Bertrand Russell’s Advice to People Living 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Foolish”

In these times of high anx­i­ety, bat­tles over “free speech”—on col­lege cam­pus­es, in cor­po­rate offices, on air­waves and the internet—can seem extreme­ly myopic from a cer­tain per­spec­tive. The per­spec­tive I mean is one in which a dis­turb­ing num­ber of mes­sages broad­cast per­pet­u­al­ly to mil­lions of peo­ple bear lit­tle rela­tion­ship to sci­en­tif­ic, his­tor­i­cal, or social facts, so that it becomes increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for many peo­ple to tell fact from fic­tion. Debat­ing whether or not such speech is “free” out­side of any con­sid­er­a­tion for what pur­pose it serves, who it harms, and why it should drown out oth­er speech because it appeals to wide­spread prej­u­dices or pow­er­ful, monied inter­ests seems gross­ly irre­spon­si­ble at best.

Most philoso­phers who have con­sid­ered these mat­ters have stressed the impor­tant rela­tion­ship between rea­son and ethics. In the clas­si­cal for­mu­la, per­sua­sive speech was con­sid­ered to have three dimen­sions: logos—the use of facts and log­i­cal argu­ments; ethos—the appeal to com­mon stan­dards of val­ue; and pathos—a con­sid­er­a­tion for the emo­tion­al res­o­nance of lan­guage. While the force­ful dialec­ti­cal rea­son­ing of Pla­to and his con­tem­po­raries val­ued par­rhe­sia—which Michel Fou­cault trans­lates as “free speech,” but which can also means “bold” or “can­did” speech—classical thinkers also val­ued social har­mo­ny and did not intend that philo­soph­i­cal debate be a scorched-earth war with the inten­tion to win at all costs.

Bertrand Rus­sell, the bril­liant math­e­mati­cian, philoso­pher, and anti-war activist, invoked this tra­di­tion often (as in his let­ter declin­ing a debate with British fas­cist Oswald Mosley). In the video above he answers the ques­tion, “what would you think it’s worth telling future gen­er­a­tions about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it.” His answer may not val­i­date the prej­u­dices of cer­tain par­ti­sans, but nei­ther does it evince any kind of spe­cial par­ti­san­ship itself. Rus­sell breaks his advice into two, inter­de­pen­dent cat­e­gories, “intel­lec­tu­al and moral.”

When you are study­ing any mat­ter or con­sid­er­ing any phi­los­o­phy, ask your­self only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Nev­er let your­self be divert­ed either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have benef­i­cent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and sole­ly, at what are the facts.

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very sim­ple. I should say love is wise, hatred is fool­ish. In this world, which is get­ting more and more inter­con­nect­ed, we have to learn to tol­er­ate each oth­er, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some peo­ple say things that we don’t like. We can only live togeth­er in that way. And if we are to live togeth­er and not die togeth­er, we should learn the kind of tol­er­ance which is absolute­ly vital to the con­tin­u­a­tion of human life on this plan­et.

The gist: our speech should con­form to the facts of the mat­ter; rather than wish­ful think­ing, we should accept that peo­ple will say things we don’t like, but if we can­not love but only hate each oth­er, we’ll prob­a­bly end up destroy­ing our­selves.

The video above, from the BBC pro­gram Face-to-Face, was record­ed in 1959.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Rus­sell Writes an Art­ful Let­ter, Stat­ing His Refusal to Debate British Fas­cist Leader Oswald Mosley (1962)

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Bertrand Rus­sell: The Every­day Ben­e­fit of Phi­los­o­phy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncer­tain­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Karl Reitmann says:

    The most banal “philoso­pher” of mod­ern times. Ter­ri­ble writ­ing, con­vo­lut­ed sen­tences with sim­plis­tic mes­sages, the full pack­age. He was lucky to be born anglo­phone. If he’d been let’s say Uzbek, no-one would know of him, and right­ly so.

  • Rom Shuttleworth says:

    Karl Reit­mann (above) must be the next Khalil Gibran then…

  • Ann Beal says:

    Wis­dom for all gen­er­a­tions. What we are doing now is killing our soci­ety not improv­ing it. Love is wise. Hatred is fool­ish. That is easy to observe now.

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