Monday, May 11, 2015

R is for Russell

(This post was originally titled "L is for Liberal Decalogue," but Luke bumped it.)

The topic of today's post has been called a micro-manifesto of sorts.  In philosopher Bertrand Russell's autobiography, he tucked in his own version of the 10 commandments... not so much a replacement for the Mosaic law, but a "liberal" supplement for the modern scientific age.  It was originally printed in the New York Times in 1951.

Epistemological Mack Daddy

I put "liberal" in scare quotes above because it's meaning has drifted quite a bit over the decades.  I just checked the holy OED, and the meaning of the word that I think Russell had in mind was "favorable to, or respectful of, individual rights and freedoms."

As a college kid in the 1980s, I had a copy of these 10 commandments taped up on my desk in the dorm (next to these lyrics).  Just reading them again brings me back to those heady days, when I was just starting to think about a career in science.  Here they are:

- - - - - - -

The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

- - - - - - -

Again, there's that tension between rival themes.  So much of the above is about doing your own thing, no matter what the authorities will tell you to do.  But there are hints about a need for some moderation.  He warns us not to be over-confident or arrogant enough to impose our way on others, even if we are in the right.  Just a pinch of be nice to one another, in other words.  :-)

A few other thoughts:
  • From the appearance of the word "husband" in #4, it's interesting that he may have been writing this for a female audience.
  • Many online commentaries on #5 make it clear that he's talking about authority as something distinct from expertise.  The latter is what scientists (ought to) convey to the public, not the former.
  • #10 seems a bit out of left field to me.  I wonder if this envy is something that Russell struggled with himself.
  • I don't think I'll ever fulfill #1.  There are some things that I know.


  1. Excellent and enjoyable post, Cygnus. Bertrand Russell is a personal hero and well-represented in my shelves. A young visitor once asked why I had 3 volumes of Russell's autobiography. I said, "Well, he lived a long time." --time well spent too.

    1. Some time I'm going to have to re-read his "Why I am Not a Christian." At the age of 19, it convinced me, but I think I'd have more of a two-way dialogue with it now. :-)

    2. I'd typed up a contribution to this dialogue but then thought better of it. Suffice it to say, Kilroy was here. >:)

  2. I've heard of Bertrand Russell, but knew nothing about him. Thank you for Bertram 101. His commandments are interesting and enjoyable.


    1. Thanks, Janie. It's been extremely fun doing these posts. I'm grateful people are still hanging around after the official end of the April challenge.