Bertrand Russell, a philosopher, social critic, historian, and logician, has long been one of the most influential people in my life. A noted humanist, atheist, and rationalist, he is the model for my own aspirations: to value love, knowledge, and compassion as the greatest pursuits in one’s life. Indeed, my personal mission statement, and that for this blog, is based upon these principles, which he so eloquently espouses in the following tract:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
I should hope to live a life so rich in goodness and enlightenment. Few men have ever been as ethical and moral. Furthermore, Russell gives lie to the popular notion that a rational mindset devoid of religious belief is too cold, calculating, or prone to nihilism to be compassionate and sympathetic. Empathy, love, and the sincere desire to see other people be happy and prosperous are not predicated on any particular dogma – such things should pervade all of humanity, regardless of religious, political, or ideological persuasions. Virtue for virtue’s sake.
I could devote an entire blog on the prodigious amount of writing and thought that emerged from this great thinker, and I’ll no doubt be revisiting him more than once in the future. If anyone would like at least a sample of his wisdom, visit this collection of his sayings and observations.