Bertrand Russell, who lived from May 18th 1872 – to February 2nd 1970, a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian and social critic, was one of those rare individuals who seldom spoke without the sounding of wisdom as the result. He was an atheist and a champion of morality and reason, and to this day is a respected and oft quoted figure.
In 1951 Bertrand Russell published a piece in the New York Times Magazine entitled, The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism. In this article he proposes a secular version of the Ten Commandments:
1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
I have great admiration for these ‘commandments’, and of course we must take the word commandments with a grain of salt in respect to the true spirit in which Bertrand Russell conveyed his wisdom and articulated his methodology of honest thought and discourse. Frequently he points to authority as a poor well from which to sup upon the truth. While you can cow another person, or society into accepting your beliefs by appealing to authority, or masquerading as the authority, you do your fellow humans a disservice, robbing them of the opportunity to gain knowledge and the utility of thought through introspection and the application of critical thinking.
Bertrand Russell, ‘A Timeless Intellectual Force For Intellectual Honesty In the Atheist Community’
Bertrand Russell takes care to reiterate the need to think beyond the scope of the commonly accepted doctrines of society, pointing toward the Universal truth that knowledge is always evolving, and thoughts that were once considered blasphemy or eccentric are often vindicated through the noble pursuit of science and the fearless pursuit of truth. He too advocates intellectual honesty, warning evidence should never be suppressed in favor of appearing to be right, for in doing this history is certain to prove you the fool, and a dishonest one at that.
There is a liberation in having the character to admit when you’re wrong. Others will respect you for it, for those who grasp to false knowledge for fear of being diminished in the eyes of others are certain to make those fears a reality.
Perhaps the most important of his commandments, and the cornerstone of those to follow, is ‘Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.’ A simple examination of this statement will yield the conclusion that to be absolutely certain of what you know bars the way to further insight, or an evolution of thought on that which you take for granted as known. To be certain of a belief has the consequence of being defensive and reactionary to any challenge, no matter how well intentioned and coherent, against the certainty of your presuppositions.
This version of the ten commandments put forth by Bertrand Russell serves as a reminder and a fine example that a well intentioned human with no claim to divine inspiration can put forth a series of intellectual principles that incites no violence and promotes honest discourse and a humanitarian disposition.
And now, an interview with the man himself.