Men fear thought as they fear nothing else

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 have not dedicated a column to a discussion of a quote in a long time 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, for example, torture, cancer, or the death of their children. But with those caveats 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.

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 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, of good thinking.

Exactly fifty years ago this month 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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6 thoughts on “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else

  1. I am not well-read on Russell. But his pronouncement is so fundamental to human behavior and what Davidson called propositional attitudes—belief being one of those—I can easily see why BR was one of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. Thinking requires work. Many of us are inherently lazy, especially when we are younger. We want to take the easier path because we somehow feel we will miss out on too many things by concentrating of a few. Additionally, I believe that thinkers, themselves, are feared. They inhabit a * what-if- neverland*. Reflecting on this notion helps me understand the angels of our nature, and why some are better than the others.

  2. There is a cancer. Another one which was with us, long before the physiological plague we battle now. The one I address is competition vs.cooperation Not my creation. Russell was connecting it, if loosely, with what has been present, since before he made his claim about thought. You are already there with this. So, anything I might add is window dressing. The way-eastern Europeans are tuned in to it. Were well-so, before 1776. Seems to me…that was not their war.

  3. “Thinkers themselves are feared” Paul Van Pelt
    Those who think should never attempt to discuss ideas with people who can’t think, or said another way, Speak to people in the idioms they understand and are comfortable with, if you do this they may recognize you as an intellectual and also may describe you as a ‘nice’ person or a ‘good’ person, social intelligence is intellectual intelligence, intelligence is instinct in a recognizable forum, instinct has no other purpose than to help you to survive.
    I sometimes detect an animosity towards the concept of instinct in the Educated Classes, a belief that education should negate the need for such primitive processes but it doesn’t, instinct binds us to the web of life, as long as we are part of the web of life we live, when we can’t live anymore, Well that is the end of instincts role in our lives.
    The potential for intelligence is something people are born with, but from being born with potential you need nurture to develop your possibilities, so people should have no pride in their intellect, the fact that you have it is a case of being born in the right place at the right time in range of the nurturing you needed to develop yourself somewhat towards your possibilities!
    When discussing ideas with your peers of course there is no need to constrain yourself, if your peers can’t understand you then they aren’t really your peers.
    We are alive in very stressful times, who is to blame for this, probably no-one, everybody is doing what they think they should do to get what they want! Will they get what they want? Well we will see!
    All the best to all of you Posters, Dr john and Mrs. Messerly also.

  4. I suspect that thought is looking into the pit of hell *despite* fear, cuz not looking has its own pitfalls. This is not so say that what we see is really there 🙂

  5. Dear Dr. Messerly,

    Thank you for your post.

    ”Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible….”. This is really the main thing I like about philosophers: this power they have to throw insight in your face. It might be devastating, as Russell felt when he realized that religion was just silly humbug. It’s painful, but also liberating. It’s like physical exercise….you cannot get stronger by being comfortable; effort and even discomfort is required.

    ”Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.”. I really love that quote. Thought takes guts, and also skill and ability, the courage to stare into the abyss and the unknown. Of course, I don’t find it easy to do, but I am lucky: I just turn to people who have done that, and learn from them. I’ll never be an innovator of thought, but at least I am learning something from the ones who are better than I am. I might not agree with every single thing they said or wrote, but that’s rare!

    ”Russell thought that most people don’t like to think…’. Schopenhauer said the same thing: ‘Most people would rather play dull card card games or beat the devil’s stick by tapping something with a fork, than being still and THINK.’.

    ” Of course, persons reject thinking because of laziness or inability or other reasons too…”. I think this is so true. The first thing that should be learned, I think, is to develop argumentation skills. I think it is a hard discipline, but one is always better off with it than without. But of course, too many people won’t ever bother, because of laziness. And in this day and age of limitless distractions, the situation has degenerated quickly. People are becoming more stupid than ever, I don’t need to make examples.

    ” People reject thinking not just because it is hard, but because they worry it will undermine their long-held, comfortable beliefs…”.

    I myself are still guilty of that. I became better at handling that, but I still think I am probably not being good enough. I really admire your capacity in regard to that. Of course, you have hundred times the experience I have in this regard, and I can see that.

    ”Students often dread thinking about controversial topics like politics, ethics, and religion.”.

    These things can only be debated by philosophers. For most people they are deadly waters…. I am currently watching a very interesting series of documentaries called ‘Why we hate’. I am shocked about what I am seeing in them. Society seems more mad than I thought.

    ” But not just any thinking will do.”. It really is a double-edged sword. It is both a miracle and a curse. A tool that in the hands of the worthy, can be incredibly creative and useful and good, but harboured in a flawed mind, destructive, bad and evil.

    And the problem is that ‘the worthy’ is a rare occurrence, for the opposite of that is the rule and the most common.

    ” This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind…”.

    To me, that is what the name ‘America’ means. (Even though I am not American. I see myself simply as a ‘citizen of the world’, as Diogenes of Sinope said.).

    Thank you for you post,
    PS. Interestingly, the documentary I mentioned, although interesting, I think has some weak conclusions, for example it indicates certain things as causes of why we hate (i.e. do not think), such as ‘tribalism’. I think this is an effect, not a cause. Saying that we inherited these traits from common ancestors, is of course true. The problem is that we aren’t them anymore. THEY could not think. We can. We aren’t monkeys anymore, yet we often behave little better than them.

    ” Our minds are flawed, but improvable.”. -Seneca

    PPS. another thing that comes to mind is this: people today would be a lot better off by just being selective about what they think, i.e. by being very careful about the information they read. Otherwise, duh. Trash in, trash out, right?

    And this really takes no effort or work at all: if only most people would be smart enough to avoid all that stupid stuff such as Facebook, Tok Tok, Instant Grams or whatever they are called :). Pure trash….I don’t understand what’s so difficult about that. It’s like taking care about not eating junk. All it takes is avoiding doing something, rather than putting effort in learning. As it is called in some Oriental philosophy, ”Wu wei”, or more plainly, just stopping doing things that are useless or stupid. In this day and age, for many people, they have to first unlearn the trash they learn before they even learn anything.

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