariat attains its full rights, the superior virtue attributed to this class of people will also disappear. Stated in a nutshell, the thesis of this essay is that there is a tendency to glorify the oppressed class of people, the object behind such glorification being to continue the exploitation of that oppressed class,
(6) “On Being Modern-Minded”
It has become a general tendency nowadays, says Russell, to adopt opinions which are current, and to show a contempt for the past. When fashion alone dominates opinion, it becomes unnecessary for people to think for themselves. The result is that a man deliberately suppresses what is individual in himself in order to acquire the opinions which are popular. A mentally solitary life for an individual has become pointless nowadays, according to the modern standards.
After criticizing the present-day trend towards adopting ready-made current opinions, Russell concludes the essay by pointing out the value of detachment and objectivity. A certain degree of isolation both in space and in time is necessary for the most important intellectual work. We must not sacrifice the independence of our minds merely to win the admiration of the crowd by holding opinions which have become current.
(7) “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”
This is an essay directed against irrationality. The ages of faith, says Russell, were ages of superstition, and so there was little evidence of rationality in the outlook of people. Priests have always propagated irrational beliefs. The whole conception of sin in the past was merely a manifestation of the superstitious bent of mind. Similarly, the views relating to the resurrection of the body, the sacredness of human corpses, divorce, etc., were purely superstitious.
As soon as we abandon our own reason, says Russell, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Human beliefs have various causes. There is, for instance, the belief which human beings have about their own excellence. The Englishman, the Frenchman, the Russian— each thinks of the superiority of his own nation and his own superiority as a member of that nation. There is also the belief that man is the supreme creation of God, and that centuries of evolution have been guided by one great divine purpose, namely, the appearance of man. But when we realize that life on this planet is temporary, this belief in the importance of man loses its validity. A scientific view of the future of the solar system lends no support to the view that man is all-important. Then there is the belief in the racial superiority of the white man over the coloured people, while the scientific fact is that there is no difference between the blood of a negro and the blood of a white man.
There is another wide-spread belief having no rational basis. It is that human nature cannot be changed, and that, for this reason, there will always be wars. The actual fact is that a powerful government, by following certain psychological methods, can produce a population of sane and reasonable people who will discard war. Unfortunately most governments do not wish to achieve such a result, because sane and reasonable people would fail to admire the politicians who are at the head of these governments. Most governments now instill their own particular brands of political ideologies among their respective populations. This kind of thing leads to a bitter hostility among nations which have been fed upon conflicting ideologies.
Irrational beliefs hold a sway upon the minds of people with regard to birth control and with regard to the nature and disposition of the female sex. There are also irrational generalizations about national characteristics.
Russell is of the opinion that by observing a few simple rules mankind can avoid the deplorable consequences which afflict human life because of irrational beliefs. One such rule is to base one’s beliefs on actual observation. People must not be dogmatic; they must keep their minds open, and they must discuss their opinions with those whose views and opinions are different from their own. The feeling of self-esteem should also not be allowed to play any part in the holding of beliefs. Another desirable course is for human beings to conquer fear, because fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty.
Russell closes this essay on a frivolous note, saying that superstitions are not always dark and cruel but that often they add to the gaiety of life.
(8) “The Functions of a Teacher”
In this essay we see Russell as an educationist. Russell is opposed to the rigid manner in which the State nowadays enforces its own ideology through the education that is imparted to pupils. In countries like Russia, the system of education is such as to produce fanatical bigots who are ignorant of the world outside their own country and who are unaccustomed to free discussion. As a result of the kind of education that is imparted to pupils in different countries, the spirit of cultural internationalism has received a severe setback. Russell pleads for the emancipation of the teacher from the intellectual bondage imposed upon him by the government of his country. Education should never be dogmatic, and that is possible only if the teachers are free to teach what they please and in the manner they think to be the best.
Teachers are—more than any other class of people—the guardians of civilization. Civilization is a matter partly of knowledge and partly of emotion, and it is the duty of the teacher to impart the right kind of knowledge in an objective spirit, and similarly develop in the pupils the right kind of emotions. If democracy is to survive, the teacher should try to produce in his pupils the spirit of tolerance which will enable them to understand people who are different from themselves. An attitude of intolerance, which results from ignorance, is the very opposite of a civilized outlook; and the teacher should not allow the spirit of intolerance to take roots in the minds of his pupils. If the teacher is to succeed in his purpose, he must be free: he should feel himself to be an individual directed by an inner creative impulse, and not an individual dominated and controlled by an outside authority.
(9) “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind”
In pre-historic times, mankind benefited greatly by the evolution, of language, the discovery of fire, the art of taming animals, the invention of agriculture, and the art of writing.
In historic times, the earliest important steps were taken in the spheres of mathematics and astronomy by the Babylonians and later by the Greeks. In the seventeenth century, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz made great advances in the human understanding of Nature. Galileo unified the principles governing the earth and the heavens by his law of inertia.
From the seventeenth century onwards, it has become increasingly clear that, in order to understand natural laws, we must get rid of every kind of ethical and aesthetic bias. It was geology and Darwin’s theory of evolution that first upset the irrational religious beliefs of scientists.
Scientific progress without a corresponding moral and political progress may only increase the magnitude of the disaster that the misuse of scientific skill and technique may bring about. Among moral ideas, the brotherhood of man is an ideal which owed its first force to political developments. Subsequently, this ideal received a great support from Buddhism and Christianity.
The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity have religious origins. The concept of individual liberty within the State first entered practical politics in the form of religious toleration. Other ideas which have helped mankind in the sphere of politics are law and government. Democracy is a system of government which aims at reconciling government with liberty.
Orderly social life depends upon a balance of certain ideas and institutions which are: government, law, individual liberty, and democracy. But modern techniques have created a new crisis for mankind. In order to face this crisis, people must recognize the need of an international government. If an international government of some kind is not established, the next world war will destroy all civilization.
(10) “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind”
The misfortunes of human beings have their main source in evil passions rather than in ideas or beliefs. People in the past enjoyed the spectacles of cruelty such as the burning of heretics, and many people even today find the brutalities of war to be enjoyable. Men’s cruel impulses can do tremendous harm to them.
As for ideas and beliefs, much harm has been done by religious superstitions. Even Christian saints, who practised asceticism, found pleasure in the thought that sinners would be subjected to great tortures in the next life. Nowadays Christian asceticism has given way to political asceticism. Communism, for instance, teaches its followers to sacrifice all pleasures and to live a life of hard work and toil because those who do not do so have to be either liquidated or put in concentration camps.
The feeling that much of our suffering is due to the ill-will of other people led to the belief in witchcraft, and this belief was responsible for much cruelty towards those who were accused of being witches.
Envy is one of the most powerful sources of false belief. In the international sphere, envy has led to he philosophy of economic nationalism. And this false belief becomes a cause of war.
Another passion which gives rise to false beliefs that are politically harmful is pride—pride of nationality, pride of race, pride of sex, pride of class, and pride of creed. All these kinds of pride lead to tremendous injustice and suffering.
Yet another harmful belief results from the delusion which men and nations sometimes have that they are the special instruments of the divine will.
Russell closes this essay with some very useful advice. Both in public and in private life, says he, the important thing is tolerance and kindliness. Besides, the establishment of an international government has become very necessary for the survival of civilization and for the prevention of war. What the world needs today is (1) political, economic, and educational organization; and (2) certain moral qualities, especially charity and tolerance instead of some fanatical faith represented by an “ism”.
(11) “Eminent Men I Have Known”
This essay is a brief record of the impressions that Russell formed of certain eminent personalities with whom he came into contact. These eminent personalities included poets, philosophers, scientists, and politicians.
Among the poets whom Russell met, he mentions Browning, Tennyson, and Rupert Brooke. Russell found Browning to be a pleasant and kindly gentleman, very much at home at tea-parties, but without the divine fire that is generally expected of a poet. For Tennyson, Russell developed an attitude of scorn. Rupert Brooke struck Russell as “beautiful and vital”, but the total impression was marred by a touch of Byronic insincerity in the man.
As for philosophers, the most impressive in Russell’s opinion was William James whom he found to be completely free from all consciousness of being a great man. Russell found Henry Sidgwick to be impressive through his quality of intellectual honesty. Among the scientists, Einstein impressed Russell as combining a powerful intellect with a childlike simplicity.
As for politicians, Russell knew seven Prime Ministers of whom the most unforgettable was Mr. Gladstone. The only other man in public life as impressive as Mr. Gladstone was Lenin. Gladstone was an embodiment of Victorianism, and Lenin was an embodiment of Marxian formulas. Lenin was cruel while Gladstone was not. Lenin had no respect for tradition, while Gladstone had a great deal. Lenin considered all means legitimate for securing the victory of his party, whereas for Gladstone politics was a game with certain rules that must be observed. Both men derived their personal force from a firm conviction of their own Tightness.
At the end of this essay, Russell mentions a man who impressed him a good deal but who was not eminent in any sense. This man was a gardener who could neither read nor write, but who was a perfect type of simple goodness. Russell says that he could never forget this man because of his purity of mind. Worldly success seldom comes to such men, but they inspire love and admiration in those who know them.
(12) “Obituary” (1937)
Here Russell shows his sense of humour by writing his own obituary. An obituary is the announcement of a death made by the relatives or friends of a deceased person, Here Russell imagines that he would die on June 1, 1962 and writes his own obituary in anticipation of his death.
As an obituary is also expected to contain some of the important events of the life of a deceased person, Russell here mentions what he regards as some of the foremost incidents of his life. He tells us that in his youth he did work of importance in mathematical logic. He informs us that he did not enjoy the advantages of a public school education but that he was taught at home by tutors until the age of eighteen when he entered TrinityCollege, Cambridge, becoming seventh Wrangler in 1893 and a Fellow in 1895.
Among the books that he produced, Russell mentions The Foundations of Geometry, The Philosophy of Leibniz, The Principles of Mathematics, and Principia Mathematica (in collaboration with Dr. A.N. Whitehead).
Russell also refers here to his pacifist ideas and his staunch opposition to war. His opposition to war was regarded by some people as eccentric. As a result of his campaign against war during the Great War of 1914-18, he lost his job as a Lecturer at TrinityCollege, and had to spend a few months in prison.
Then Russell talks of his visits to Russia and to China in 1920, and goes on to mention his advocacy of socialism, educational reform, and a less rigid code of morals as regards marriage. In World War II, Russell took no public part, having escaped to a neutral country just before its outbreak.
All these essays show Russell not only as a philosopher but also as a man of strong humanitarian views. He is opposed to war; and he is a great liberal and an ardent supporter of individual freedom and democracy. These essays also show his moral fervour which appears in his advocacy of such qualities as tolerance, kindliness, mutual helpfulness, and sympathy. Russell had a broad mind and an all-embracing outlook: as an internationalist he urges the establishment of a world-government because he finds that the continuance of sovereign states with their narrow, nationalistic outlook can no longer serve the common interest of mankind but are a divisive force. In short, Russell appears in these essays as a most progressive and enlightened thinker who has the good of mankind at heart.
Russell is one of the great prose-stylists of the twentieth century. Although a philosopher, he does not write in a distorted or obscure manner even when writing about philosophy as we see in the very first essay called Philosophy and Politics, and in another essay called Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives. His style is characterized by intellectual brilliance, clarity and lucidity, and a catholicity of temper. In addition to these qualities his style also shows his use of irony and a gay wit. His writing exactly reflects his crystalline, scintillating mind. All these essays are illumined by the clarity and grace of expression which are the most striking virtues of his style. Russell also gives evidence here of his capacity for making condensed statements and generalizations having a ready appeal. Russell did not evolve a style according to any premeditated theory or doctrine. His style came to him naturally. In his case, as in the case of other great writers, it can be said with certitude that the style is the man. His is a style which makes use of all the resources of the English language, excluding nothing and attaching no undue importance to any particular ingredient. Parallelisms, antitheses, contrast, simile, metaphor, quotation, anecdote, simple words and difficult words, short sentences and long sentences—all these are utilized by him to express himself effectively. But there is nothing gaudy or ostentatious about this style. It uses no ornamental devices. It is a plain, unembellished style. It does not even employ rhetoric. In fact, we cannot use a simple formula for this style as we can, for instance, for Bacon’s style (concise and epigrammatic), for Carlyle’s style (erudite, cumbersome, eccentric), or for Ruskin’s style (musical prose). This is a style in which a perfect synthesis has been achieved between a multitude of different ingredients. In its own way it is a unique style.
Russell begins his essay, "The Future of Mankind," with three possible scenarios for the future. Note that Russell wrote this essay after World War II and during the rise of the Cold War. (The Cold War defined the antagonism between the Soviet Union, and their allies, and the United States, and their allies. The Cold War followed World War II - 1947 - and lasted until 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.)
Given that a third world war, erupting from the Cold War, was one of Russell's greatest concerns, his prospects for the future dealt with the possibility of such a war (atomic, no less) or some way to avoid such a war. If such a war were to occur, Russell supposed the destruction of human life, and possibly all life, on the planet. Atomic bombs and their after-effects (radiation clouds, disease, etc.) would decimate and/or eliminate all life.
Russell's second scenario is that the world would revert to a state of barbarism. This too could result from a widespread atomic world war. The only solace is that such outcome leaves open the possibility that humans could return to a civilized state. Russell compares this possibility to the fall of Rome which was followed by a relatively more barbaric time (notably the Dark Ages) but was followed by a Renaissance and eventually a more technological and organized world.
Russell's third scenario is the unification of the world under one united power. Russell adds that such a united power is the most preferable outcome (a more powerful and all-encompassing authority than, say, the United Nations). Russell notes that as long as there at least two supremely powerful states (Soviet Union and United States), the threat of an atomic world war is always possible. And as technology increases, the destructive power of such a war increases. In other words, the more technologically advanced the world becomes, the more destructive our wars become; therefore, Russell believed that a unified world state becomes more and more necessary in order to avoid such a catastrophic war.
Russell hoped that a united world state could be achieved by negotiation and/or the threat of force but he feared that force would be necessary. He also clearly preferred an American victory rather than a Russian victory - whether that be the result of diplomatic relations or the result of a war. He even added that if America were communist and Russia were capitalist, he would still prefer an American victory because there was more intellectual and social freedom in America.
Although a united world state does have problems, Russell believes that under such a state, the threat of war will be lessened or eliminated, leaving humans to put more attention on human happiness. Although Russell presents gloomy potentials for the future, he believes that an immeasurably good outcome can emerge from the third scenario:
What the world most needs is effective laws to control international relations. The first and most difficult step in the creation of such law is the establishment of adequate sanctions, and this is only possible through the creation of a single armed force in control of the whole world.