The Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell is surely an astute observer of human nature. His Nobel acceptance speech of December 11, 1950 is often presented as an example of the magnificence of his sharp observation and lucid wisdom. One cannot but agree; he endeavored to distill the average human of his times down to a few essential characteristics and communicate that in pithy words.
To be sure, many of his observations resonated with a widespread understanding of the common human animal as a fearful, selfish, acquisitive creature. Yet, there’s something rather disconcerting about condensing all human nature, and actions, as prompted solely by ‘desire’ as he does. True to his times, Russell noted the conflict between duty and the free pursuits of enjoyment – and summarized that divergence by the claim that a human is dutiful only because he desires to be so. That may be, but methinks Russell narrowed his search for the awareness, the consciousness, with which humans think and act. Where does he even consider that human thought may be both conscious, or willful, and involuntary? Did he wonder that human activities may span both industry and art: perseverance toward production, and effort that is of value in itself? He limited his description of humans to that of animals driven by the basest urges for food, shelter, and procreation.
“What else is there,” the adoring, conforming citizen may demand! Oh so very much more, my dear fellow, says the contemplative compatriot.
Acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and the love of power: these are the characteristics that define most of us, or so Russell claimed. He called these infinite desires, or those that “can never be fully gratified.”
From my own life, modeled upon the lives of my parents, I can say these qualities hardly define the lives of people I have known and admired. If I were to engage in an intellectual joust with Russell, he’d surely say, “They desired to be dutiful, family and community-oriented, or just different, and thus avoided overt expressions of these [his] characteristics!” That – would be patently unfair! These are people who lived lives of sacrifice, deprivation, and simplicity and service, largely by personal choice.
My father served in two wars to protect his country of birth against those who’d do it harm – not because he desired to be ‘patriotic,’ but because that was his chosen role and it’d shame his family were he to shirk his responsibilities. And, after the second war, he asked and moved into an instructor’s role so he could be with family. He found no glamour or honor in waging patriotic violence; he never spoke to me of his wartime service that earned him numerous ribbons, medals, and a commission as an officer. His pithy advice to me, when I endeavored to join the nation’s prestigious Defense Academy to train as a fighter pilot, was this: “Son, ask yourself what you wish to become: a glorified driver going about killing people.” That was the only guidance I received from him. Needless to say, all my yearning to become a glamorous fighter jock in service to the nation dissipated much as air from a pricked balloon. Desire became irrelevant in the face of – dare I say – wisdom.
In a personal instance, I was once challenged by a friend with, “What would you do, Rian, if you were offered a knighthood by the Queen of England?” My immediate response: “Why would I place myself at the bottom of their hierarchy?” Russell may have argued that this response also indicates a desire, of not wanting something, but then that’d cover just about any sentiment in the world! Is my lack of interest in some made-up title also a ‘desire?’
I could write so much more about each of these individual characteristics that define a human for Russell…but that’d bore you. Let me just say that perhaps Russell captured Western Materialism in his succinct speech, and perhaps he did not intend to describe much of human nature and culture in the rest of the world. If he’d presumed to, he’d be very wrong.