Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, atheist, and social critic. He is, along with his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the founders of analytic philosophy and he is widely held to be one of the 20th century’s most important logicians. He co-authored, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics in logic. His writings were voluminous and covered a vast range of topics including politics, ethics, and religion. Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” Russell is thought by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.
Russell’s view of the meaning of life is set forth most clearly in his 1903 essay: “A Free Man’s Worship.” It is truly one of the classics of the meaning of life literature. It begins with an imaginary conversation about the history of creation between Mephistopheles, the devil, and Dr. Faustus, a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for power and wealth. In Russell’s story, God had grown weary of the praise of the angels and thought it might be more amusing to gain the praise of beings that suffered. Hence God created the world.
Russell describes the epic cosmic drama, and how after eons of time the earth and human beings came to be. Humans, seeing how fleeting and painful life is before their inevitable death, vowed that there must be some purpose outside of this world. And though following their instincts led to sin and the need for God’s forgiveness, humans believed that God had a good plan leading to a harmonious ending for humankind. God, convinced of human gratitude for the suffering he had caused, destroyed man and all creation.
Russell argues that this not-so-uplifting story is consistent with the world-view of modern science. To elaborate he penned some of the most pessimistic and often quoted lines in the history of twentieth-century philosophy:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.[i]
Still, despite the ultimate triumph of vast universal forces, humans are superior to this unconscious power in important ways—they are free and self-aware. This is the source of their value. But most humans do not recognize this, instead choosing to placate and appease the gods in hope of reprieve from everlasting torment. They refuse to believe that their gods do not deserve praise, worshiping them despite the pain the gods inflict. Ultimately they fear the power of the gods, but such power is not a reason for respect and worship. For respect to be justified, creation must really be good. But the reality of the world belies this claim; the world is not good and submitting to its blind power enslaves and ultimately kills us.
Instead, let us courageously admit that the world is bad, Russell says, but nevertheless love truth, goodness, beauty, and perfection, despite the fact that the universe will destroy such things. By rejecting this universal power and the death it brings, we find our true freedom. While our lives will be taken from us by the universe, our thoughts can be free in the face of this power. In this way, we maintain our dignity.
However, we should not respond to the disparity between the facts of the world and its ideal form with indignation, for this binds our thoughts to the evil of the universe. Rather we ought to follow the Stoics, resigned to the fact that life does not give us all we want. By renouncing desires we achieve resignation, while the freedom of our thoughts can still create art, philosophy, and beauty. But even these goods ought not to be desired too ardently, or we will remain indignant; rather we must be resigned to accept that our free thoughts are all that life affords in a hostile universe. We must be resigned to the existence of evil, and to the fact that death, pain, and suffering will take everything from us. The courageous bear their suffering nobly and without regret; their submission to power an expression of their wisdom.
Still, we need not be entirely passive in our renunciation. We can actively create music, art, poetry, and philosophy, thereby incorporating the ephemeral beauty of this world into our hearts, achieving the most that humans can achieve. Yet such achievements are difficult, for we must first encounter despair and dashed hopes so that we may be somewhat freed from the Fate that will engulf us all—freed by the wisdom, insight, joy, and tenderness that our encounter with darkness brings. As Russell puts it:
When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rule of Fate and to recognize that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay.[ii]
In our minds, we can create beauty in the face of Fate and tragedy, and thereby thwart nature to some extent. Life is tragedy, but we need not give in; instead, we can find the “beauty of tragedy” and embrace it. In death and pain, there is sanctity, awe, and a feeling of the sublime. Such feelings allow us to reject petty and trivial desires, and to transcend the loneliness and futility we experience when confronted with vast forces which are both indifferent and inimical to us. To take the tragedy of life into one’s heart, and respond with renunciation, wisdom, and charity, is the ultimate victory for man: “To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things—this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship.”[iii] For Russell the contemplation of Fate and tragedy are the way we subdue them.
As for our fellow companions, all we can do is to ease their sorrow and sufferings, and not add to the misery that Fate and death will bring. In this, we can take pride. Nonetheless, the universe continues its inevitable march toward its own death, and humans are condemned to lose everything. All we can do is to cherish those brief moments when thought and love ennoble us, and reject the cowardly terror of less virtuous persons who worship Fate. We must ignore the tyranny of reality that continually undermines all of our hopes and aspirations. As Russell so eloquently puts it:
Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish … the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.[iv]
Summary – There is no objective meaning in life. We should be resigned to this, but strive nonetheless to actively create beauty, truth, and perfection. In this way, we achieve some freedom from the eternal forces that will destroy us.
[i] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 56.
[ii] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 59.
[iii] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 60.
[iv] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 61.