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.