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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Brain Pickings

Louise Bourgeois on solitude, my commencement address about the soul-sustaining necessity of resisting self-comparison and fighting cynicism, Audre Lorde on silence, Bertrand Russell on freedom of thought and our only defense against propaganda, and moreEmail formatted oddly or truncated?
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How Leo Tolstoy Found His Purpose: The Beloved Author on Personal Growth and the Meaning of Human Existence

“That which one has set oneself to do, one should not relinquish on the grounds of absence of mind or distraction.”

Speaking Truth to Power and the Value of Counterpoints: Madeleine Albright’s Surprising Commencement Address

“We should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them.”

Eleanor Roosevelt on Science

“What we must learn to do is to create unbreakable bonds between the sciences and the humanities.”

Wait: Galway Kinnell’s Beautiful and Life-Giving Poem for a Young Friend Contemplating Suicide

“Be there to hear … the flute of your whole existence…”

The Art of Medicine: W.H. Auden on What Makes a Great Physician and How He Influenced Oliver Sacks

“A doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.”

From Scripture to Screen: Kate Tempest’s Electrifying Spoken-Word Meditation on Our Fraught Fillers of Existential Emptiness

“You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.”

WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – anger and forgiveness, Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on complementarity and why reality is woven of opposing truths, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life, and a very special musical treat – you can catch upright here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Artist Louise Bourgeois on How Solitude Enriches Creative Work

"Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,"young Delacroix counseled himself in 1824. Keats saw solitude as a sublime conduit to truth and beauty. Elizabeth Bishop believed that everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life. Even if we don’t take so extreme a view as artist Agnes Martin’s assertion that“the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” one thing is certain: Our capacity for what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has termed â€œfertile solitude” is absolutely essential not only for our creativity but for the basic fabric of our happiness — without time and space unburdened from external input and social strain, we’d be unable to fully inhabit our interior life, which is the raw material of all art.
That vital role of solitude in art and life is what the great artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) explores in several of the letters and diary entires collected in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — an altogether magnificent glimpse of one of the fiercest creative minds and most luminous spirits of the past century.
Louise Bourgeois at her studio, New York, 1946. (Louise Bourgeois Archive)
In September of 1937, 25-year-old Bourgeois writes to her friend Colette Richarme — an artist seven years her senior yet one for whom she took on the role of a mentor — after Richarme had suddenly left Paris for respite in the countryside:
After the tremendous effort you put in here, solitude, even prolonged solitude, can only be of very great benefit. Your work may well be more arduous than it was in the studio, but it will also be more personal.
A few months later, Bourgeois reiterates her counsel:
Solitude, a rest from responsibilities, and peace of mind, will do you more good than the atmosphere of the studio and the conversations which, generally speaking, are a waste of time.
Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, a children’s book about the beloved artist’s early life and how it shaped her art.
For Bourgeois, aloneness was the raw material of art — something she crystallized most potently half a century later, in a diary entry from the summer of 1987:
You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one. Everything comes to you from the other. You have to be able to reach the other. If not you are alone…
Complement the immeasurably insightful Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father with Bourgeois on art, integrity, and the key to creative confidence and this almost unbearably lovelypicture-book about her early life, then revisit Edward Abbey’s enchanting vintage love letter to solitude.

On the Soul-Sustaining Necessity of Resisting Self-Comparison and Fighting Cynicism: A Commencement Address

I have long relished the commencement address as one of our few cultural forms that render us receptive to sincerity — receptive to messages we might dismiss as trite in any other context, but which we recognize here as the life-earned truth of the human being at the podium, shared in a spirit of goodwill with a group of young humans just starting out on the truth-earning gauntlet called life.
So I was thrilled to deliver the address to the 2016 graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania’sAnnenberg School for Communication, my own alma mater. Speech text below.
I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.
I live in New York, where something extraordinary happens every April. In the first days of spring, those days when the air turns from blistering to balmy, a certain gladness envelops the city — people actually look up from their screens while walking and strangers smile at each other. For a few short days, it’s like we remember how we can live and who we’re capable of being to one another.
I also practically live on my bike — that’s how I get everywhere — and the other week, on one of those first days of spring, I was riding from Brooklyn to Harlem. I had somewhere to be and was pedaling pretty fast — which I like doing and must admit I take a certain silly pride in — but I was also very much enjoying the ride and the river and the spring air that smelled of plum blossoms. And then, I sensed someone behind me in the bike path, catching up, going even faster than I was going. It suddenly felt somehow competitive. He was trying to overtake me. I pedaled faster, but he kept catching up. Eventually, he did overtake me — and I felt strangely defeated.
But as he cruised past me, I realized the guy was on an electric bike. I felt both a sort of redemption and a great sense of injustice — unfair motorized advantage, very demoralizing to the honest muscle-powered pedaler. But just as I was getting all self-righteously existential, I noticed something else — he had a restaurant’s name on his back. He was food delivery guy. He was rushing past me not because he was trying to slight me, or because he had some unfair competitive advantage in life, but because this was his daily strife — this is how this immigrant made his living.
My first response was to shame myself into gratitude for how fortunate I’ve been — because I too am an immigrant from a pretty poor country and it’s some miraculous confluence of choice and chance that has kept me from becoming a food delivery person on an electric bike in order to survive in New York City. And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do — perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I don’t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, I’m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.
I grew up in Bulgaria and my early childhood was spent under a communist dictatorship. But for all its evils, communism had one silver lining — when everyone had very little, no one felt like somebody else was cruising past them motorized by privilege.
I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work — I don’t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also don’t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life haven’t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.
This, of course, is what happens in every environment densely populated by so-called peers — self-comparison becomes inevitable. Financial inequality was just my particular poison, but we do it along every imaginable axis of privilege and every dimension of identity — intelligence, beauty, athleticism, charisma that entrances the Van Pelt librarians into pardoning your late fees.
But here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.
Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.
In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.
You are about to enter the ecosystem of cultural production. Most of you will go into journalism, media, policy, or some blurry blob of the increasingly amorphous Venn diagram of these forces that shape culture and public opinion. Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful. E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I believe that’s the role of every journalist and artist and creator of culture.
Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.
Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.
You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself — because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent — you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.
Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes — damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.
You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, yourvision, of how things can and should be.
Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. It’s hard not to notice that there’s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.
Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.
It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul.
But you — you â€” are in a very special position, leaving Annenberg, because your courage and resistance are to be enacted not only in the privacy of your inner life but in your outer contribution to public life. You are the creators of tomorrow’s ideas and ideals, the sculptors of public opinion and of culture. As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit — because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.
So as you move through life, pedal hard — because that’s how you get places, and because it’s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention. But make sure the pace of your pedaling answers only to your own standards of vigor. Remain uncynical and don’t waste any energy on those who pass you by on their electric bikes, because you never know what strife is driving them and, most of all, because the moment you focus on that, you vacate your own soul.
Instead, pedal forth — but also remember to breathe in the spring air and to smile at a stranger every once in a while. Because there is nothing more uncynical than being good to one another.
Thank you and congratulations.

The Storm: A Lovely Illustrated Parable of Fear, the Frustration of Uncontrollable Events, and the Redemptive Power of Surrendering to Life’s Ebb and Flow

I have shared a good portion of my life with a dog afflicted by what animal behaviorists call “storm anxiety” — a phobia of thunder so acute that it renders him a terrified, trembling ghost of himself, heartbreaking to witness and nearly impossible to comfort. This despairing helplessness to help led to the purchase of the gimmicky-sounding but surprisingly effective ThunderShirt â€” a contraption that achieves, cognitively speaking, the opposite of what a canine raincoat does and calms the shaking pup down by simulating the sensation of being tightly held.
One of the lovelinesses of dogs is that they have a great deal in common with children — a vast capacity for playfulness and a largehearted, jubilant curiosity about the world, but also some intense, primal fears of phenomena like storms and the dark. And one of the lovelinesses of children is that they remind us of the most elemental parts of ourselves — parts that only get covered up by our grownup masks and coping strategies, but never quite leave us. That classic childhood fear of the dark, for instance, becomes the less obvious but equally paralyzing adult fear of the unexplainable.
In The Storm (public library) — a contemporary counterpart to Moomins creator Tove Jansson’s marvelous vintage weather-based parable of control, surrender, and self-transcendence â€” Japanese children’s book author and artist Akiko Miyakoshi presents a subtle and sensitive fable of fear, the frustration of uncontrollable events, and the redemptive power of surrendering to the ebb and flow of life.
The story unfolds from the point of view of an androgynous child who has been anticipating a trip to the beach, but learns that a formidable storm is on the way.
As the clouds darken and the parents prepare the house for nature’s onslaught, it becomes dismayingly clear that the beach is out of the question.
As the wind howls and the heavy rain bombards the roof, the child’s disappointment swells into distressing fright. The storm — a stand-in for life’s mercurial way of throwing unexpected and unwelcome events our way — has not only snatched the promise of tomorrow’s pleasure, but has invaded with palpable peril.
Our young protagonist finds refuge under the covers, which muffle the baying of the storm and open a portal to a safe wonderland of limitless possibility.
Carried away by a dream, the child boards a giant wind-propelled ship that floats up through the thick, dark clouds and emerges into clear skies.
When morning arrives, the storm has died out, sunshine has returned, and beach plans are being made anew.
Undergirding the story is a reminder that, as Henry Miller memorably put it, â€œall is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis” â€” like the weather itself, even life’s stormiest spells eventually come to pass, and although we can’t will them away, we can surrender to the credence that the unclouded blue skies will return.
Complement The Storm with Miyakoshi’s modernist fairy tale The Tea Party in the Woods, then revisit the psychology of why cloudy days help us think more clearlyand artist Lauren Redniss’s extraordinary illustrated investigation of the weather and its role in the human experience.

Audre Lorde on the Transformation of Silence into Language and the Empowering Vulnerability of Visibility

“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each,”Paul Goodman wrote in his anatomy of the nine kinds of silence shortly after Susan Sontag penned her masterwork on the aesthetic of silence as a creative choice“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her beautiful meditation on writing and how silence fertilizes the imagination. But against these fecund conceptions of silence stands silence of a very different kind — the oppressive muting of dissenting, divergent, and minority voices, imposed first from the outside and then from the inside. (James Baldwin captured this internalized oppression memorably: â€œIt’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”)
That oppressive silence and its most potent antidote are what the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — a galvanizing short paper delivered at Chicago’s Modern Language Association in 1977, later included in Lorde’s indispensable anthologySister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (public library).
Audre Lorde
Lorde writes:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect. I am standing here as a Black lesbian poet, and the meaning of all that waits upon the fact that I am still alive, and might not have been.
Lorde is writing shortly after her doctor discovered a tumor that turned out to be benign but forced her to confront her mortality in the agonizing three-week period of uncertainty. She reflects on the sobering urgency into which the experience shook her:
I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger… Some of what I experienced during that time has helped elucidate for me much of what I feel concerning the transformation of silence into language and action.
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.
Turning to the audience — and, across space and time, to us — Lorde issues a clarion call for introspection:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
Echoing Anaïs Nin’s reflection on what lies beneath our fear of the unfamiliar, Lorde adds:
Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?
And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live… And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.
Lorde considers our responsibility to that visibility, out of which arises the transmutation of vulnerability into strength:
In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.
For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.
With an urgent eye to the necessity that we “not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own,” Lorde concludes:
We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.
Decades after its publication, Sister Outsider remains a silence-shattering force of uncommon might and pulsating timeliness. Complement it with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s magnificent forgotten conversation about race and identity and Ursula K. Le Guin onoppression, freedom, and how storytelling expands our scope of the possible.

The Will to Doubt: Bertrand Russell on Free Thought and Our Only Effective Self-Defense Against Propaganda

“We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny,” W.H. Auden observed in his commonplace book. Half a century earlier,Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), the great poet laureate of reason, addressed the central equation of free thinking in his 1922 Conway Memorial Lecture, later published as Free Thought and Official Propaganda (public library | free ebook) — a short and searing book charged with Russell’s characteristic intellectual electricity, the immense power of which melts an entire century into astonishing timeliness speaking directly to the present day.
When we speak of anything as “free,” our meaning is not definite unless we can say what it is free from. Whatever or whoever is “free” is not subject to some external compulsion, and to be precise we ought to say what this kind of compulsion is. Thus thought is “free” when it is free from certain kinds of outward control which are often present. Some of these kinds of control which must be absent if thought is to be “free” are obvious, but others are more subtle and elusive.
Writing three years after the magnificent Declaration of the Independence of the Mind, which he signed alongside luminaries like Albert Einstein and Jane Addams, Russell points to two primary meanings of “free thought” — the narrower sense of resisting traditional dogma and a broader sense that encompasses all forms of propaganda pervading public life. A patron saint of nonbelievers, Russell writes:
I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good. Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects, I regard it as belonging to the infancy of human reason, and to a stage of development which we are now outgrowing.
But there is also a wider sense of “free thought,” which I regard as of still greater importance. Indeed, the harm done by traditional religions seems chiefly traceable to the fact that they have prevented free thought in this wider sense.
He considers the three essential elements of this wider conception of free thought:
Thought is not “free” when legal penalties are incurred by the holding or not holding of certain opinions, or by giving expression to one’s belief or lack of belief on certain matters… The most elementary condition, if thought is to be free, is the absence of legal penalties for the expression of opinions.
[…]
Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.
Echoing the essence of Descartes’s twelve tenets of critical thinking, penned three centuries earlier, Russell returns to the centerpiece of free thought — the willingness to doubt:
William James used to preach the “will to believe.” For my part, I should wish to preach the “will to doubt.” None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error. The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have the opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to discard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate.
Half a century before Richard Feynman’s terrific meditation on science vs. religion and why doubt is essential for morality, Russell extols science as the domain of human knowledge that best exemplifies the fruitfulness of this “will to doubt”:
Every man of science whose outlook is truly scientific is ready to admit that what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery; nevertheless, it is near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes, though not for all. In science, where alone something approximating to genuine knowledge is to be found, men’s attitude is tentative and full of doubt.
In religion and politics, on the contrary, though there is as yet nothing approaching scientific knowledge, everybody considers it de rigueur to have a dogmatic opinion, to be backed up by inflicting starvation, prison, and war, and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion. If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured. War would become impossible, because each side would realize that both sides must be in the wrong. Persecution would cease. Education would aim at expanding the mind, not at narrowing it. Men would be chosen for jobs on account of fitness to do the work, not because they flattered the irrational dogmas of those in power.
He points Einstein and the relativity theory he had formulated just seven years earlier as an epitome of this disposition:
His theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis. Yet physicists everywhere have shown complete readiness to accept his theory as soon as it appeared that the evidence was in its favour. But none of them, least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word… This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science.
Indeed, we have seen a supreme testament to this in the recent landmark detection of gravitational waves â€” something Einstein saw as a purely theoretical concept ofunimaginable empirical corroboration.
Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne
Russell offers a disquieting thought experiment of sorts:
If Einstein had advanced something equally new in the sphere of religion or politics … the truth or falsehood of his doctrine would be decided on the battlefield, without the collection of any fresh evidence for or against it. This method is the logical outcome of William James’s will to believe. What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite.
He considers the core obstacles to this vital rational doubt:
A great deal of this is due to the inherent irrationality and credulity of average human nature. But this seed of intellectual original sin is nourished and fostered by other agencies, among which three play the chief part — namely, education, propaganda, and economic pressure.
Russell examines each of the three in turn, beginning with education — a subject he would come to consider closely four years later in his masterwork on education and the good life. Education’s formal institutions, he argues, are set up “to impart information without imparting intelligence” and designed “not to give true knowledge, but to make the people pliable to the will of their masters” — a seedbed of political and cultural propaganda that begins in elementary school, with the teaching of a history told by those in power, and results in the widespread manipulation of public opinion. Lamenting “the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought,” he envisions the remedy:
Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge — reading and writing, languages and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information, the second intelligence.
He then turns to propaganda — the concerted manipulation of public opinion by those in power. Having previously advocated for the blurring of the line between intuition and the intellect, he writes:
Too much fuss is sometimes made about the fact that propaganda appeals to emotion rather than reason. The line between emotion and reason is not so sharp as some people think.
[…]
The objection to propaganda is not only its appeal to unreason, but still more the unfair advantage which it gives to the rich and powerful. Equality of opportunity among opinions is essential if there is to be real freedom of thought; and equality of opportunity among opinions can only be secured by elaborate laws directed to that end, which there is no reason to expect to see enacted. The cure is not to be sought primarily in such laws, but in better education and a more sceptical public opinion.
Turning to the final impediment of free thought — the economic pressures of conformity, under which one is rewarded for siding with and adopting the dogmas of those in power — Russell writes:
There are two simple principles which, if they were adopted, would solve almost all social problems. The first is that education should have for one of its aims to teach people only to believe propositions when there is some reason to think that they are true. The second is that jobs should be given solely for fitness to do the work.
Nearly a century after Kierkegaard argued for the power of the minority and a generation before Hannah Arendt’scase for outsiderdom, Russell urges:
The protection of minorities is vitally important; and even the most orthodox of us may find himself in a minority some day, so that we all have an interest in restraining the tyranny of majorities. Nothing except public opinion can solve this problem.
It’s a sentiment of enormous poignancy and prescience, illustrating both how far we’ve come — Russell is writing more than three decades before the zenith of civil rights and the Equal Pay Act â€” and how far we have yet to go in a culture where, a century later, sexism and racism are far from gone and many workplaces are still systematically discriminating against minorities like Muslims and the LGBT community.
The cultivation of public opinion that advances equality and justice rather than upholding oppressive power structures has to do with the “will to doubt” at the heart of Russell’s case. He writes:
Some element of doubt is essential to the practice, though not to the theory, of toleration… If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true.
The role of the educator, he argues, is to teach young minds how to infer what actually happened “from the biased account of either side” and to instill in them the awareness that “everything in newspapers is more or less untrue” — a task all the more urgent today, when the old role of the newspapers has been largely taken over by incessant opinion-streams barraging us online and off with the certitude of their respective version of reality masquerading as truth.
Russell returns to the basic human predicament obstructing freedom of thought and envisions its only fruitful solution:
The evils of the world are due to moral defects quite as much as to lack of intelligence. But the human race has not hitherto discovered any method of eradicating moral defects; preaching and exhortation only add hypocrisy to the previous list of vices. Intelligence, on the contrary, is easily improved by methods known to every competent educator. Therefore, until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than of morals. One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instruction as to the prevalent forms of mendacity.
Writing nearly a century ago, even before Walter Benjamin’s increasingly timely meditation on the challenge of extracting wisdom from the morass of (mis)information, Russell once again reveals his extraordinary prescience:
Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.
He concludes by considering what it would take for us to implement these two pillars of free thought — an education system that fosters critical thinking rather than conformity and a meritocratic workforce where jobs are earned based on acumen rather than ideological alignment with power structures:
It must be done by generating an enlightened public opinion. And an enlightened public opinion can only be generated by the efforts of those who desire that it should exist.