Monday, May 18, 2015

The Promised End

Eight years ago today I initiated this blog, as a sort of loose commitment to read, summarize, and lightly comment upon ten of Bertrand Russell's works. Today, Bertrand's 143rd birthday, the plan is complete. (OK, there was that one plan revision.) Thanks to the many visitors to this project, visitors from Pakistan and India, Russia and Ukraine, the US and the UK, along with visitors from other points adorning our globe; it has been a pleasure sharing this journey with you. Perhaps the future holds revisions and updates, or further destinations; but for now, the tiny Reading Bertrand Russell river merges into the mighty cyber sea.

In Praise of Idleness, Full Time

While the first half of In Praise of Idleness centers on a critique of the profit motive under industrial capitalism, the second half moves away from the economics sphere. The movement away is only partial, however, in that the effects of the rise of science and industry (largely in the advanced capitalist countries) dominate the second-half subject matter.

Science and industry, for Russell, are the hallmarks of Western civilisation. Technological advances in warfare require the cooperation of huge swaths of people, prompting the government to seek ways – including promulgating propaganda – to develop political cohesion. (Though cooperation is necessary, achieving it through appeals to a fervent nationalism is a mistake, and one that makes other countries wary.) US-style industrialization brings about a cultural and political homogeneity that contributes to political cohesion, though possibly at the cost of an intolerance of difference and a decline in individualism. [Russell’s view of the narrow political spectrum in the US still seems right to me, but the notion that US politics are somehow less contentious doesn't seem to hold – perhaps Russell overlooked Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”?] The comfort that comes with high living standards, political cohesion, and freedom leads to a cynicism in intelligent youth, who have little recourse except to serve ignorant but wealthy masters.

The problem of cynicism can be overcome if the masters are not so ignorant; thus, a broad education is key, and not just for the masters. The general goal of education is to promote civilisation, which involves knowledge but also an array of individual and social virtues, including openness to novel ideas and people. This goal is best served through a considerable degree of freedom for schoolchildren, when they are in the hands of teachers who should not be overtaxed, and who enjoy their company.

The world is full of harm, and this is a reality that cannot and should not be kept from children. Dangers (such as death) should be acknowledged but not dwelt upon, sometimes diluted even to the point of missing opportunities to reduce the probability of harm. The encouragement (through education) of broad, other-regarding interests can help avoid a fixation on potential disasters. No one would develop self-control in the face of danger if they were always shielded from danger; but an avoidance of excessive coddling should not be used to open the door to sadism and cruelty on the part of teachers and parents. A young person who is attracted to a valuable goal will discipline him or herself in an effort to achieve that goal.

Our species is doomed, though that doom is temporally remote (assuming the insects don’t get us), and therefore we do not exhaust psychic energy in worrying about it. This is the message that we should send to children curious about their own deaths, too: inevitable but quite distant, and no cause for brooding. Our commitment to truth-telling to children rules out that we tell them that the soul is eternal. Broad interests forge a connection to the human past and future, even to a future in which one’s body and one’s mind, or one’s soul, are no longer present. As Russell wrote elsewhere, our lives are like a river joining a larger sea.

As a whole, the essays that comprise In Praise of Idleness are an impressive achievement [MRDA]. The idleness essay itself is part of a wider “idleness” discourse that was unknown to me until I read Professor Woodhouse’s Introduction and Woodhouse's mention of Karel Capek’s much different essay. (One of the better pre-Russell contributions comes from Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, writing in 1880 (republished with revisions in 1883). Lafargue goes Russell one better, calling not for a four-hour workday but a three-hour one: "If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her.") But I was most struck by the extent of the overlap between Russell’s ideas and those of William Morris. The four essays by Morris that are reprinted in this short collection presage the first three chapters of In Praise of Idleness, including thoughts on the non-necessity of long working days – especially if war were rationally avoided – and on the importance of architecture. Morris also presents, as Russell does in Chapter 7, a case for socialism.

Incidentally, the Russellian case for socialism, as a rational response to the conditions brought about by industrialization, seems quite convincing to me; I prefer it to more recent (even identically named) treatments. The Russell version avoids both envy of the rich and warm feelings for the Bolsheviks.

Russell’s faith in the social healing power of architecture seems a bit extreme, but his analysis seems to run in the right direction. In the recent book Happy City, Charles Montgomery notes (p. 90) the excesses of the architecture-as-cure crowd: “The messianic certainty of the high modernists of the last century makes it easy to pick on them.” But Montgomery also verifies (p. 55) Russell’s contention, that suburban life breeds unhappiness and undermines social and political activity.

The reference to Montgomery’s 2013 book is itself a nod towards Russell’s continuing relevance. The essays that make up In Praise of Idleness were written more than 80 years ago, but they are dense with useful information (or useless information, that’s fine), and that informational richness is combined with a writing style that makes them easy to digest. This Russell fellow has a promising future ahead of him.

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fifteen

“What is the Soul?,” pages 170-174

Progress in science has a way of undermining what (we had been confident) constituted knowledge. When I [Russell] was young, everyone knew that humans had a body and a soul. The materiality of the body was self-evident, and questioned only by philosophers. But now, we learn from physicists that the existence of matter is suspect. Simultaneously, psychologists tell us that the existence of mind is suspect; indeed, many psychologists think of the mind as a wholly material phenomenon. And the body seems to be a construct of the mind, completing an unpalatable circle. [So far we are covering ground further adumbrated in an essay in Portraits From Memory – RBR] “Evidently this cannot be quite right, and we have to look for something that is neither mind nor body, out of which both can spring [p. 171].”

Surely as a first impression, material objects exist, and you can bump into them. [Russell does not mention Samuel Johnson’s “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley – RBR] But physicists challenge this interpretation, as bumping has something to do with electrons and protons but little to do with you touching something, even though your brain registers the sensation of touch – and your brain can be mistaken. These electrons and protons are waves or probabilistic clouds, not fully material themselves. Nor can science find the mind or soul in what passes for matter.

The world, then, is events, some of which involve causal connections that make it sensible to lump those events into what we refer to as a material object, and others that we might want to collect and refer to as a mind. An event in your brain is of both types, involving the brain, seen as a physical object, and the mind. We can group events into mind or matter at our convenience, choosing one or the other form to serve our present purposes.

Mind and matter are ephemeral. The sun loses matter by the ton, and a person’s memories do not seem to survive his or her own demise.

Though materialism is not an accurate portrait of the world, our emotional connection to the world would not be much changed if materialism were descriptively precise. The spurs to anti-materialism, perhaps, are the hope that mind is eternal and the hope that mind, in the long run, trumps physical power. The materialists have the better of the argument, however. Despite our accomplishments, it is the limitations to our mental powers that stand out. It is only on the surface of the earth that we can see any real effect of mind, with the rest of the universe being untouched by human ideas or desires. And even on earth, it is the energy from the sun that fuels any power we do have.

We can achieve more in the future, but science suggests that one day, humans will cease to exist. This future non-existence exacts no psychological toll today, we are not that emotionally invested in humanity’s fate millions of years down the road. The science that foretells our end has its opponents, but it is tolerated, because though it anticipates a bleak future, modern science brings comforts in the here and now.

Monday, May 4, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fourteen

“On Comets,” pages 168-169

Comets have an honored history of foretelling events such as the death of Caesar, and hence our astronomical visitors were accorded respect by our forebears. Highly educated people such as the Venerable Bede and John Knox were cognizant of the prophetic nature of comets. The American colonists recognized the role of comets in the deaths of notables, and in providing warnings about indulgence in vice. Alas, the work of Halley and Newton revealed that comets were orderly in their travels, and this knowledge, though suppressed, eventually became general.

“In our day, it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody, high and low, educated and uneducated, was preoccupied with comets, and filled with terror whenever one appeared [p. 169].” Now, thanks largely to artificial lighting, we don’t even notice comets or the rest of the cosmos, either. Our man-made environmental cocoon offers safety, but also makes us self-centered and unaware of deeper matters. The appearance of a comet now, if it were noticed, would probably not stir us enough to forgo our own indulgence in vice.

Monday, March 30, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Thirteen

“Stoicism and Mental Health,” pages 159-167

Despite new alternatives offered by modern psychology, self-command remains necessary. Consider how to manage the fear of death. Some people try to ignore it, and avoid the subject of death as much as possible. Other people choose to obsess about the brevity of life and the unavoidability of death, in the hope that death will lose its sting through familiarity. (This approach was taken to extremes by a Cambridge Fellow who kept his coffin in his rooms.) Another popular approach is to convince yourself that death is really new life.

These three alternatives all hold disadvantages. Ignoring the reality of death will only work so long, until the all too real death of loved ones ends the blissful ignorance – and ends it more painfully than for someone who is better prepared. A monomaniacal focus on death, as on any subject, is profitless, particularly as we cannot act to avoid death (though we can and do act to postpone it). We need varied interests to be mentally healthy. [Russell sounds this theme in The Conquest of Happiness.] Concentrating on death is a sort of slavery to force majeure. [Recall how Russell, in Chapter 10, differentiates US “industrial” agriculture with European traditional agriculture on the basis of control over nature.] Meditation on death cannot eliminate the fear of death: if it could, then one wouldn’t have to keep meditating on death. And belief in an afterlife doesn’t seem to make most such believers any less anxious to avoid sickness, or more likely to be bold in battle. Religious ideas can influence conscious thought, but have more difficulty altering behavior as a whole. The fact that religious people sometimes show anger with non-believers is one sign that their own faith is not bottomless.

Children should not get the impression that death is a taboo topic, because that will only make it more of a subject of concentration. [Russell makes the same point elsewhere about sex, and he mentions the connection between proper sex education and death education in this chapter of In Praise of Idleness.] Nonetheless, we should nudge children away from a concentration on death, as we should nudge them away from a pornography fixation: both obsessions come at a cost in terms of overall development. We should not delude ourselves into believing that intellectual appeals will suffice to inculcate beneficial attitudes towards death.

While we should not lie about the inevitability of death, we should make it clear to children that death in all likelihood lies far in the future for them, and that it is not mysterious. “It should be brought into the same category with the wearing out of toys [p. 162].”

If someone close to a child – a brother, say – passes away, then the situation is somewhat different. [Russell lost a sister when he was quite young, though after both of his parents perished – RBR.] Parents must not try to hide their sorrow from the child, though they should try to moderate it. The topic should neither be avoided nor highlighted, and new amusements and attachments should be introduced, but not in a heavy-handed fashion.

A strong attachment in a child to one and only one person bespeaks a problem, that the child feels safe only under that person’s protection. If this person were to die, the child will be scarred forever, afraid that any attachment will result in immense pain, and needing excessive attention and reassurance from partners. A child’s affections need to be diversified to provide insurance against such an outcome, to guarantee that any loss does not prove devastating.

As children move into adolescence, they require more than the sort of underplayed truth-telling that is appropriate for younger children. Older people need to take part in a wide variety of ideas and actions, and should not be diverted by thoughts of death, either of their own demise or the deaths of others. “When [an adult] does think of death, it is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise its importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it [p. 164].” A similar mindset should be applied to any fear, where acknowledging the fear, and thinking through the actual consequences should the feared event arise, help to lessen the fear. Look at how common it is for people to overcome the fear of death in battle. This approach, recognizing that there are general interests that extend beyond your own life, and beyond the lives of your loved ones, is generally appropriate.

The broad and sincere interests of adults develop from the generous, zestful attitudes of youths, attitudes that become the foundations for life and work. Teachers and fathers can help nurture the requisite broad generosity in adolescents, who are primed for the message. Mothers (and female teachers), in the present environment, themselves lack the broad, impersonal interests that allow them to appropriately inspire the young in this direction.

Risky situations can be dealt with either by trying to avoid them, or by accepting them and acting appropriately when negative consequences ensue. Eventually, unless fear is to dominate your life, you must resort to the second approach, as not all risks are avoidable. The forthright handling of misfortune – which is what stoicism consists of – is currently undervalued. Those educators who attempt to instill it are at risk themselves of becoming sadistic: the taking of pleasure in thrashing young people is commonplace.

Stoicism is helpful in dealing with the fear of death, but also with the fear of impoverishment, the fear of pain, and so on. These fears really should be controlled, but we must not let ourselves succumb to the trap of ignoring opportunities to mitigate or eliminate negative consequences directly. The view, which still persists to a degree, that anesthesia should not be used to reduce the pain of childbirth, is unreasonable, and reflects an origin in “unconscious sadism [p. 165].” Nonetheless, the anesthetically reduced pain of childbirth has been accompanied by a decreased willingness in rich women to tolerate the the pain that does remain. We need to manage this potential tradeoff between protecting against dangers and meeting actual danger with fortitude, and to do so in a way that gives little scope for cruelty.

Showing too little sympathy for the troubles of small children is a severe error, but excessive sympathy also is to be avoided. “A child that invariably receives sympathy will continue to cry over every tiny mishap; the ordinary self-control of the average adult is only achieved through knowledge that no sympathy will be won by making a fuss [p. 166].” Children can handle and even appreciate a demanding adult caregiver if they understand that the adult loves them.

In theory, then, an enlightened love is what is needed for teachers. [This point echoes Russell’s contention in his 1926 book, Education and the Good Life.] But we must guard against allowing the inevitable visceral factors of fatigue and impatience among teachers to become an excuse for cruelty, doled out under the guise of serving the long-term interests of children.

Russell closes this chapter by reiterating its main points. Tell children the truth, even painful truths, in an unemotional manner (except when a tragedy requires some acknowledgement of sorrow), though there is no need to obtrude painful truths before the knowledge is needed. Adults should model a cheerful fortitude. Children should be made aware of the broad interests that exist in this world, and see that there is much to be said for embracing larger purposes than one’s own direct well-being. Misfortunes should be met with the knowledge that there still are reasons to continue on, and potential misfortunes should not be objects of intense concentration, even in the name of protecting against them. Guardians of the young must be continually wary to ensure that their necessary application of discipline is not about their own sadistic pleasures, but rather, aimed at developing the capacities of the young. The best discipline for the young is that which is self-imposed, and derives from the hope of achieving some valuable but difficult goal. “Such ambition is usually suggested by some person in the environment; thus even self-discipline depends, in the end, upon an educational stimulus [p. 167].”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Priase of Idleness, Chapter Twelve

“Education and Discipline,” pages 152-158

A thorough approach to education requires knowledge of the goal to be achieved, along with an understanding of the psychology of learning, to indicate the means through which the desired goal can be achieved. In the West, Christianity and nationalism are the usual sources of goals, though in the limit, as Germany is now demonstrating, they are incompatible. When they coincide, they both are wrong; when they differ, Christianity provides the better guide.

The goal of education should be civilisation, which is composed of both individual and social dimensions. A civilised individual needs to possess a solid foundation of knowledge, skill in an occupation, and respect for evidence. Necessary moral qualities for a civilised being include a kind heart, a degree of willpower, evenhandedness, and zest. [Russell advises zest in both The Conquest of Happiness and Education and the Good Life – RBR.] “In communities, civilisation demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends [p. 152].”

Given these goals, it is up to psychological science to provide the proper path. The major dimension that distinguishes alternatives concerns the degree of control exerted over students by educators. Full freedom does not ensure good behavior for children any more than it does for adults, whatever rump Rousseauvians might claim. The cooperation that society requires will not spontaneously arise in a population of unconstrained children. Further, life in modern society is dependent on science and technology, so education must provide some grounding in these areas. More generally, education requires some provision of “mental and moral equipment [p. 153]”; it cannot simply prepare fertile fields for the free development of children.

Still, significant freedom is desirable in education, because the extensive exercise of authority is bad both for the governed and the governors. Those whose inclinations are consistently thwarted by authority become either timid or rebellious. Timidity undermines mental and physical boldness, while the anger that submitting to authority generates results in the bullying of weaker individuals; hence, suffering is passed along from generation to generation. The authoritarian educators are poorly served by the lack of freedom that they impose, turning into sadistic inspirers of terror, not of learning. Knowledge becomes tainted through its connections to the horrific teachers.

The relative few of the thwarted individuals who turn to rebellion are mainly on the wrong road, too – most rebellion is foolish, not wise. A commitment to oppose authority and received opinion is not praiseworthy; rather, it involves accepting many mistaken ideas. A rebel who moves into the ranks of educator sometimes will try to sow rebellion among his charges, which harms the learning environment.

“What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas [p. 155].” [This comports well, unsurprisingly, with Russell’s views in Education and the Good Life.] The friendliness can be inculcated by sympathy towards a child’s natural impulses and desires, as opposed to treating children as material to be shaped into drones supporting God and/or country. Children should also understand that what they are being taught has actual value to them (if indeed it does) – learning takes place with much less labor when the value of learning is clear. A significant dose of freedom tends to serve all of these ends.

The freedom should not extend into promoting an aristocratic disregard of the interests and feelings of others. Formal manners are not what is necessary – indeed, these seem to be most prominent in the most barbarous societies – but rather, doing one’s share for the common good and taking on small but, in the aggregate, socially valuable obligations. [Russell often offers only lukewarm support for manners.] Children should understand that they are not the center of the universe, and that good work habits are important.

Adult authority must be exercised to protect the smaller and weaker children from their stronger peers. Having a high regard for the interests of others is not a feeling that is naturally imbued in every young breast. Adult abdication of supervision in this realm is apt to lead to a tyranny beyond what is commonly seen in adult hierarchies.

Some children are almost lost to the effective blend of freedom and discipline by the time they enter school, due to poor (perhaps overly solicitous) parenting. But children with a more sensible upbringing can flourish and remain friendly with authority figures in an environment featuring a considerable degree of control.

“I think modern educational theorists are inclined to attach too much importance to the negative virtue of not interfering with children, and too little to the positive merit of enjoying their company [p. 157].” A sort of high regard for children, of the type that people frequently display for dogs and horses, goes a long way into making reasonable discipline acceptable to the young – and to reducing the times when such discipline is necessary. A regard for children that is based on seeing them as potential allies for your political party or soldiers for your future wars will not win their affection.

Teachers are so overtaxed, however, that they cannot maintain spontaneous pleasure in the company of children. [Russell remarks further on the excessive workload of teachers in Unpopular Essays.] Teachers should spend just two hours a day in the company of children: more time than this results in fatigue, and then irritation will show itself in interactions with the children, no matter what high ideals the teacher holds. The friendliness that should exist between rested teachers and their charges allows for an ad hoc approach to discipline: the decisions made in the moment will be fine, and the friendliness will ensure that the children perceive the decisions as fair. “No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact [p. 158].”

Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Eleven

“Men versus Insects,” pages 149-151

The current talk (and action) of letting slip the dogs of war among men overshadows the important, ongoing conflict between humans and insects. Humans were once the prey of large animals, but now, it is only ourselves and the very small animals that put us at risk. Recall that the huge and seemingly dominant dinosaurs on our earth were eclipsed by much smaller mammals. It may be that the combination of small brains and massive offensive weapons – horns – doomed the dinosaurs.

After supplanting the dinosaurs, mammals grew in size, though the largest mammal, the mammoth, has disappeared, and other large mammals are threatened. Man’s survivability is not at risk, except at the hands of insects and microbes. [Russell altered this view after the invention of nuclear weapons – RBR.] Insects such as ants exist in unfathomable numbers that dwarf those of humans. Germs are spreading as people migrate; yellow fever used to exist only in West Africa, but it has moved beyond those borders, and is likely to threaten massive human fatalities in China and India.

Scientists can devise ways to keep problem insects under control, often by relying on other organisms that are parasites of the targeted insect species. But scientific knowledge can be used for good or evil. The German professor who developed a method for fixing nitrogen was aiming to make a potent fertilizer, while his political masters wanted bombs, and they exiled the professor for insufficient interest in explosives. “In the next great war, the scientists on either side will let loose pests on the crops of the other side, and it may prove scarcely possible to destroy the pests when peace comes [pp. 150-151].” The only lasting winners in the next, biological war, might be the insect combatants. The universe might view this result with apathy, but I [Russell] would be saddened for my species. [Elsewhere Russell expressed greater ambivalence about the continuation of homo sapiens – RBR.]