What I Believe
Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2009.
8vo. xvii, 48 pp. Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition by Alan Ryan, 2003 [vi-xvi]. Preface by Bertrand Russell, 1925 [xvii]. Index [pp. 43-48].
First published, 1925.
First published in Routledge Classics, 2004.
Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition
1. Nature and Man
2. The Good Life
3. Moral Rules
4. Salvation: Individual and Social
5. Science and Happiness
Just like Maupassant's ''Afloat'' or Bryan Magee's ''Aspects of Wagner'', Bertrand Russell's ''What I Believe'' is one of those little books that contain disproportionately huge amount of wisdom. First published in 1925, this pamphlet has been reprinted numerous times since then and is regarded today as one of Bertrand Russell's most famous works, probably the best introduction to this unique man in so short a space. Surely, ''What I Believe'' is infinitely superior to the even more famous essay ''A Free Man's Worship'' (1903), which is to my mind nothing more than a juvenile exercise in mysticism and rhetoric; it also is better introduction to the personality of Bertrand Russell than his legendary lecture ''Why I am not a Christian'' (1927) for the simple reason that its scope is much wider.
As is obvious from the contents, ''What I Believe'' synthesises, in an extremely condensed form of course, Russell's agnosticism and irreligious nature within regard to God and immortality as well as his opinions on matters like morals, society, science and the essence of the good life. It is worth noting that in his very short preface, dated January 1 1925, Bertrand Russell mentions that ''What I Believe'' was intended to deal chiefly with the hopes which science gives for the future, just like ''Icarus, or the Future of Science'' (1924) had dealt with the dangers. For to judge wisely, we have to be aware of both. This may explain the significant amount of optimism that pervades these pages, but it is also an excellent recommendation to read ''Icarus'' as well.
It is a shame to write a long review of so short a book which is so amazingly well written and covers so vast a scope. Trying to be brief, I think there are chiefly two reasons for ''What I Believe'' to be in print 85 years after it was first published: the two reasons for the enduring value of so much from Bertrand Russell's mammoth oeuvre: his mind and his prose.
I may start with the latter, and with one sincere warning to all newcomers to Lord Russell. Beware of that prose, folks, for it does cause addiction; should you have anything to do today, you had better not start a book by Bertrand Russell. Quite unlike his early years before the First World War, when he was mathematician and philosopher rather than popular writer on pretty much every subject, the mature Bertrand Russell seems quite incapable to write a single muddled sentence; nor are his paragraphs, pages or chapters any less admirable in terms of structure and lucidity. I can't think of any other style where even the commas have significance of their own.
But the real treasure is, of course, the mind behind the style. Bertrand Russell was the supreme rational man. Never could he understand the masses who accept blindly comfortable myths for which there is no scientific evidence - like God and immortality, for instance. Reason always was his own personal God, a powerful substitute for the Christian one he never accepted.
What I especially like about Bertrand Russell is that he is almost never given to ranting; quite on the contrary, he always has formidable argumentation. He doesn't just tell you what good life is - ''one inspired by love and guided by knowledge'' - but he goes on to analyse in detail both love and knowledge, the former as a mixture of different degrees of benevolence and delight in contemplation, and the latter as firmly scientific knowledge, not ethical which strictly speaking does not even exist. He doesn't just condemns Christianity as harmful for both man's individual and social happiness, and especially on the level of morality, but he states his reasons clearly, frankly and with amount of common sense no one but maniacal devotee would refuse to consider; from the fear on which, as all religions, Christianity too is based, through education full of superstitions and a great deal of social cruelty, until the taboo on the use of contraceptives.*
As always with truly great minds, whether or not one agrees matters not. It is easy to disagree with Lord Russell. I am not sure I approve of his harsh attitude to all those who prefer cozy myths like religion and faith to the search of scientific evidence and reason; perhaps they can't help themselves; perhaps they need some help. Personally, I rather respect, and certainly envy, these people; there's no surer way to be happy than theirs. Does it really matter that it might well be an illusion if it does have all sense of reality for them? I should think not.
When we come to science, I disagree almost completely with Lord Russell's reverence for the scientific knowledge and his viewing science more or less like social panacea par excellence. But one has to remember that ''What I Believe'' was first published in 1925; even at the time of Russell's death (1970) science was still very much science. I am perhaps being presumptuous, but I wonder if Lord Russell would not have changed his mind, had he been alive today. I am really curious what he would have thought about the hideous nightmare of big money business, publishing careerism and gluttonous symposia science has long since been converted into.
It is not very difficult to find contradictions in Bertrand Russell's attitudes, either. My favourite is his occasional disregard of his own and very sensible conviction that opinions held with passion are always those for which no good grounds exist. When all is said and done, however, these things are of minor significance - if any. Indeed, dwelling on them seems to me just short of ridiculous. Bertrand Russell has infinitely more to offer, even in 40 pages or so.
In conclusion, this little book is so huge that it must be read by everybody at least a little interested in the relationships between nature and man, society and individual, religion and science, love and hate, knowledge and superstition. Of course Lord Russell wrote a good many other books, and quite a bit thicker at that, in which he discussed all these subjects in much greater depth. But that doesn't make the superbly succinct and dazzlingly stirring ''What I Believe'' any less compelling. One may well see why it was one of the books cited as evidence during the infamous court declaration of Bertrand Russell as unfit to teach in the College of the City of New York in 1940. Last but not least, it is surprisingly little dated; it deals almost exclusively with matters as relevant today as ever. (In passing it may be noted that Alan Ryan's introduction to the Routledge Classics Edition is a rather indifferent and somewhat conceited stuff, but it does contain few interesting observations about Russell's life and opinions.)
At first I was taken aback that a pamphlet of mere 43 pages has a 5 pages index. Now, having read it several times, I wonder no longer. It really is that rich.
PS I have deliberately restrained myself from quoting passages, something I generally love doing. The reason is simple: it simply makes no sense. Not that Lord Russell's prose is less quote-friendly than usual, but it does have a very unusual degree of intensity and concentration.
* By the way, the interesting ''editor's note'', left uncredited by the sloppy fellows in Routledge, about the changed attitude of some churches to birth control was actually written by Paul Edwards, the editor of ''Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects'' (1957). This is one of the very few instances when the pamphlet is dated.