Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

In 1950 The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bertrand Russell “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” In his presentation Speech, Anders Österling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy proclaimed:

We honour you as a brilliant champion of humanity and free thought, and it is a pleasure for us to see you here on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nobel Foundation. With these words I request you to receive from the hands of His Majesty the King the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1950.

And at the award banquet later that evening, Robin Fåhraeus, Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, added:

Dear Professor Bertrand Russell – We salute you as one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of our age, endowed with just those four characteristics which on another occasion you have regarded to be the criteria of prominent fellow men; namely, vitality, courage, receptivity, and intelligence.

The title of Russell’s acceptance speech was “What Desires Are Politically Important?” He begins by noting that “All human activity is prompted by desire.” Of course you can resist desire from a sense of duty, but only if you desire to be dutiful, thus desire comes first and to understand people’s motives, you must know their desires. In the political sphere the primary desires are for ” … food and shelter and clothing. When these things become very scarce, there is no limit to the efforts that men will make, or to the violence that they will display, in the hope of securing them.” In addition human beings have some limitless, insatiable desires, the most important of which are —acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and love of power.

Acquisitiveness is the wish to possess as much as possible, and no matter how much you acquire, you generally want more. But rivalry is an even stronger motive.  We aren’t satisfied to acquire; we must have more than our rivals. We will risk our lives to ruin our competitors. Vanity also has immense power to motivate, but it too is never satisfied. The more attention we receive, the more we want because we are narcissistic. Moreover, human beings “have even committed the impiety of attributing similar desires to the Deity, whom they imagine avid for continual praise.”

But the greatest of our desires is the love of power. It is an insatiable desire and “Nothing short of omnipotence could satisfy it completely.” But most human beings want power over other people more than anything else. Still the love of power can be useful. For it motivates the pursuit of knowledge and political reformers as well as despots.

There are other secondary desires like the love of excitement  and the desire to escape from boredom. Russell’s wit is ever-present. “it is … chiefly love of excitement which makes the populace applaud when war breaks out; the emotion is exactly the same as at a football match …” This love of excitement is exacerbated by the sedentary lifestyle of so many modern people. Hunter gatherers had little time for boredom, but modern people seek outlets for their love of excitement, often with disastrous results. “When crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to cheer to the echo an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked twenty-five miles that day.” Better to use dance or music or sport as an outlet for our unused physical energy because

… so many … forms [of the desire for excitement] are destructive. It is destructive in those who cannot resist excess in alcohol or gambling. It is destructive when it takes the form of mob violence. And above all it is destructive when it leads to war. It is so deep a need that it will find harmful outlets of this kind unless innocent outlets are at hand. There are such innocent outlets at present in sport, and in politics so long as it is kept within constitutional bounds.

Other “political motives are two closely related passions to which human beings are regrettably prone: I mean fear and hate.” We normally hate what we fear, and fear what we hate. Typically we “both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar.”  We cope with fear by minimizing what’s threatening us or by adopting a Stoic temperament. But “Fear is in itself degrading; it easily becomes an obsession; it produces hate of that which is feared, and it leads headlong to excesses of cruelty.” Russell does grant that people are motivated by  sympathy, adding “Perhaps the best hope for the future of mankind is that ways will be found of increasing the scope and intensity of sympathy.”

Russell summarizes by arguing that politics is about the passions of herds. “The broad instinctive mechanism upon which political edifices have to be built is one of cooperation within the herd and hostility towards other herds.” (An insight of modern biology—in group loyalty and out-group hostility.)  But of course we would be better off if we were motivated by enlightened self-interest. Then

There would be no more wars, no more armies, no more navies, no more atom bombs. There would not be armies of propagandists employed in poisoning the minds of Nation A against Nation B, and reciprocally of Nation B against Nation A .. All this would happen very quickly if men desired their own happiness as ardently as they desired the misery of their neighbours.

But human beings don’t generally act in their collective self-interest, acting instead for what they consider more noble motives.

Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power. When you see large masses of men swayed by what appear to be noble motives, it is as well to look below the surface and ask yourself what it is that makes these motives effective. It is partly because it is so easy to be taken in by a facade of nobility that a psychological inquiry, such as I have been attempting, is worth making. I would say, in conclusion, that if what I have said is right, the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence . . .

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