Philosophers Are Only Human

COMMENTARY: Bertrand Russell may have been a great philosopher, but he doesn’t seem to have been deeply reflective.

Bertrand Russell poses for a portrait on Nov. 28, 1957.
Bertrand Russell poses for a portrait on Nov. 28, 1957. (photo: Anefo / Wikimedia Commons / CC0)

The feelings needed to become a good philosopher “are not very common,” explained the philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of the intellectual stars of the last century. The good philosopher has “an intense desire to understand the world” and overcomes the “narrownesses of outlook” that keep him from seeing it clearly.

He works hard to become someone who sees much more than mere mortals do. And he’s better than they are too.

“Most people go through life with a whole world of beliefs that have no sort of rational justification,” he wrote in another article. “People’s opinions are mainly designed to make them feel comfortable; truth, for most people is a secondary consideration.”

He wrote the first when he was 57 and the second when he was 70. That is, when he was old enough to know better. By that age, you should have learned from life how little you know of yourself and how much less you know of other people. He hadn’t learned that. He may have been a great philosopher, but he doesn’t seem to have been deeply reflective.


How Do You Know?

Just how do you know that most people don’t care about truth and live only for comfort? How can you see what goes on in someone’s private thoughts and deep within their psyches? Maybe they want to know the truth as much as you do, if not more, but their lives make finding it too hard. Or maybe they know it as well or better than you but can’t express it the way you do.

Russell doesn’t seem to have asked the properly philosophical questions, about how different people pursue and perceive the truth. What do people see that they can’t describe in words, for example? What relation do someone’s articulated beliefs have to his real beliefs? 

Might there be other ways to speak the truth than the professional philosopher’s? What are artists doing if not trying to tell a truth? Might the attempt to put an insight into words distort it?

And about those inferior non-philosophers: To what degree does even the comfort-seeking man also seek truth in different areas of his life? How much truth does he recognize and live by without actively seeking it the way a philosopher does (or claims to do)? Does he have some advantages over the philosopher in seeing the truth? And many other questions of the same sort.


Truth-Seeking People

Is it reasonable to think “most people” are as simple and intellectually dead as Russell thinks? I would think not, simply from talking with people. People are more various and more complicated than that. They have unexpected depths. Russell’s dismissive claim is a dictum or a dogma, and doesn’t help in understanding “most people.”

I think of a woman I’ve talked to at our local place. Russell would toss her in the bin with everyone else for whom “truth is a secondary consideration.” We’d talked a few times about this and that, the kind of things you talk about at a bar, but one night we wound up talking about God. 

She’d thought a lot about life, the universe and everything and she had a sophisticated theology. She was someone who wanted to know the truth and worked at it, reading and thinking about it for many years, but I don’t think Russell would have recognized her as the kind of truth-seeker he thought himself to be.

If you wish to become a philosopher, you shouldn’t begin with contempt for most of mankind — contempt for their not being as truth-seeking as you. (Unless to become a philosopher means primarily to join an elevated and elite caste.) That keeps you from asking the interesting questions about them, and about humanity in general.


A Question for Russell

Here’s another question Russell should have asked. Are the philosophers themselves the kind of people he thinks they are? (I don’t think he was.) Their being smart people trained in a certain way of thinking doesn’t mean they care for truth any more than any other person. 

They have been trained in intellectual techniques they can use to avoid as well as to find the truth. How do they know that they really care about truth? That they too don’t live mainly or only for comfort? That philosophy doesn’t give them reasons for doing what they want to do anyway? Russell himself liked having affairs with other men’s wives, a practice he rationalized in his book Marriage and Morals

As someone who grew up in an academic community and spent most of his working life with academics and intellectuals, I would not make any claims like Russell’s for philosophers or intellectuals in general. People are people. When the smart guy leaves the classroom, he’s the same kind of person as the guy who clocks out at the factory. 

If he’s a good man, he’ll be a smart guy who doesn’t take credit for his intelligence or feel it makes him even better than anyone else. If he’s a bad man, a lecher, say, he’ll be a lecher with more ways to seduce his victims. And he’ll almost certainly think his intelligence makes him better than anyone else.


The Bertrand Russell Temptation

People — fallen human beings — tend to treat their gifts as virtues. We suffer from what we might call the Bertrand Russell Temptation: to take a capacity and treat it as a virtue that makes you fundamentally different from and better than other people.

We (and I do mean we) press whatever advantage we have. Truly or fully humble people don’t, but I’m not sure there are that many of them. We have to work very hard not to treat our gifts as virtues and most of us don’t work that hard, or even know how to do the work.

And as Catholics, we have our own reasons for saying the same kind of thing Russell did. We’re faithful believers, after all. We can be as morally pretentious as he was, and worse, because we drag God into it.

So basically: As Proverbs warns, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

The sacraments and disciplines of the Catholic life offer a way to understand our gifts as gifts. They help us see ourselves better, which should subvert any elevated idea we have of ourselves, especially of our superiority to others just because we’re good at something they’re not. We’re not going to say in the confessional, “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, but on the other hand I’m smarter than most people.”

St. Thomas Aquinas is said near the end of his life to have told a friend that all his work was as straw, compared with the vision of God. And he was one of history’s greatest geniuses. Be like Thomas, not Bertrand.