Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Book Review: Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell

Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell

Betrand Russell is a philosopher and author who has the strange combination of a strict logical background (he wrote the seminal text on symbolic logic Principia Mathematica with A. N. Whitehead) and a breezy and familiar (i.e. not academic) writing style. He is both a strict thinker and an entertaining writer. So why would these essays be "unpopular?" According to Russell, he argues against errors on both sides of the political landscape, debunking both the left and the right. He thinks his writing is unpalatable to many, possibly the majority, of people. At least that's his contention in the preface.

He is quite excellent at analyzing the biases of various groups from all periods of history, including today. Two main arguments come up several times in different essays. First, he argues that men should seek an honest understanding of each other. They should recognize the fundamental equality of each nationality, race, religion, and sex. A lot of suffering and injustice could end immediately. Charity towards and tolerance of others would go a long way in establishing a more peaceful and harmonious society.

His second argument is that one world government is needed to create the sort of unity the human race needs. Governments naturally conflict with one another. When he wrote these essays (the late 1940s), the looming conflict was between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Russell feared another world war would be far too devastating to the world population. He favored the Americans for their more liberal and less repressive form of government.

I found his style in the book both entertaining and caustic, much the way I feel about Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. Russell is willing to argue from oversimplifications to bolster his arguments (e.g. did no one treat women fairly before the twentieth century?). He says there's no scientific evidence for the human soul and therefore dismisses it. But what theologian (other than a crackpot) would say there is scientific evidence? Plenty of arguments can be made in favor of the human soul, but not mathematical proofs. I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with him at various points throughout the book.

His predictions are interesting in their inaccuracy. America did win the Cold War but did not establish a world government, an objective that seems as intangible as the human soul. The book is a fascinating bit of intellectual history but not as relevant as it surely seemed seventy-five years ago.

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