Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

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Bertrand Russell saw the history of civilization as being shaped by an unfortunate oscillation between two opposing evils: tyranny and anarchy, each of which contain the seed of the other. The best course for steering clear of either one, Russell maintained, is liberalism.

“The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation,” writes Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. “The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma [a feature of tyranny], and insuring stability [which anarchy undermines] without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community.”

In 1951 Russell published an article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism,” with the subtitle: “Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity.” In the article, Russell writes that “Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds.” He continues:

But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.

Russell criticizes the radical who would advocate change at any cost. Echoing the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who had a profound influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Russell writes:

The teacher who urges doctrines subversive to existing authority does not, if he is a liberal, advocate the establishment of a new authority even more tyrannical than the old. He advocates certain limits to the exercise of authority, and he wishes these limits to be observed not only when the authority would support a creed with which he disagrees but also when it would support one with which he is in complete agreement. I am, for my part, a believer in democracy, but I do not like a regime which makes belief in democracy compulsory.

Russell concludes the New York Times piece by offering a “new decalogue” with advice on how to live one’s life in the spirit of liberalism. “The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows,” he says:

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

via Brain Pickings



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  1. M.R. Stringer says . . . | March 15, 2013 / 1:25 pm

    How wonderful if Open Culture could ensure delivery of these commandments to every politician holding a cabinet seat in Oz. Come to think of it, to EVERY POLITICIAN here. Probably to every politician in the entire world. Imagine what our lives would be like if these were held to be fundamental truths …

  2. Charles Pantino says . . . | March 16, 2013 / 10:07 am

    Very well said. Would be good if we spread these thoughts and made them more widespread. With much gratitude.

  3. Jonathan M says . . . | March 18, 2013 / 9:24 am

    Can somebody explain to me what manner of behavior #5 is trying to elicit?

    “Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found”

  4. ads says . . . | March 24, 2013 / 8:51 am

    Jonathan, from my point of view, it says that one shouldn’t judge about or take a statement as truth based just on someones authority rather than reason.

    After all, we are all human, breathe, eat, make errors, even the authorities…

    It even seems to me that fifth rule is a bit redundant since the first one says to question things.

  5. michael taylor says . . . | April 20, 2013 / 11:13 am

    For Jonathan,
    a) confidence in self and opinion
    b) the belief / knowledge that one may also be wrong.
    Michael

  6. Irene says . . . | June 14, 2013 / 6:33 pm

    Jonathan,

    It’s, from my reading, the idea that no single authority has a monopoly on truth, that others claiming the same mantle of assumed deference will put forward under that mantle ideas that contradict whichever original authority one believed, so, a healthy wariness of ALL authority is called for. They can’t all be right, but for each to be an authority, they’d each have to be right, undermining the whole idea somewhat.

  7. Patrick Murphy says . . . | July 28, 2013 / 7:32 pm

    Imagine that we are all subject to the Socratic method of reasoning – that there is no authority other than the authority of the consensus arrived at after scrupulous reasoning in some sort of elected parlia-ment – wouldn’t it be something?

  8. Fredrik Asplund says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 3:28 am

    Very nice indeed. Hard to argue with any of his “commandments”.

    Linked on Sprawler: sprawler.tumblr.com

  9. Jjingo samuel Bagenzekukola says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 5:23 am

    I Don’t Agree With Russell’s advice on how to live one’s life in the spirit of liberalism because Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism; characterized by ;

    1 . Fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government,

    2. The rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society; The actual effectiveness of rule of law varies significantly across different kinds of Democracies ; the liberal caution is that freedoms must not be infringed and no one is above the law including these who govern .

    Three question Arise From here Including;
    1. Should those who are in charge of a common good accept restraints on what they decide; Why ? Democracy asks .
    2. Why should the best not govern on behalf of of the common good ? asks Republicanism ; and
    3. Are the two common sense views of political authority embodied by democracy and republicanism ?

    · By contrast , Liberalism arose in the small cover of the world influenced by traditions, fundamentalism , and conciliation and natural rights are shocked horrors of war fare .

    · The are rights that no public or private agent can violet as argued successfully in western Europe by the beginning of the sixteenth century .

    · With out recurring to artificial device of fundamental social contract , liberalism cannot justify the exercise of political authority over territory; where as republicanism does not go beyond assertion that is typically of all kinds of authority for the good of it’s subjects.

    · The idea that various rulers should subject them selves to the rule of law ; not more or less that ordinary citizens is a republican contribution.

    · The three currents have combine in complex and changing ways as democracy introduces rules formed by those who are members of a given polity over the past several centuries and no one of them has been said to be more basic than the other .

    · They can be threat to a Democracy if carried out to the extreme ; and are preferable to a regime based on it’s component traditions

    3. Equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons. Among others

    And liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either formally written , to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract.

    Other wise ,I would focus on economic development to Change democracy ; Democratic struggle and crisis is about stresses of unemployment , certainly , economic and social and social injustice improvement of which can help to change democracy.

  10. Frank Mill says . . . | August 1, 2013 / 5:28 am

    Jjingo – Russel is arguably commenting on how individuals within a democracy should approach thier civic and social perspectives and responsibilites within a liberal democracy, not the entire liberal democratic or republican structures and concepts of government. For liberal democracy to work for the individuals within it there must be some level of influence from where the power flows – the people themselves. Documents, structures and law are and should be tools for individuals, and not stricyly limits upon them or enablers of power and authority.

    If the public/individual influence or consent is not based upon reason and is not well informed, or is misinformed (something I see more of every freaking day) and there is no rational questioning of, debate, or reckoning of those elected to authority then the liberal democratic republic can become something else…oligarchy, corporatism, or a military/industrial illusion of democracy (ahem).

  11. Sidney Clouston says . . . | August 1, 2013 / 4:43 pm

    1. Russell criticizes the radical who would advocate change at any cost. Echoing the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who had a profound influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Russell writes:

    The teacher who urges doctrines subversive to existing authority does not, if he is a liberal, advocate the establishment of a new authority even more tyrannical than the old.

    > If Russell criticizes the radical who would advocate change at any cost, what
    then is the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War? How does the many laws, rules and regulations support a liberal view? I support a moderate or middle path in general.

  12. BARAK WA says . . . | August 31, 2013 / 3:13 pm

    RUSSEL HAS ALWAYS SERVED ME WIH DIRECTION AND GUIDANCE. GOD BLESS THE HUMAN BRAIN WITH WISDOM. AMEN

  13. Ian Wells says . . . | December 17, 2013 / 8:27 am

    I thought briefly that this is the kind of teachings I should have had access to at school. Then I reflected and realised that I wouldn’t have listened as a young man. Is it too late to change the world?

  14. fady says . . . | December 18, 2013 / 2:06 pm

    I don’t agree for the item (5)..
    “Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.”

  15. barrashee says . . . | December 23, 2013 / 3:57 am

    @fady–I get the joke

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