Friday, March 24, 2006

Russell on Nationalism

The quote below is from Bertrand Russell's paper 'On the Value of Scepticism'. It was put my way by John Wesley Harding, some of whose writings can be found here. Many thanks to him.
'It seems that sin is geographical. From this conclusion, it is only a small step to the further conclusion that the notion of "sin" is illusory, and that the cruelty habitually practiced in punishing it is unnecessary. It is just this conclusion which is so unwelcome to many minds, since the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.

Nationalism is of course an extreme example of fervent belief concerning doubtful matters. I think it may be safely said that any scientific historian, writing now a history of the Great War, is bound to make statements which, if made during the war, would have exposed him to imprisonment in every one of the belligerent countries on both sides. Again, with the exception of China, there is no country where people tolerate the truth about themselves; at ordinary times the truth is only thought ill-mannered, but in war-time it is thought criminal. Opposing systems of violent belief are built up, the falsehood of which is evident from the fact that they are believed only by those who share the same national bias. But the application of reason to these systems of belief is thought as wicked as the application of reason to religious dogmas was formerly thought. When people are challenged as to why scepticism in such matters should be wicked, the only answer is that myths help to win wars, so that a rational nation would be killed rather than kill. The view that there is something shameful in saving one's skin by wholesale slander of foreigners is one which, so far as I know, has hitherto found no supporters among professional moralists outside the ranks of Quakers. If it is suggested that a rational nation would find ways of keeping out of wars altogether, the answer is usually more abuse.'

Tony Blair should read this essay, although I doubt it will make him reconsider his 'active not reactive' foreign policy. Active with respect to kowtowing to the US, perhaps. Churchillian it is not.

3 comments: said...

On what basis does the author make the following comment: "Again, with the exception of China, there is no country where people tolerate the truth about themselves?" Just curious

My fist of flounce said...

That's from an earlier passage in the paper:

Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately. Except in China, a man is thought a poor creature unless he has strong opinions on such matters

Russell was a huge fan of China where he taught for a time, going as far as to say in The Problem of China, "I think the Chinese one of the best nations I have come across"

Anonymous said...

also, i think that comment could quite well apply to alot of the orient, particularly japan within my limited experience.
i think its partly a reflection on the serenity and humility of the eastern peoples.

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