Bertrand Russell, born in 1872, was a British philosopher, writer and social critic.
Russell’s Unpopular Essays on subjects ranging from Philosophy for Laymen to The Future of Mankind continue to hold significance over half a century later in the United States as we enter a new political era.
Philosophy and Politics, written by Russell in 1948, is a particularly good example in which he outlines the dangers of the growth of dogmatism.
“Dogma demands authority, rather than intelligent thought, as the source of opinion,” Russell writes. “It requires persecution of heretics and hostility to unbelievers; it asks of its disciples that they should inhibit natural kindliness in favor of systematic hatred.”
Living in the “post-truth” age with a President who holds a Nixon-esque above-the-law attitude, it is easy to see why the critique of dogmatic worldviews is essential in maintaining balance in a society experiencing a record-breaking division in beliefs.
President Donald Trump’s supporters gave plenty of real world examples of Russell’s theory during Trump’s campaign with violence towards counter protestors and minorities, and again in the weeks following the election with a rise in xenophobic and anti semitic hate-crimes.
Going back to the extreme division in political beliefs that has continued to grow in the last few years, we witnessed as a society the kind of hostility to unbelievers and systematic hatred extreme followers can exhibit with the shift in social media culture. As Facebook users got political on the road to the 2016 election, real world relationships were ended over virtual disagreements.
“Since argument is not recognized as a means of arriving at truth, adherents of rival dogmas have no method except war by means of which to reach a decision,” Russell writes. “And war, in our scientific age, means, sooner or later, universal death.”
Russell was also anti war, and felt that the invention of the atomic bomb ment humanity as a whole had overstepped its bounds.
“In our own day, a combination of a scientific genius and technical skill has produced the atomic bomb, but having produced it we are all terrified, and do not know what to do with it.” Russell writes in his essay, Philosophy for Laymen.
These two concepts, he argues, means that no matter what we do, eventually one of us is going to push the Big Red Button and end it all. Empiricism, he felt, was the best manner of thinking, to which he says he reluctantly subscribes himself.
“Empiricist Liberalism (which is not incompatible with democratic socialism) is the only philosophy that can be adopted by a man who, on the one hand, demands some scientific evidence for his beliefs, and, on the other hand, desires human happiness more than the prevalence of this or that party or creed.” Russell writes in Philosophy and Politics.
He felt that the “idealistic young look[ing] for something with more bite in it” were mistaken, and instead alleged that only through the return of Liberal tentativeness and tolerance could the world survive.
However, if you are inclined as I am to believe Russell, you can see how this is relevant today.
We are reaching a boiling point, and either we are going to come together as a nation or we are going to go to war, either with ourselves or somebody else. Though it may not lead to nuclear destruction like Russell believed, Trump has responded seriously to North Korean threats lending legitimacy to this fear.
We need to find a way to come together as a free-thinking people, able to think rationally and not adhere to the beliefs of a single party or person. If we cannot find a way to look past our fierce beliefs and communicate not through argument, we will be left to fight in Russell’s predicted war.
“Our confused and difficult world needs various things if it is to escape disaster, and among these one of the most necessary is that, in the nations which still uphold Liberal beliefs, these beliefs should be whole-hearted and profound, not apologetic towards dogmatisms of the right and of the left, but deeply persuaded of the value of liberty, scientific freedom, and mutual forbearance,” Russell writes. “For without these beliefs life on our politically divided but technically unified planet will hardly continue to be possible.”