Monday, April 7, 2008

Russell on War

Bertrand Russell was a well known pacifist. His opposition to the first world war, and his support for draft dodgers during that war led to his being removed as a professor of philosophy at Cambridge, being stripped of his title ("Lord Russell"), removed from the House of Lords, and eventually, being placed in jail.

His move from Imperialist to Pacifist apparently took place in a 5 minute mystical span, an event which took place in 1901 during a visit to his friend's house, Prof. Whitehead. He writes:

Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through
some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached;
whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that.
Here, then, is one atheist reason for being a pacifist. All that is good, his view holds, comes from love, and war is its opposite. He had this epiphany watching the wife of Whitehead undergo severe agony, and his human response was to dedicate his life to the irradication of suffering. "The echoes of pain reverberate in my heart.... pain makes a mockery of what human life should be." This pain is caused by, not ended, by war, says the pacifist.

7 comments:

Hanno said...

"Bertrand Russell argued that the necessity of defeating Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was a unique circumstance where war was not the worst of the possible evils; he called his position relative pacifism."

I think this is key. Folks use the exception (WWII) to make the rule, and therefore justify any war. But the uniqueness of WWII does not do that work.

And just as some vegetarians are criticized for exceptions they make scoff, so too Russell is scoffed at for making exceptions. But that scoffing is misguided. It does not recognize the moral good of the general rule. The vegetarian does good when she sticks to her principles, even if she recognizes exceptions, even inconsistently. And the pacifist does so, too.

Anonymous said...

Also called "selective pacifism", that is, when one feels there are instances--rare though they may be--that override the obligation. An example would be something like self-preservation. People will not uncommonly throw that out as a counter to the pacifist, but there is a distinction, and not all pacifists are going to hold to an absolute.

jfinnell said...

"The loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached;
whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that.

I see how everything else "follows" except the detestability of a public school education.

Hanno said...

Because war does not spring from the motive of that love, and anything which does not follow from that is either harmful or useless.

jfinnell said...

This may be tangential to the larger point of pacifism, but it seems that Russell is saying that a public school education does not penetrate the loneliness of the human soul - therefore it is useless.

Is it because a public school does not teach the "sort of love that religious teachers have preached?"

To educate is to alleviate suffering (from ignorace - which directly correlates to violence). Whether that takes place in a public or religious institution is irrelevant. The motive is what counts, based on Russell's reasoning. I think Russell tucked a hint of elistism into a diatribe on love and peace.

Hanno said...

No, no, no! (But an easy mistake to make)

'Public school' in England means the elite private school system of the 1800's. They were famous for being harsh, where boys beat up and sometimes rape the new boys coming in. Think of it like frat initiations gone amok, all the time with the administration giving a wink and a nod and looking the other way. It was also the training ground for the imperialist aristocracy that ruled England until WWII.

jfinnell said...

I was wondering if his use of "public school" was the same meaning we have in 21st century America. Clearly, it isn't.