Bertrand Russell – My Religious Reminiscences, Essays

The intellectual temper of the ’nineties was very different from that of my father’s youth: in some ways better, but in many ways worse. There was no longer, among the abler young men, any preoccupation with the details of the Christian faith; they were almost all Agnostics, and not interested in discussions as to the divinity of Christ, or in the details of Biblical criticism. I remember a feeling of contempt when I learned that Henry Sidgwick as a young man, being desirous of knowing whether God exists, thought it neces- sary, as a first step, to learn Semitic languages, which seemed to me to show an insufficient sense of logical relevance. But I was willing, as were most of my friends, to listen to a metaphysical argument for or against God or immortality or free will; and it was only after acquiring a new logic that I ceased to think such arguments worth examining.

The non-academic heroes of the ’nineties—Ibsen, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and (for a time) Oscar Wilde—differed very greatly from those of the previ- ous generation. The great men of the ’sixties were all ‘good’ men: they were patient, painstaking, in favour of change only when a detailed and careful investigation had persuaded them that it was necessary in some particular respect. They advocated reforms, and in general their advocacy was success- ful, so that the world improved very fast; but their temper was not that of rebels. I do not mean that no great rebels existed; Marx and Dostoievsky, to mention only two, did most of their best work in the ’sixties. But these men were almost unknown among cultured people in their own day, and their influence belongs to a much later date. The men who commanded respect in England in the ’sixties—Darwin, Huxley, Newman, the authors of Essays and Reviews, etc.—were not fundamentally at war with society; they could meet, as they did in the ‘Metaphysical Society’, to discuss urbanely whether there is a God. At the end they divided; and Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, on being asked afterwards whether there is a God, replied: ‘Yes, we had a very good majority.’ In those days democracy ruled even over Heaven.

But in the ’nineties young men desired something more sweeping and passionate, more bold and less bland. The impulse towards destruction and violence which has swept over the world began in the sphere of literature. Ibsen, Strindberg, and Nietzsche were angry men—not primarily angry about this or that, but just angry. And so they each found an outlook on life that justified anger. The young admired their passion, and found in it an outlet for their own feelings of revolt against parental authority. The assertion of freedom seemed sufficiently noble to justify violence; the violence duly ensued, but freedom was lost in the process.

(The Rationalist Annual, 1938, published by C. A. Watts & Co., Ltd.)



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