"A Free Man’s Worship," pages 46-57
Russell begins with a lengthy quotation from Faust, where Mephistopheles explains how the Creator, bored with the praises from angels whose situations he had made joyous, decides to allow worlds and living creatures to develop – living creatures who can be led to worship Him even though they receive only torment, not joy. Eventually men succeed in this task, and even name as Sin the pursuit of their natural instincts. So the Creator destroys these worlds, that He might enjoy a similar pageant once again from the beginning. Russell endorses the fable: “Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief [p. 47].” We must accept what our best knowledge makes all but certain, that what has been built has been accidental, unplanned, that the grave is our full ending, and that a similar grave awaits the solar system.
“What though the field be lost?/All is not lost.” The interim is ours (and perhaps ours alone), “to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create [p. 48].”
Savages, knowledgeable of their vulnerability to nature, worship power, even being willing to shed much blood in a fruitless attempt to appease brutal gods. The size of the sacrifice is indicative of the slavish commitment to suppressing any doubts as to the worthiness of the worshiped idol. They cannot conceive of a better world, so they worship what is powerful, not what is benevolent. Today’s might-makes-righters, including social Darwinists and militarists and followers of Carlyle and Nietzsche, are similarly in thrall to power.
The standard religious view is now different – it asserts that our world in fact comports with the benevolence of the all-powerful creator, but in a manner that is unfathomable to mortal minds. This claim is not easily reconciled with the fact that the world contains much evil. We must choose whether to accept that God is evil, or whether to accept that God is unreal, our own invention.
To worship strength is to sacrifice our ideals to mollify the powerful. If strength must be idolized, why not choose to idolize the strength shown by those who are willing to recognize that “is” does not imply “ought,” and the fact that there is much wrong with our world? Our actions must respect the unavoidable constraints of an imperfect world, but our vision – the vision that motivates our actions – should remain fixed on what is good.
The alternative of taking umbrage at the evil of the world is not a real alternative at all: it allows evil to preoccupy us. “Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts [p. 51].” Art and philosophy emerge from the visions of beauty that are licensed by unconstrained thoughts, thoughts uncontaminated by the need to serve our desires.
Austere religions are right, more often than not, in their contention that what is desired is bad. Even those things that we desire that really are beneficial should not become fetishized, if they cannot be attained. And though it is not understood by young people, those who are older know that many wonderful things will be unattainable. “What fates impose, that men must needs abide;/It boots not to resist both wind and tide.”
Along with our renunciation of desire, we need to make it possible to deify our ideals, through our embrace of reason and culture. “In all the multiform facts of the world – in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death – the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made [p. 53].” Tragedy is the queen of the arts in that it takes evils such as death and despair and fashions beauty out of them. Even in the recognition of loneliness, loss, and powerlessness, we can forge a bond with the world, and overcome the sway of these potent adversaries.
The past’s beauty lies in its fixity and purity. “The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night [p. 55].” The past’s beauty can provide a sort of religious rapture.
Appreciating the force of nature in its tragic form is a source of power and freedom. “To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things – this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship [p. 55].”
We are united in the tomb, our common end. As we march along our path, our comrades (along with us, eventually) fall off the cliff, lost forever. We do not have long to ease their steps, to light their path. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with their desert, but with their need. They, too, are fated to be players in a tragedy. When they pass into eternity, let us hope that we did not stoke their sorrows, but rather eased their pains and enhanced their joys.
Old Man River keeps on rolling; we can be proud in our temporary defiance, as we briefly construct and maintain a world based on our ideals.