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June 19, 2005

Sunday Sermonette: CUNY's loss

The star of today's Sermonette is British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Some aspects of his story may sound familiar in light of recent events:

The appointment of one of the twentieth century's greatest logicians to a professorship at City College in 1940 set off a hysterical campaign against the "Godless advocate of free love" on the part of the Episcopal and Catholic churches, the Hearst papers and Tammany Hall. A flagrantly trumped-up lawsuit was fast-tracked through the system, Russell was denounced in the state legislature and the job offer was withdrawn.
--Katha Pollitt

Scott Paeth points to an entire book on the CUNY/Russell debacle: Appointment Denied by Thom Weidlich.

So, without further ado, here's Bertie on the path not taken:

I don’t feel I've missed anything through not believing in religion. I think, on the contrary, that the religious people have missed a very great deal. They've missed the kind of pride that stands upright and looks at the world, and says, “Well, you can kill me, but anyway, here I am. I stand firm.” And they miss that. And I think that's a very valuable thing that a person should have.

I shouldn’t like at all to go through life in sort of a creepy-crawly way, full of terror, and being bolstered up all the time as if I were a fainting lady being kept from sprawling on the ground ... because no human being whom I can respect needs the consolation of things that are untrue. He can face the truth.
--Bertrand Russell,1947(?)

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I recently started reading Russell's book "Power: a New Social Analysis". I expected to be able to dismiss it, but it was much better than I expected, so I postponed the review and just wrote up a little blurb (at my URL). The book really demands a serious reading which I can't give it right now.

Russell intended for this book to be a move into social theory from philosophy. The book was not at all well-received (probably because most intellectuals those days were either Marxists or anti-Marxist conservatives), and Russell didn't follow up. Most of his non-philosophical stuff we read is just political journalism with no great pretentions.

The book is not at all what anyone would expect. None of the tendentious themes (sexual freedom, atheism, etc.) characteristic of the journalist Russell. A very, very realistic view of the role of violence in history and statecraft -- it makes him sound like a libertarian at times (his own background was British-style liberalism).

The methodology is that of a philosophe. None of the positivistic rules are followed. No empirical research, just a lot of examples drawn from Gibbon and various secondary sources. It's all off the top of his head, but it's good, because he'd done a LOT of miscellaneous reading and he thought things through.

Incidentally, I think that the extreme rigorism of Wittgenstein and Russell is a spinoff from the intensely moralistic XIXc Protestantism that both rejected. Both were really intense purists when it came to things that were important to them and close to them, though both were quite benevolent and generous (in a very condescending way) toward fallen humanity.

R and W were both born into the elite of the elite. For either of them, it would have been an enormous failure to have been an ordinary, unexceptional professor at Oxford or some other great university.

Good choice for the sermon.

And, from the pages of the New York Times Magazine, the sermon from Russell demonizers:


"But, of course, the Christian activists aren't vague in their opposition. For them, the issue isn't one of civil rights, because the term implies something inherent in the individual -- being black, say, or a woman -- and they deny that homosexuality is inherent. It can't be, because that would mean God had created some people who are damned from birth, morally blackened. This really is the inescapable root of the whole issue, the key to understanding those working against gay marriage as well as the engine driving their vehicle in the larger culture war: the commitment, on the part of a growing number of people, to a variety of religious belief that is so thoroughgoing it permeates every facet of life and thought, that rejects the secular, pluralistic grounding of society and that answers all questions internally."

From an article by Russell Shorto

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/19/magazine/19ANTIGAY.html?pagewanted=11

though both were quite benevolent and generous (in a very condescending way) toward fallen humanity.

when not waving fireplace pokers at them.

or boxing the ears of elementary school children.

Can you say David Horowitz?

Good quote. Bertie could handle the English language.

masaccio (02:28 pm), quoting Shorto: "It can't be, because that would mean God had created some people who are damned from birth, morally blackened. "

Oddly enough, since many fundamentalists in the US are Calvinists, there is absolutely no problem with some people being born damned. In fact, most people are born damned, with no hope of redemption. The minority are the elect, destined for paradise from the beginning of time. All the rest of us are pretty much hosed.

The implications for Calvinists wrt homosexuality aren't that the person involved shouldn't be judged since he or she has no choice in the matter. Rather, since God has damned them the only question is whether the Calvinist chooses to go along with God's judgement or to go easy on the sinner.

My observations of Calvinists suggest that they tend to be really insecure about their election, so it's a bit much to expect them to show mercy towards those God has chosen to condemn.

1) LB: "Some aspects of [Russell's] story may sound familiar in light of recent events."
I knew Bertrand Russell. I philosophized with Bertrand Russell. (Not really.) Tim Shortell, you're no Bertrand Russell.
I doubt, for example, that Russell could have coined Shortell's "moral retards." He was not only a first-rank philosopher and logician, but a writer of a graceful, witty, Cantabrigian English. And he never in a public controversy stooped to mere invective, but relied on argument he believed any reasonable person would have to accept.
OTOH,


2) BR: "...the religious people have missed .... the kind of pride that stands upright and looks at the world, and says, 'Well, you can kill me, but anyway, here I am. I stand firm.' And they miss that. And I think that's a very valuable thing that a person should have."

Though it may have been from humility or love rather than pride, religious martyrs without number have been able to look at the world and their deaths and say exactly the formula BR thinks "religious people" lacked the pride to say. True, Jews often sang Aleinu or recited the Sh'ma instead, and Martin Luther was never killed, so all he said was, "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; G-d help me." Russell's claim holds for the "religious people" who were persecuting him, not for the persecuted. Courage is indeed valuable, and secular people as a group are no better endowed with it than their religious
neighbors.

3) BR: "I shouldn’t like at all to go through life in sort of a creepy-crawly way, full of terror, and being bolstered up all the time as if I were a fainting lady being kept from sprawling on the ground ... because no human being whom I can respect needs the consolation of things that are untrue. He can face the truth."
"'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate; and washed his hands." (Bacon)
It will not do to beg the question whether religious beliefs are true or not. Of course religious and secular speakers alike try to tell the truth as they see it. The wiser among them accept that some of their beliefs are not true but that their falsity will remain transparent, undiscoverable to them, and so a little humility is in order. But who would seek "the consolation of things that are untrue" knowing they are untrue? Anti-religious or anti-clerical people may find it consoling to think that is what the religious are doing, but it is one of those untrue things Russell would have us abjure -- as is his caricature of "creepy-crawly" and terrified piety.

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