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Berrand Russell's Best: On Psychology

Vanity is a motive of immense potency. Anyone who has much to do with children knows how they are constantly performing some antic, and saying: "Look at me." "Look at me" is one of the fundamental desires of human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame. There was a Renaissance Italian princeling who was asked by a priest on his death-bed if he had anything to repent of. "Yes," he said, "there is one thing. On one occasion I had a visit from Emperor and the Pope simultaneously. I took them to the top of my tower to see the view, and I neglected the opportunity to throw them both down, which would have given me immortal fame." History does not relate whether the priest gave him absolution. (N.P.A.S)

I once befriended two little girls from Estonia, who had narrowly escaped death from starvation in a famine. They lived in my family, and of course had plenty to eat. But they spent all their leisure visiting neighboring farms and staling potatoes, which they hoarded. Rockefeller, who in his infancy had experienced great poverty, spent his adult life in a similar manner. (N.P.A.S)

Human beings show their superiority to the brutes by their capacity for boredom, though I have sometimes thought in examining the apes at the zoo, that they, perhaps, have the rudiments of this tiresome emotion. However that may be, experience shows that escape from boredom is one of the really powerful desires of almost all human beings. When white men first effect contact with some unspoiled race of savages, they offer them all kinds of benefits, from the light of the gospel to pumpkin pie. These, however, much as we may regret it, most savages receive with indifference. What they really value among the gifts that we bring to them is intoxicating liquor, which enables them to have the illusion, for a few brief moments, that it is better to be alive than dead. (N.P.A.S)

What vanity needs for its satisfaction is glory, and it's easy to have glory without power. The people who enjoy the greatest glory in the United States are film stars, but they can be put in their place by the committee for Un-American Activities, which enjoys no glory whatever. (N.P.A.S)

The desire for excitement is very deep-seated in human beings, especially in males. I suppose that in the hunting stage it was more easily gratified than it has been since. The chase was exciting, war was exciting, courtship was exciting. A savage would manage to commit adultery with a woman while her husband is asleep beside her. This situation, I imagine, is not boring. But with the coming of agriculture life began to grow dull, except, of course, for the aristocrats, who remained, and still remain, in the hunting stage. (C.H.p57)

The completely untraveled person will view all foreigners as the savage regards the members of another herd. But the man who has traveled, or who has studied international politics, will have discovered that, if he had to prosper, it must, to some degree, become amalgamated with other herds. If you are English and someone says to you: "The French are your brothers," your instinctive feeling will be "Nonsense, they shrug their shoulders, and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs. If he explains to you that one may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that French are our brothers. But if some fellow-traveler were to go on and say that the Russians are also your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians. We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies, there would be very few people whom we should love.(N.P.A.S)

Civilized life has altogether grown too tame, and, if it is to be stable, it must provide a harmless outlets for the impulses which our remote ancestors satisfied in hunting. In Australia, where people are few, and rabbits are many, I watched the whole populace satisfying the primitive impulse in the primitive manner by the skillful slaughter of many thousands of rabbits. But, in London or New York, where people are many and rabbits are few, some other means must be found to gratify primitive impulse. I think every big town should contain artificial waterfalls that people can descend in very fragile canoes, and they should contain bathing pools full of mechanical sharks. Any person found advocating a preventive war should be condemned to two hours a day with these ingenious creatures. (N.P.A.S)

Every isolated passion, is, in isolation, insane; sanity may be defined as synthesis of insanities. Every dominant passion generates a dominant fear, the fear of its non-fulfillment. Every dominant fear generates a nightmare, sometimes in form of explicit and conscious fanaticism, sometimes in paralyzing timidity, sometimes in an unconscious or subconscious terror which finds expression only in dreams. the man who wishes to preserve sanity in a dangerous world should summon in his own mind a parliament of fears, in which each in turn is voted absurd by all the others. (N.E.P.,intro)

The frequency with which a man experiences lust depends upon his own physical condition, whereas the occasion which rouse such feelings in him depend upon the social conventions to which he is accustomed. To an early Victorian man a woman's ankles were sufficient stimulus, whereas the modern man remains untouched by anything up to the thigh. This is merely a question of fashion in clothing. If nakedness were the fashion, it would cease to excite us, and women would be forced, as they are in certain savage tribes, to adopt clothing as means of making themselves sexually attractive. Exactly similar considerations apply to the literature and pictures: what was exciting in the Victorian Age, would leave a man of franker epoch quite unmoved. The more prudes restrict the permissible degree of sexual appeal, the less is required to make such an appeal effective. Nine-tents of thew appeal of pornography is due to indecent feelings which moralists inculcate in the young; the other tents is psychological, and will occur in one way of another, whatever the state of the law may be. On these grounds, although I fear that few will agree with me, I am firmly persuaded that there ought to be no law whatsoever on the subject of obscene publications. (M.M.p115/6)

Men who allow their love of power to give them a distorted view of the world are to be found in every asylum: one man will think that he is the Governor of the Bank of England, another will think he is the King, and yet another will think he is God. Highly similar delusions, if expressed by educated men in obscure language, lead to professorships in philosophy; and if expressed by emotional men in eloquent language, lead to dictatorships. (P.:A.N.S.A.p259)

Anthropologist have described how Papuan head hunters, deprived by white authority of their habitual sport, lose all their zest, and are no longer able to be interested by anything. I do not wish to infer that they should have been allowed to go on hunting heads, but I do mean that it would have been worth while if psychologists had taken some trouble to find some innocent substitute activity. Civilized Man everywhere is, to some degree, in the position of the Papuan victims of virtue. We have all kinds of aggressive impulses, and also creative impulses, which society forbids us to indulge, and the alternatives it supplies in the shape of football matches and all-in wrestling are hardly adequate. Anyone who hopes in time it may be possible to abolish wart should give serious thought to the problem of satisfying harmlessly the instincts which we inherit from log generations of savage. For my part, I find a sufficient outlet in detective stories, where I alternately identify myself with the murderer and the huntsman-detective, but I know there are those to which this vicarious outlet is too mild, and for them something stronger should be provided. (A.I.p8)

In Lisbon, where heretics were publicly burned, it sometimes happened that one of them, by particularly edifying recantation, would be granted a boon of being strangled before being put to into the flames. This would make the spectators so furious, that he authorities had a great difficulty preventing them from lynching the penitent and burning him on their own account. The spectacle of writhing torments of the victims was, in fact, one of the principal pleasures to which the populace looked forward to enliven a somewhat drab existence. I cannot doubt that pleasure greatly contributed to the general belief that burning of heretics was a righteous act. The same sort of thing applies to war. People who are vigorous and brutal often find war enjoyable, provided that it is a victorious war, and that there is not too much interference with rape and plunder. This is a great help in persuading people that wars are righteous. (U.E.p147)

In order to be happy we require all kinds of supports to our self-esteem. We are human beings, therefore human beings are the purpose of gods creation. We are Americans, therefore America is God's own country. We are White, and therefore God cursed Ham and his descendants who were black. We are Protestant or Catholic, as the case may be, therefore Catholics or Protestants as the case may be, are an abomination. We are male, therefore women are unreasonable; we are women, therefore men are brute. We are Easterners, therefore West is wild and wooly; or Westerners and therefore East is effete. We work with our brains, and therefore it is the educated classes that are important; or we work with our hands, and therefore manual labor alone gives dignity. Finally, and above all, we each have one merit which is entirely unique: we are Ourself. With these comforting reflections we go out to do battle with the world; without them, our courage might fail. Without them, as things are, we should feel inferior, because we have not learned the sentiment of equality. If we would feel genuinely that we are equals of our neighbors, neither their betters nor their inferiors, perhaps life would become less a battle and we should need less in the way of intoxicating myth to give us Dutch courage. (U.E.p160)

There was, until the end of the eighteenth century, a theory that insanity is due to a possession by devils. It was inferred that any pain suffered by the patient is also suffered by the devils, so that the best cure for is to make the patient suffer so much that the devils will decide to abandon him. The insane, in accordance with this theory, were savagely beaten. This treatment was tried on king George III when he was mad, but without success. It is a curious and painful fact that almost all the completely futile treatments that have been believed in during the long history of medical folly have been such as caused acute suffering to the patient. When anesthetics were discovered pious people considered them an attempt to evade a will of God. It was pointed out, however, that when God extracted Adam's rib he put him into a deep sleep. This provided that anesthetics were all right for men; women, however, ought to suffer because of the curse of Eve. In the West votes for women proved this doctrine mistaken, but in Japan, to this day, women at childbirth are not allowed any alleviation through anesthetics. As the Japanese do no believe in Genesis, this piece of sadism must have some other justification. (U.E.p87)

By self-interest, Man has become gregarious, but in instinct he has remained to a great extent solitary; hence the need of religion and morality to reinforce self-interest. But the habit of foregoing present satisfactions for the sake of the future advantages is irksome, and when passions are roused and prudent restraints of social behavior become difficult to endure. Those who, at such times, throw them off, acquire a new energy and sense of power from cessation of inner conflict, and, though they may come to disaster in the end, enjoy meanwhile a sense of God-like exaltation which, though known to the great mystics, can never be experienced by a merely pedestrian virtue. The solitary part of their nature reasserts itself, but if the intellect survives the reassertion must clothe itself in a myth. The mystic becomes one with God, and in the contemplation of the infinite he feels himself absolved from the duty to his neighbor. The anarchic rebel does even better, he feels himself not one one with God, but God. Truth and duty, which represent our subjection to matter and to our neighbors, exist no longer for the man who has become God; for others, truth is what he posits, duty what he commands. If we could all live solitary and without labor, we could all enjoy this ecstasy of independence; since we cannot, its delights are only available to madmen and dictators. (H.W.P.p681/2)

Happiness is promoted by association of persons who share similar tastes and similar opinions. Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflict so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point. This will undoubtedly increase their happiness, but it will of course diminish the sadistic pleasure which the conventional at present derive from having the unconventional at their mercy. I do not think, however, that this is a pleasure which we need to be greatly concerned to preserve. (C.H.p138)

Our mental make-up is suited to a life of very severe physical labor. I used, when I was younger, to take my holidays walking. I would cover 25 miles a day, and when the evening came I had no need of anything to keep me form boredom, since the delight of sitting amply suffice. But modern lice cannot be constructed on these physically strenuous principles. A great deal of work is sedentary, and most manual work exercises only a few specialized muscles. When crowd assemble at Trafalgar Square to cheer to the echo of an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked 25 miles that day. This cure for bellicosity is, however, impracticable, and if human race is to survive- a thing which is perhaps, undesirable- other means must be found for securing the innocent outlet for the unused physical energy that produces love of excitement. This is a matter which has been too little consider, both by moralists and by social reformers. The social reformers are of the opinion that they have more serious things to consider. The moralists, on the other hand, are immensely impressed with the seriousness of all permitted outlet of the love of excitement; the seriousness; however, in their minds, is that of Sin. Dance halls, cinemas, this age of jazz, are all, if we may believe our ears, gateways to Hell, and we should be better employed sitting at home contemplating our sins. I find myself unable to be in entire agreement with the grave men who utter these warnings. The devil has many forms, some designed to deceive the young, and some designed to deceive the old and serious. If it is the devil that tempts the young to enjoy themselves, is it not, perhaps, the same personage that persuades the old to condemn their enjoyment? And is it not, perhaps, a drug which- like opium- has to be taken in continually stronger doses to produce the desired effect? Is it not to be feared that, beginning with the wickedness of the cinema, we should be led step by step to condemn the opposite political party, dagoes, wops, Asiatics, and, in short, everybody except the fellow members of our club? And it is from just such condemnations, when widespread, that wars proceed. I have never heard of a war that proceeded from dance halls. (N.P.A.S.)

There is no greater reason for children to honor parents than for parents to honor children except, that while the children are young, the parents are stronger that children. The same thing, of course, happened in the relations of men and women. It was the duty of wives to submit to husbands, not of husbands to submit to wives. The only basis for this view was that if wives could be induced to accept it, it saved trouble for their husbands. "The man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man; neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for a man." (I Cor. xi. 8, 9). I defy anyone to find any basis for this view, except that men have stronger muscles then women. (N.H.C.W.p68/9)

A large proportion of the human race, it is true, is obliged to work so hard in obtaining the necessaries that little energy is left over for the other purposes; but those whose livelihood is assured do not, on that account, cease to be active. Xerxes had no lack of food or raiment or wives at the time he embarked upon the Athenian expedition. Newton was certain of material comfort from the moment he became a Fellow of Trinity, but it was after this that he wrote the Principia. St.Francis and Ignatius Loyola had no need to found Orders to escape form want. These were eminent men, but the same characteristic, in varying degrees, is to be found in all but a small exceptionally sluggish minority. Mrs. A, who is quite sure of her husband's success in business, and has no fear of the workhouse, likes to be better dressed than Mrs. B, although she could escape the danger of pneumonia at much less expense. (P: A.N.S.A.,p9/10)

Some astronomers try to cheer us up in the moments of depression by assuring us that one fine day the sun will explode, and in the twinkling of an eye we shall all be turned into gas. I do not know whether this is going to happen, nor when it will happen if it does happen, but I think it's safe to say that if it does it will be a matter outside human control, and that even the best astronomers would be unable to prevent it. This is an extreme example and one which is useless to think about, because there is no way in which human behavior can be adopted to it. It does, however, serve one purpose, which is to remind us that we are not gods. You may exclaim indignantly, "but I never thought we were!" No doubt, dear reader, you are not one of those who suffer from the most extreme follies of our age, for if you were, you would not be one of my readers. But if you consider the Politbureau or the American technocrats you will see that there are those who escape atheism by impiously imagining themselves on the throve of Almighty. (N.H.C.W.p26/7)

Mass hysteria is a phenomenon not confined to human beings; it may be seen in any gregarious species. I once saw a photograph of a large herd of wild elephants in Central Africa Seeing an airplane for the first time, and all in a state of wild collective terror. The elephant, at most times, is calm and sagacious beast, but this unprecedented phenomenon of a noisy, unknown animal in the sky, had thrown the whole herd completely off its balance. Each separate animal was terrifies, and its terror communicated itself to the others, creating a vast multiplication of panic. As, however, there were no journalists among them, the terror died down when the airplane was out of sight. (T.F.D.p7)

The criminal law has, from the point of view of thwarted virtue, the merit of allowing an outlet for those impulses of aggression which cowardice, disguised as morality, restrains in their more spontaneous forms. War has the same merit. You must not kill you neighbor, whom perhaps you genuinely hate, but by a little propaganda this hate can be transferred to some foreign nation, against whom all your murderous impulses become patriotic heroism (N.H.C.W.p175)

If you ask a modern anti-Semite why he dislikes Jews, he will tell you that they are unscrupulous and sharp in business and merciless to their debtors; he will tell you that they are always on the make, always intriguing, always supporting each other against gentile competitors. If you say you have sometimes found similar characteristics among Christians, the anti-Semite will say: "Oh, of course I don't deny there are ruffians who are not Jews. And I have some very good friends among Jews. But I am speaking of the average." If you question him when he is off his guard, you will find that whenever a Jew engages in a bit of share practice he says, "how like a Jew," but when a Gentile does likewise he says "and, you know, the astonishing thing is that he is not a Jew." This is not a scientific method of arriving at averages. (N.H.C.W.p102/3)

Young men and young women meet each other with much less difficulty than was formerly the case, and every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel. (C.H.p59)

Everybody has had at some time nightmares of falling, which seem to suggest an origin in the lives of our arboreal ancestors, though this perhaps is fanciful. Hymns and myths tend to speak of refuges from storm and of images of water in parched land. Moses striking the rock makes a universal appeal, even to those who have never been very thirsty. Hymns represent heaven as a refuge from the storms of life, not as a place where one escapes the dangers of being run over by a motor-bus, although the latter danger is much more frequent experience in modern life.(NHCW.p168)

Now, apart from the arguments as to the proved fallibility of memory, there is one awkward consideration which the skeptic may urge. Remembering, which occurs now, cannot possibly- he may say- prove that what is remember occur at some other time, because the world might have sprung into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, full of acts of remembering which were entirely misleading. Opponents of Darwin, such as Edmund Gosse's father, urged a very similar argument against evolution. the world, they said, was created in 4004 B.C., complete with fossils, which were inserted to try our faith. The world was created suddenly, but was made such as it would have been if it had evolved. there is no logical impossibility about this view. And similarly there is no logical impossibility in the view that the world was created five minutes ago, complete with memories and records. They may seem and improbable hypothesis, but it is not logically refutable. (O.P.p7)

If I wish to travel by plane to New York, the reason tells me that it is better to take a plane which is going to New York, than one which is going to Constantinople. I suppose that ones who think me unduly rational, consider that I ought to become so agitated at the airport as to jump into the first plane that I see, and when it lands me at Constantinople I ought to curse the people among whom I find myself for being Turks and not American. This would be fine, full-blooded way of behaving, and would, I suppose, meet with the commendation of my critics. (H.S.E.P.preface,p8/9)

My first advice (on how not to grow old) would be to choose you ancestors carefully. although both my parents died young, I have done well in this respect as regards my other ancestors. My maternal grandfather, it is true, was cut off in the flower of his youth, at the age of sixty-seven, but my other three grandparents all lived to be over eighty. Of remoter ancestors I can only discover one who did not live to a great age, and he died of a disease which is now rare, namely, having his head cut off. (P.F.M.p50)

The difference between mind and brain is not a difference of quality, but a difference of arrangement. It is like the difference between arranging people in geographical order or in alphabetical order, both of which are done in the post office directory. The same people are arranged in both cases, but in different contexts. In like manner, the context of visual sensation for physics is physical, and outside the brain. Going backwards, it takes you to the eye, and thence to a photon and thence to a quantum transition in some distant object. The context of visual sensation for psychology is quite different. Suppose, for example, the visual sensation is tat of a telegram saying that you are ruined. A number of events will take place in your mind in accordance with the laws of physical causation, and it may be quite a long time before there is any purely physical effect, such as tearing your hair or exclaiming "Woe is me!" (P.F.M.p148)