Bertrand Russell Builds a Golden Image

101 years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called A Free Man’s Worship. We read it for my Ethics class and this was my short response. The original here: http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/archives/a%20free%20man’s%20worship.htm

 Bertrand Russell quotes Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, in which humans deny the world’s absurdity: “’There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts.”

Russell is deeply uncomfortable with the absurdity and ugliness of life, a howling abyss which begins and ends in non-being. But he attempts to build a safe habitation for the soul “in the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” If a man cuts his dreams and aspirations down to size, he can preserve them, even as he unflinchingly accepts their emptiness and his frailty. He can, in other words, bring harmony out of chaos by human efforts.

It seems to me, though, as if Russell is attempting to do the same thing as the men in Dr. Faustus. They created a God to worship and a divine plan to help make their lives seem less meaningless, while Russell creates “a temple for the worship of our own ideals,” in the “untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows.” For someone who prides himself on accepting the horror if life without resort to delusion, he seems very set on transmuting the universe “in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay.”

But for Russell, this new image is as powerless and meaningless as the old idol—more beautiful, more pleasing to the imagination—but a delusion and a lie just the same.  

One sentence summary: Man is a squib of gas in the silence of the cosmos; it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow of mortality fall, “the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”

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