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

russell rules 2

Image by J. F. Horra­bin, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

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 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.

Wise words then. Wise words now.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in March, 2013.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Inter­ests Grad­u­al­ly Wider and More Imper­son­al”

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

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

Bertrand Rus­sell Author­i­ty and the Indi­vid­ual (1948) 

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