Russell on individuality

In 1948, the English philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell gave a series of lectures – the “Reith Lectures” – on BBC Radio on the topic “Authority and the Individual,” and the series was later published as a book with the same title. The first lecture of the series – “Social Cohesion and Human Nature” – is also available in audio form from the Russell Audio Archive (mp3), or the BBC Radio page (real media). Russell actually sums up the whole series in the very first sentence of the very first lecture-

The fundamental problem I propose to consider in these lectures is this: how can we combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion that is necessary for survival?

In the lecture on “The Role of Individuality” (also published in “A New World”), Russell starts of by saying that individuals who don’t conform to what society identifies as “normal” behavior are critical for the very progress and survival of society-

In this lecture I propose to consider the importance, both for good and evil, of impulses and desires that belong to some members of a community but not to all. In a very primitive community such impulses and desires play very little part. Hunting and war are activities in which one man may be more successful than another, but in which all share a common purpose. So long as a man’s spontaneous activities are such as all the tribe approves of and shares in, his initiative is very little curbed by others within the tribe, and even his most spontaneous actions conform to the recognized pattern of behaviour. But as men grow more civilized there comes to be an increasing difference between one man’s activities and another’s, and a community needs, if it is to prosper, a certain number of individuals who do not wholly conform to the general type. Practically all progress, artistic, moral, and intellectual, has depended upon such individuals, who have been a decisive factor in the transition from barbarism to civilization. If a community is to make progress, it needs exceptional individuals whose activities, though useful, are not of a sort that ought to be general. There is always a tendency in highly organized society for the activities of such individuals to be unduly hampered, but on the other hand, if the community exercises no control, the same kind of individual initiative which may produce a valuable innovator may also produce a criminal. The problem, like all those with which we are concerned, is one of balance; too little liberty brings stagnation, and too much brings chaos.

Then, he writes about what differentiates the innovators from “normal” people, laments that artists no longer enjoy the exalted position they did in the past, because in the industrialized world, people are unable to enjoy art – they are unable to “let themselves be absorbed in the moment,” and describes innovators in the spheres of religion and morality. And writes-

In our own day an individual of exceptional powers can hardly hope to have so great a career or so great a social influence as in former times, if he devotes himself to art or to religious and moral reform. There are, however, still four careers which are open to him; he may become a great political leader, like Lenin; he may acquire vast industrial power, like Rockefeller; he may transform the world by scientific discoveries, as is being done by the atomic physicists; or, finally, if he has not the necessary capacities for any of these careers, or if opportunity is lacking, his energy in default of other outlet may drive him into a life of crime. Criminals, in the legal sense, seldom have much influence upon the course of history, and therefore a man of overweening ambition will choose some other career if it is open to him.

The rise of men of science to great eminence in the State is a modem phenomenon. Scientists, like other innovators, had to fight for recognition: some were banished; some were burnt; some were kept in dungeons; others merely had their books burnt. But gradually it came to be realized that they could put power into the hands of the State. The French revolutionaries, after mistakenly guillotining Lavoisier, employed his surviving colleagues in the manufacture of explosives. In modem war the scientists are recognized by all civilized governments as the most useful citizens , provided they can be tamed and induced to place their services at the disposal of a single government rather than of mankind.

He then debates the pros and cons of science (the subject matter of numerous essays in school and college) and comes to the conclusion that science is neutral (science is not evil, people are). Then comes the question who is more powerful, the politician or the scientist-

The men of science, in spite of their profound influence upon modern life, are in some ways less powerful than the politicians. Politicians in our day are far more influential than they were at any former period in human history. Their relation to the men of science is like that of a magician in the Arabian Nights to a djinn who obeys his orders. The djinn does astounding things which the magician, without his help, could not do, but he does them only because he is told to do them, not because of any impulse in himself.

Russell had a minor fling with communism in the ’20s. But totalitarianism was not his cup of tea. Neither was Lenin. So he takes a pot shot at the dictator-

The most astounding career of our times was that of Lenin. After his brother had been put to death by the Czarist Government, he spent years in poverty and exile, and then rose within a few months to command of one of the greatest of States. And this command was not like that of Xerxes or Caesar, merely the power to enjoy luxury and adulation, which but for him some other man would have been enjoying. It was the power to mould a vast country according to a pattern conceived in his own mind, to alter the life of every worker, every peasant, and every middle-class person; to introduce a totally new kind of organization, and to become throughout the world the symbol of a new order, admired by some, execrated by many, but ignored by none. No megalomaniac’s dream could have been more terrific. Napoleon had asserted that you can do everything with bayonets except sit upon them; Lenin disproved the exception.

But what would society be without individualism. So-

I cannot think of anything that mankind has gained by the existence of Jenghis Khan. I do not know what good came of Robespierre, and, for my part, I see no reason to be grateful to Lenin. But all these men, good and bad alike, had a quality which I should not wish to see disappear from the world—a quality of energy and personal initiative, of independence of mind, and of imaginative vision. A man who possesses these qualities is capable of doing much good, or of doing great harm, and if mankind is not to sink into dullness such exceptional men must find scope, though one could wish that the scope they find should be for the benefit of mankind.

Russell ends with a lament – modern society is too homogeneous with too little space for the individual. The scientist cannot, like his predecessors, hope to make great discoveries while working on his own, the artist cannot hope to be satisfied with being the best in town, a man cannot simply let go unless he wants to be seen as some kind of vagabond – there simply is no space for spontaneity and initiative.

If life is to be saved from boredom relieved only by disaster, means must be found of restoring individual initiative, not only in things that are trivial, but in the things that really matter. I do not mean that we should destroy those parts of modern organization upon which the very existence of large populations depends, but I do mean that organization should be much more flexible, more relieved by local autonomy, and less oppressive to the human spirit through its impersonal vastness, than it has become through its unbearably rapid growth and centralization, with which our ways of thought and feeling have been unable to keep pace.

Though the last part sounds too much like “alienation” in communist literature, including the reference to capitalists (in the scientist’s case), nowhere does Russell advocate any role for government – government as a solution. In that case, he’s not too far off the mark as far as his views on modern society and the individual is concerned.

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