Russell on the Fear of Thinking

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. ~ Bertrand Russell (“Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel,” pp. 178-179)

I don’t usually devote a column to a discussion of a quote but I had forgotten about this old chestnut and thought it merited comment. Let me begin by saying that I doubt that people fear thought more than they fear torture, cancer, or the death of their children. So I don’t think Russell meant this literally. But with that caveat out of the way, let’s proceed.

Russell thought that most people don’t like to think, as another of his quotes reveals: “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.” When he says that people “fear thought,” he is giving a reason why many people don’t like to think. Of course, persons reject thinking because of laziness or inability or other reasons too, but fear is a major inhibitor of thought. But why?

People reject thinking not just because it is hard, but because they worry it will undermine their long-held, comfortable beliefs. Having taught university philosophy for more than 30 years I have seen this first hand. Students often dread thinking about controversial topics like politics, ethics, and religion.

But probe even deeper. If you start thinking, you may reject not only god and country but love, friendship, freedom, and more. You may discover that what is called love is reducible to chemical attraction; that friendship is mutual reciprocity; that morality is what those in power decree; that messengers of the gods are often psychologically deranged; that freedom is an illusion; and that life is absurd. Thought breeds the fear that we will lose our equilibrium, that we will be forced to see the world anew. We fear thinking because what we and others think matters to us. As Camus put it “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”

I used to tell my students to not believe that ideas and thoughts don’t matter—that they only exist in the ivory tower with no significance for the real world—as if beer and football are more important. No. Thoughts and ideas incite political revolutions; they inspire people to sacrifice their lives or kill others for just and unjust causes alike. They determine how one treats both friends and enemies, and whether family is more important than money.

Even the most abstract thinking affects the world. Non-euclidean geometry or symbolic logic are about as abstract as thinking gets—yet you can’t understand Einsteinian theory of gravity without the one, or run computers without the other. Thinking matters to us, to others, and to our world. That’s one reason why we fear it so much—it shakes our foundations.

But not just any thinking will do. If we truly love truth we will engage in careful and conscientious thinking informed by the best reason and evidence available—our dignity consists, in large part, on good thinking. Almost fifty years ago I entered a university where the following inscription was etched on its library’s wall. I have never forgotten it:

This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

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5 thoughts on “Russell on the Fear of Thinking

  1. I’ll have to go with Albert Einstein here who said he did some of his best thinking in the shower. As for the rest of this Russell quote, I’ll think about it tomorrow…in the shower.

  2. This article is certainly one of the most powerful things I have read. Thank you.

    Russell stated that thought is “indifferent to authority”. Unfortunately, during these stupid (sorry if I am in the habit of repeating this annoying word) times, this “indifference to authority ” basically means that -stupid- thought is indifferent to authority: clearly not the type and quality of thought Russell meant, but in fact worlds apart from it.

    ” But not just any thinking will do. If we truly love truth we will engage in careful and conscientious thinking informed by the best reason and evidence available”.

    Unfortunately, extremely few people are capable of doing this, and no suprise, they are the smartest ones. I too find myself “guilty” of believing what I like, but the difference is that in all cases I back up these preferences with real life experiences and facts. The real life experience is not as solid as “facts and evidence” ( i.e. what is called anecdotal evidence); nevertheless, anecdotal evidence is not “non-evidence” , but merely a weaker type of evidence.

    Thinking “I believe in God”, or “Covid is a lie”, is worlds apart from thinking “You should regard life as a kind of hell, in which you can consider yourself lucky if you have a little room to keep away from the fire”. The latter statement I can argue for by illustrating things that happened to me or that I see happening AROUND me (in fact, more often than not, it’s the latter case).

    As you wrote elsewhere: “Some things are more true than others.” (probably not exact words). The point is that people like us try to make a difference about what is more or less true, whereas people who are, frankly, feeble minded, aren’t even capable of discerning what is true, from what is obviously false. I think there is a chasm between these two types of people, and of course, we can clearly see what the majority is comprised of. And the ensuing picture is truly disappointing.

    ” I detest people who are obviously incapable of thinking. You see them either tapping on a fork, playing cards, or beating the Devil’s stick. ” -Schopenhauer (quoting from memory).

    Thank you for your excellent article!

  3. Sometimes we simply don’t notice things. We don’t notice how the world is turning. What is the world? It is a ball of rock with a very thin biosphere around it, hurtling through space around a star.
    The star is spinning through a galaxy; the galaxy is spinning through galaxy clusters—and so on. No one knows where it ends, and no one knows how it all started. So what meaning could there be? What security could one find living on a ball of rock spinning through space?

  4. ” Let me begin by saying that I doubt that people fear thought more than they fear torture”

    In regard to Russell’s statement about torture, I was just thinking how he actually might have had a point about it, just think of religious people engaging in self-flagellation. That’s essentially torture, and even self inflicted (might that be easier to bear than if inflicted by someone else? I have no idea and obviously won’t care to find out, etc.).

    Even in regard to some people preferring the death of their children, Russell might have alluded to the tale in the Bible where X (don’t remember who) offered their sons to be slaughtered or daughters to be raped, all in the name of “God” or because some “angels” ordered them to do so.

    I have not read that particular writing by Russell, though, so maybe I am wrong. Anyways, just a thought. Thank you for your article.

    PS. and wow, how about people like the Kamikaze, or people who strap a bomb on themselves, etc etc. None of them seem they could think, and maybe it was this kind of people that Russell alluded to.

    Speaking of Russell, I have just found something really interesting, called “Logicomix”, basically comics with Russell in them! Needless to say, I will get a copy, used to love reading Marvel comics when I was a child, so it all seems fitting 🙂

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