Mortals and Others

Mortals and Others: American Essays is a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell originally published in the New York American (1931–1935).

Quotes edit

Note: Page numbers refer to the Routledge Classics 2009 edition.
It is generally admitted that most grown-up people, however regrettably, will try to have a good time.
  • It is generally admitted that most grown-up people, however regrettably, will try to have a good time.
    • "Who May Use Lipstick?" (14 September 1931)
  • Most people learn nothing from experience, except confirmation of their prejudices.
    • "The Lessons of Experience" (23 September 1931)
  • If we spent half an hour every day in silent immobility, I am convinced that we should conduct all our affairs, personal, national, and international, far more sanely than we do at present.
    • "The decay of meditation" (4 November 1931), pp. 34–35
  • Most men, without inquiring into the merits of the particular candidate, vote as they always have voted, and always have voted as their fathers always voted. This applies to reformers just as much as to conservatives. I myself, in England, vote for the Labour Party because my father was a Radical; my father was a Radical because his father was a Liberal; my grandfather was a Liberal because his father was a Whig; and he was a Whig because his ancestors obtained abbey land from Henry VIII. Having derived my radicalism from such a mercenary source, shall I turn Conservative? The very idea appals me.
    • "On politicians" (16 December 1931), pp. 44–45
  • Expect of the young the very best of which they are capable, and you will get it. Expect less, and it is only too likely that you will get no more than you expect.
    • "On national greatness" (20 January 1932), pp. 52–53
  • Why do people read? The answer, as regards the great majority, is: 'They don't.'
    • "Flight from Reality" (2 March 1932)
  • There is a popular notion that vegetarians are mild and gentle folk who would not hurt a fly. Perhaps they would not hurt a fly. As to this, I cannot speak, but their charity towards flies certainly does not extend to human beings. Perhaps the most powerful argument in favour of a vegetarian diet is the vigour and pugnacity which it gives to those who practice it.
    • "On the fierceness of vegetarians" (13 April 1932), pp. 77–78
  • There have been four sorts of ages in the world's history. There have been ages when everybody thought they knew everything, ages when nobody thought they knew anything, ages when clever people thought they knew much and stupid people thought they knew little, and ages when stupid people thought they knew much and clever people thought they knew little. The first sort of age is one of stability, the second of slow decay, the third of progress, and the fourth of disaster.
    • "On modern uncertainty" (20 July 1932), pp. 103–104
  • All the higher animals have methods of expressing pleasure, but human beings alone express pleasure when they do not feel it. This is called politeness and is reckoned among the virtues. One of the most disconcerting things about infants is that they only smile when they are pleased. They stare at visitors with round grave eyes, and when the visitors try to amuse them, they display astonishment at the foolish antics of adults. But as soon as possible, their parents teach them to seem pleased by the company of people to whom they are utterly indifferent.
    • "On smiling" (17 August 1932), pp. 111–112
In a just world, there would be no possibility of 'charity'.
  • A physician would not cure his patients more effectually if he were angry with them for being ill, and the criminal law is not more effective when it is inspired by anger against the criminal... All arguments for corporal punishment spring from anger, not from scientific understanding. As men become more scientific, such barbaric practices will be no longer tolerated.
    • "On corporal punishment" (7 September 1932), pp. 115–116
  • I have often wondered what turkeys would think of Christmas if they were capable of thought. I am afraid they would hardly regard it as a season of peace and goodwill.
    • "If animals could talk" (14 September 1932), pp. 117–118
  • There is no impersonal reason for regarding the interests of human beings as more important than those of animals. We can destroy animals more easily than they can destroy us; that is the only solid basis of our claim to superiority. We value art and science and literature, because these are things in which we excel. But whales might value spouting, and donkeys might maintain that a good bray is more exquisite than the music of Bach. We cannot prove them wrong except by the exercise of arbitrary power. All ethical systems, in the last analysis, depend upon weapons of war.
    • "If animals could talk" (14 September 1932), pp. 117–118
  • In a just world, there would be no possibility of 'charity'.
    • "On charity" (2 November 1932), pp. 129–130
  • Great writers and great orators have done incalculable harm... If eloquence could be made illegal, the dangers of popular government would be much less than they are. As, however, this solution is impossible, the only way out lies in an educational system which cultivates an inquiring and scientific outlook. Perhaps, after another two or three centuries, this way out may be tried.
    • "On reverence" (9 November 1932), pp. 131–132
  • The supposed wisdom of proverbs is mainly imaginary. As a rule, proverbs go in pairs which say opposite things. The opposite of 'More haste, less speed' is 'A stitch in time saves nine.' The opposite of 'Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves,' 'Penny wise, pound foolish.' The opposite of 'Two heads are better than one,' is 'Too many cooks spoil the broth.' And so on.
    The great advantage of a proverb in argument is that it is supposed to be incontrovertible, as embodying the quintessential sagacity of our ancestors. But when once you have realised that proverbs go in pairs which say opposite things you can never again be downed by a proverb; you merely quote the opposite.
    • "On proverbs" (16 November 1932), pp. 133–134
  • Wealth can often purchase not only the semblance of love but its reality. This is unjust and undesirable but nonetheless a fact.
    • "Love and Money" (14 December 1932), pp. 141–142
  • If there are among my readers any young men or women who aspire to become leaders of thought in their generation, I hope they will avoid certain errors into which I fell in youth for want of good advice.
    When I wished to form an opinion upon a subject, I used to study it, weigh the arguments on different sides, and attempt to reach a balanced conclusion. I have since discovered that this is not the way to do things. A man of genius knows it all without the need of study; his opinions are pontifical and depend for their persuasiveness upon literary style rather than argument. It is necessary to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence that is considered a proof of strength. It is essential to appeal to prejudices and passions of which men have begun to feel ashamed and to do this in the name of some new ineffable ethic... Above all, whatever is most ancient should be dished up as the very latest thing...
    Ignore fact and reason, live entirely in the world of your own fantastic and myth-producing passions; do this wholeheartedly and with conviction, and you will become one of the prophets of your age.
    • "How to become a man of genius" (28 December 1932), pp. 145–146
  • The flight of time, the transitoriness of all things, the empire of death, are the foundations of tragic feeling. Ever since men began to reflect deeply upon human life, they have sought various ways of escape: in religion, in philosophy, in poetry, in history – all of which attempt to give eternal value to what is transient. While personal memory persists, in some degree, it postpones the victory of time and gives persistence, at least in recollection, to the momentary event. The same impulse carried further causes kings to engrave their victories on monuments of stone, poets to relate old sorrows in words whose beauty (they hope) will make them immortal, and philosophers to invent systems providing that time is no more than illusion. Vain effort! The stone crumbles, the poet's words become unintelligible, and the philosopher's system are forgotten. Nonetheless, striving after eternity has ennobled the passing moment.
    • "On old friends" (4 January 1933), pp. 147–148
  • One thing constant throughout the ages is the belief that old people are tiresome and absurd – a most wholesome belief, since it is the cause of progress. The only periods for which there is no hope are the periods in which the young respect the old.
    • "Changing fashions in reserve" (8 February 1933), pp. 157–158
  • I do not know whether dogs can think, or what thinking is, or whether human beings can think. But whether human beings can think or not, I know that those who love dogs think that dogs can think. This, I am afraid, is the sum total of my contribution to human knowledge on this important subject.
    • "Do Dogs Think?" (15 June 1932), pp. 181–182
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • Brute force plays a much larger part in the government of the world than it did before 1914, and what is especially alarming, force tends increasingly to fall into the hands of those who are enemies of civilization. The danger is profound and terrible; it cannot be waved aside with easy optimism.
    The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points. This was not always the case.
    • "The Triumph of Stupidity" (10 May 1933), pp. 203–204
  • I think myself that what is instinctive in race hatred is fear: fear of anything strange, fear of anything threatening our established way of living. When there is no occasion for fear, race hatred does not arise. If the world were stable and everyone's economic position were secure, I do not for a moment believe that the different races of the world would hate each other.
    • "On Race Hatred" (24 May 1933)
  • Race hatred is one of the most cruel and least civilised emotions to which men in the mass are liable, and it is of the utmost importance for human progress that every possible method of diminishing it should be adopted.
    • "On Race Hatred" (24 May 1933)
  • When an illness is incurable and painful, and makes useful activity impossible, it is mere cruelty to prolong life; at any rate if the sufferer is anxious to die, or has lost his reason. The prolongation of his life can be neither a happiness to himself nor a benefit to society, and is therefore equally unjustified from the standpoint of the individual and from that of the community.
    • "On Euthanasia" (1 January 1934), pp. 267–268
  • Just as political democracy consists, not in complete political independence for each citizen, but in joint management of political affairs, so economic democracy must consist, not in economic independence, but in collective control over economic affairs. If democracy is ever to become a reality, this extension from politics to economics must be made. It is only because so many of our ways of thought are still pre-industrial that this is not obvious to every one. But experience is rapidly making it obvious, and the battle for economic democracy will be the next great struggle for justice in human affairs.
    • "On equality" (8 January 1934), pp. 269–270
  • [The economic power of fathers] ought not to exist. Parents ought to receive an allowance from the State for the maintenance of their children, and education, however advanced, ought to be free.
    • "The Father of the Family" (15 January 1934), pp. 271–272
  • Competition, as an ideal, had its part to play in the pioneer days of both industrialism and Western agriculture. But its day is past, and a new type of man is needed. The problem of producing goods in sufficient quantities to make general material well-being technically possible was solved by the men of the competitive era. The problem that remains is one of distribution, not of production; it can be solved only by economic justice, not by economic war. For this problem, the mentality of the competitive era is unfitted, since it is only to be solved by co-operation.
    • "Competitive Ethics" (19 March 1934), pp. 281–282
  • I remember a man whom I knew when I was young, who was small, anaemic, and timid, but used to proclaim himself an anarchist. He never realised that his whole existence depended upon police protection, or that in a world without government he would be robbed of all his possessions and left to starve.
    • "Back to Nature?" (30 April 1934), p. 287
  • The most painful claims are those that are sentimental: sons are told that they are ungrateful if they marry women whom their mothers dislike. Mothers who use this argument – and they are far from rare – will of course feel jealous of any woman whom their sons love and will therefore only acquiesce in a marriage without affection. The son's unloved wife will seek compensation in her sons, and so it goes on.
    • "Parental Affection" (7 May 1934), pp. 289–290
  • Human nature is still, to a very great extent, regarded irrationally because it is pleasant to regard people as objects of praise and blame.
    • "Irrational Opinions" (20 July 1934), pp. 293–294
  • In view of population statistics, the most desirable stocks ought to be kept poor and ignorant and politically powerless [so that they are apt to breed more]. I commend this solution to our modern eugenical nationalists.
    • "Race and Nationality" (10 August 1934), pp. 299–300
  • Rationality is shown not so much in what you believe as in how you believe it. You are rational if you believe it on evidence and as firmly as the evidence warrants and if, further, your belief leads you to act only in ways which are no obstacle to the discovery of error.
    • "What to Believe" (24 August 1934), p. 304
  • Most women...have a nest-building instinct connected with love: they want a habitation of their own, with their own furniture, their own linen cupboard, and their own husband and children. Most men, conversely, are more contented when they have a wife and children for whom they provide. The whole pattern is primitive: the cave man hunted, the cave woman stayed in the cave and cooked what her husband brought from the chase. In the fulfilment of such ancient needs there is a profound satisfaction which cannot be obtained by a continual series of unimportant pleasures.
    • "Instinct in Human Beings" (31 August 1934), pp. 305–306
  • If I were a comet, I should consider the men of our present age a degenerate breed.
    • "On Comets" (14 September 1934), p. 309
  • To understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be, is the beginning of wisdom.
    • "Censorship by Progressives" (11 October 1934), pp. 317–318
  • In India, a holy man is usually one who sits almost naked by the roadside, living meagrely upon the alms of those who pass by. His saintly qualities are exhibited in negations: he cares nothing for material possessions, he does not strive or struggle, he ignores the body for the sake of the spirit. All the complicated apparatus of civilised life is unnecessary to him... This form of sanctification would be both difficult and disagreeable in a cold climate, where the fakir's nudity would soon cause his death and his immobility would make his blood stagnate and his limbs freeze. Clothing and warmth and shelter, with us, are not luxuries but necessaries; activity, however the mystic may view it as a bondage to matter, is essential to health. Even extreme ascetics choose virtues which are in some way attractive. In the tropics it is pleasant to think that holiness is to be achieved by sitting still; in the north the saint prefers to think that holiness and hustle go together... Are our ethics better in this than those of tropical civilisations? I see no way of deciding this question. The only thing that seems clear is that our morality is dominated by the difficulty of keeping warm, and that of India by the difficulty of keeping cool. As Lao-tse said about 600 BC: 'Activity conquers cold, but stillness conquers heat.' This seems the last word on the subject.
    • "Climate and Saintliness" (26 October 1934), pp. 321–322
  • The truth is many-sided, and many different temperaments are required for discovering it. For while truths may be suggested by emotion, they are tested by scientific reason, which, as a coldly impersonal social product, is the resultant of many conflicting kinds of bias. While genius is individual, sanity is social.
    • "Insanity and Insight" (16 November 1934), pp. 328–329
  • The essence of good manners consists in making it clear that one has no wish to hurt. When it is clearly necessary to hurt, it must be done in such a way as to make it evident that the necessity is felt to be regrettable.
    • "Good Manners and Hypocrisy" (14 December 1934), pp. 337–338
  • Manners consist in pretending that we think as well of others as of ourselves. Manners are necessary because, as a rule, there is a pretence; when our good opinion of others is genuine, manners look after themselves.
    Perhaps instead of teaching manners, parents should teach the statistical probability that the person you are speaking to is just as good as you are. It is difficult to believe this; very few of us do, in our instincts, believe it. One's own ego seems so incomparably more sensitive, more perceptive, wiser and more profound than other people's. Yet there must be very few of whom this is true, and it is not likely that oneself is one of those few. There is nothing like viewing oneself statistically as a means both to good manners and to good morals.
    • "On Being Insulting" (21 December 1934), pp. 339–340
  • It is only in politics that the old certainties survive. Although no two people agree, we are all quite positive as to who is good and who is bad among statesmen. I wonder how long it will be before doubt invades this last refuge of unshakeable conviction. Perhaps when that day comes we shall learn to live at peace with our neighbours, content to compare hypotheses instead of demonstrating rival dogmas by the rival colours of our shirts.
    • "The Decrease of Knowledge" (19 April 1935), pp. 343–344