Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Quote File: Bertrand Russell

Whenever A.Word.A.Day offers a Bertrand Russell aphorism as its Quote of the Day, it describes him as "philosopher, mathematician, author, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)". I just read his biography on Wikipedia, and good grief! He was also an earl, an activist, a four-time husband (and even more frequent cheater, apparently), a father, a hippie hero, a professor, and the godson of John Stuart Mill. That is a full life.

Oh, and he said some wise things along the way:

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death. ... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one which we preach, but do not practice, and another which we practice, but seldom preach.

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.

Two different versions of this one appear in my Quote File; I am not sure which is accurate, or if both are.

  • The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.


  1. Great post. Bertrand Russell was one of my early heroes.

  2. In Walking in the Shade, Doris Lessing gives an interesting account of her dealings with Russell; he was getting old by then, and had become dependent on his assistant who was unscrupulous at times, dictating and signing letters in Russell's name, etc.

    "Did we not know that if you said to Russell, 'Can I fetch you that file...get you a glass of water...answer that telephone?' he would reply, 'No, Ralph will do it for me.' Ralph had Russell in his pocket and boasted about it."

    Wise and foolish at the same time, maybe?

  3. I would bet that the shorter, snappier version of the quote (the cocksure and the doubters) is the correct one. Might you find it in Bartlett's? (I don't have my copy here at work.)

  4. Wow...that first quote fits my current work in progress perfectly...that's the whole plot of the book! I'm going to print that out and put it on my monitor for inspiration as I write it...