Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”

Bertrand Russell is a well known modern philosopher who has written on many subjects in epistemology, ethics, metaphysics and analytic philosophy, but this essay will only focus on one of his works titled “A Free Man’s Worship”. Russell’s essay is seen as a direct response to Immanuel Kant’s argument on the need for religion as the culmination of ethics and that without God there is no reason to believe that there is meaning or purpose to our lives. Bertrand Russell argues that morality is easily found independent of religion and that morality may be more likely to occur outside of any religious structure.

Russell begins with a story of creation according to Mephistopheles as spoken to the infamous character Faustus in which we learn that the universe is not a conscious being that created everything with a purpose. Instead we are products of random events and creatures and forces that have no concern for our accomplishments or quality of life. Such a poetic and dramatic introduction seems fitting for this particular essay because the essay its self is poetic and dramatic. “A Free Man’s Worship” is a horse of a different sort as they say. For a philosophical discourse, Russell’s rhetoric is verbose and flowery; poetic and dramatic. The reader could easily get lost in short passages that seem to demand a response rooted in reactionary emotions instead of appealing to reason. This appeal to emotion concerning the despair and suffering of humanity seems exaggerated to the point of absurdity. If I had not known this was an essay by Bertrand Russell, I would have guessed this to be an earlier John Paul Sartre instead of an analytic philosopher, but Bertrand Russell was an accomplished and intelligent man who did not limit himself to a single dry style of writing. When discussing the meaning of life or how we are to react to the omnipotent yet blind uncaring Nature with a sense of purpose, the issue is deeply rooted if not solely discussed in the context of human emotion and experience therefore the message is more readily received if a writer speaks to the reader as a whole human being with an emotional and rational core instead of simply appealing to rationality. Though his writing style deviates from what one might expect a philosophical essay to be written as, he did not sacrifice content and logic in an attempt to appeal to the emotional side of being human. Russell understood that there are many styles to get your message out in a profound and effective way while making a rationally compelling argument.

What are we to do with an unthinking and uncaring world when we find ourselves to be intelligent moral agents in that world? Russell worded this issue by wondering what “a strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurrying through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother.” The planet that bore us from the random matter and natural selection of species does not have the capability to understand or care about what sentient human beings care about or do in their lives. This can be a lonely thought; to be the only beings contemplating existence and meaning while the world that created us is oblivious to our struggles and suffering. More importantly, it is a depressing realization that our suffering, or the human condition, is simply a product of random collisions and reactions instead of a creation by a similar minded being to us with an interest in our lives. No one will congratulate us on our accomplishments and everything humanity has accomplished will one day crumble without meaning. According to Bertrand Russell “the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” If the world was not created with a purpose and all of our accomplishments will slip away unnoticed due to time, it seems that any action or accomplishment reached is pointless and human lives are meaningless.

Because we have the capacity to act with purpose or an end in mind we easily assume that the actions and events in the world around us are put in place by a similar mind to ours with an end in mind. For this reason humans assume there must be another being with a purpose in mind that set our world in motion. With this concept of a god, one that has a purpose for our existence, our happiness and suffering are no longer meaningless and in vain but are important to something other than ourselves.

But something simply creating or setting the world in motion is not enough to satisfy the human need for purpose and understanding. Bertrand Russell believes that the savage “having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship.” By placating these gods, the savage attempts to effect the assumed desires of Nature towards a more favorable outcome than suffering, but the savage soon learns that no matter what they sacrifice, Nature is omnipotent, blind, and def to their wishes. No matter how the savage attempts to pacify the gods, he will still suffer. When the savage experiences this injustice he comes to the realization that the world around him has no concept of the good and judgment and that this concept of good is unique to humanity. When man realizes that his ideals do not match reality, “man creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be.” By doing this man creates a solution to the disconnect he sees between the actual world and the ideal created by our imagination and concept of the good. With an omnipotent and omni–benevolent god, people seem to think they have a purpose to live for and strive to accomplish that purpose that would not have had before which makes all of the suffering easier to bear if one believes it is for the good in the end and not simply a purpose given by a possibly evil or uncaring god.

Russell asserts that “the world of fact, after all, is not good”. If the world is not good but is instead “blind” to our suffering, Russell argues that we must choose to either worship Force or Goodness. Russell asks, “Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?” Whatever concept of God we create or whatever is deemed praiseworthy must either truly exist in this world and not be good because creation is not good, or it is good but only exists in our minds which are the only things contemplating the good. Here Russell appeals to the world around us which works and continues without regard to human wishes which is incompatible with the concept of a good creator, so if there is a creator it is not good and therefore does not deserve worship. If anything is worth worshiping or is worth admiration it must be the good in our minds because it is above the unthinking creation that is without such a value.

According to Russell, “the worship of force, to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us, is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe”. Humans have ideals of truth, beauty, and perfection “which life does not permit us to attain, though none of these things meet with the approval of the unconscious universe.” Because of the physical restraints on our bodies in this deterministic world, we cannot be free from the “tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free”. We are unique and free from the cold deterministic world in our thoughts with our reason and imagination that lead us to question and create good and morality untouched by the uncaring world around us. Essentially Bertrand Russell is arguing here that devoting worship toward or focusing on our own created good God or moral intellectual abilities is better than submitting to and being trapped by Nature which keeps us from higher thoughts.

After a person realizes that Nature may have power, but we have the more important love of the good, Russell says there is a disconnect between what the individual sees as objective facts about our world and our idea of how the world would be if brought about by a caring universe. This disconnect breeds “a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods [which] seems necessary to the assertion of freedom.” By passionately hating the forces of Nature or the gods, the individual is then trapped by that hatred and their thoughts are “occupied with an evil world.” To truly be free the individual must be rid of desires for the ideal to actualize in the world. By doing this our thoughts are free to contemplate such things as beauty and the good as thoughts should, and in this manner our thoughts are not held down by the Power of Nature. Even though our thoughts should not be weighted down with desires in the world, and even though we should not prostrate ourselves before Evil and brute Force, there is a point where a “degree of submission to Power is not only just and right; it is the very gate of wisdom”, Bertrand Russell asserts. By resigning to the objective fact that we are powerless before Nature’s Power, we are saving ourselves from the pain brought about when we desire in vain that which is impossible to be given by the world or Fate.

But we cannot worship our ideals solely by renunciation of desire for actualized ideals. In order to achieve the wisdom that Russell believes we can gain from renunciation of selfish desires for the ideal, we must also use our rational capabilities and our imagination in order to contemplate goodness and beauty which are beyond the world in which we are bound. Russell illustrates this by writing that the temple of wisdom that we are attempting to reach “appears in the realm of imagination, in music, in architecture in the untroubled kingdom of reason and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows, remote from the touch of sorrow, remote from the fear of change, remote from the failures and disenchantments of the world of fact.” Here we see the dramatic writing style and poeticism in this essay were one would expect dry arguments that simply appeal to rationality. Such dramatic writing is common in existential literature. In this passage we have passion portrayed through quick succession of ideas and repetition coupled with the assumption that the audience will agree with such statements that are understood to be intuitively correct without much exploration. I believe this is mostly because Russell assumes that existential angst is a part of the human condition and is therefore common to and understood by all. Still, Russell’s point is elegantly illustrated. It is in the mind with its emotion, reason, and imagination that the soul of an individual finds freedom, rest, beauty, good, and wisdom all free from and more praiseworthy than the power of blind Nature.

Russell then asserts that in despair “all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.”It is through suffering that we define our existence and come to fully understand the meaning or implications of the fact that we do exist in all our rationality and our flaws. The inadequacies of the world when held up to human ideals and concepts of good leaves our thoughts and imagination as the only thing left to worship and give us purpose. Human thought is the measure of things essentially. We create our existence and give ourselves value and purpose even if our blind uncaring mother has no purpose to give us. This is the main point of existentialism. We have the power, the intelligence, and the need to create our own purpose and act according to the good which we have created. There is no need for a supreme being to pass down judgment and give meaning because the world or creation does not offer those to us so we create Good and purpose ourselves.

Bertrand Russell’s concept of a god worth worshiping is not an actual deity, but is in fact the unique concept of good that humans have because of their unique intellect and creativity. This leaves little room for religion acting as the moral compass for individuals. Russell does not argue that religion cannot shape and steer action toward a positive end, but he does argue that morality exists prior to and independent of religious beliefs and practices. By demonstrating the incompatibility of prominent religious beliefs and the actual world, we see that morality and the good are judged on a level separate from religious dogmas or theologies suggesting that the concept is independent of such social institutions. Russell even mentions in a small passage that many wrongs have been done to individuals because of religion. He describes bloody and brutal sacrifices to the god Moloch which Russell believes came about because of the misdirected worship toward Power and a focus on things of this world that are not as worthy as our own thoughts.

Existence, self-given-purpose, and a focus on individual suffering and responsibility are the main focus of this essay because Russell is trying to assert the existential decree that life is what we make it and we have no choice in that matter. There is no god to hand down assignments and there is no opting out of making choices that shape our lives and meaning. Our existence and meaning are only salvaged from the absurdity of suffering in an uncaring world by our choice to free ourselves from the omnipotence of our uncaring mother and to continue to hold our ideals against that uncaring power because we exist, we are unique, and we have the mind and the power to create purpose and live moral lives according to the concept of the good we can all gain from suffering and contemplation.

1 Comment

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One response to “Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”

  1. Terrence

    Thanks for this. I found the actual essay a bit too abstract on it’s own; somewhere in all the imagery I started missing his typical dry, but to the point, style of writing. One on his other essay, ‘Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is’ would also be nice, I found it to be a little disorganized, although I know what his intention was; shedding some light in the corners might be worth it.

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