Bertrand Russell’s Evolution from Utilitarian to Contemplative; Captured in a Letter

…unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, and largely witty fellow. Though firmly grounded in rationality and logic, he was fascinated by, and certainly unafraid of acknowledging, those dimensions beyond human comprehension. His term for these realms was usually some variant of “contemplation“, gathered in a beautiful collection of essays: Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays.

I recently stumbled across a letter he sent to his friend, British scholar Gilbert Murray, documenting Russell’s transition from believing in the hedonism of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain as the most self-evident truth in human life, to an urgency for maintaining the human ability of “contemplation of eternal things” 1:

[Unlike the] utilitarian… I judge pleasure and pain to be of small importance compared to knowledge, the appreciation and contemplation of beauty, and a certain intrinsic excellence of mind which, apart from its practical effects, appears to me to deserve the name of virtue. [For] many years it seemed to me perfectly self-evident that pleasure is the only good and pain the only evil. Now, however, the opposite seems to me self-evident.”

What first turned me away from utilitarianism was the persuasion that I myself ought to pursue philosophy, although I had (and have still) no doubt that by doing economics and the theory of politics I could add more to human happiness. It appeared to me that the dignity of which human existence is capable is not attainable by devotion to the mechanism of life, and that unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs.”

 — Letter to Gilbert Murray, April 3, 1902

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