A Free Man’s Worship (1903)

Bertrand Russell


1.       Science shows the world is purposeless and void of meaning

          a.       Man is product of unthinking causes

          b.       Man’s origin, growth, hopes, fears, loves and beliefs are outcome of accidental bringing together of atoms

                    i.        Assumes physicalism? (=everything is made solely of physical stuff)

                    ii.       Assumes scientism (=physical science can–eventually–explain everything)?

                    iii.      If Russell talking about individual people, what he says is patently false:

                              (1)     My son’s origin, growth & beliefs and shaped by his parents beliefs and for what we take to be good reasons; not accidental at all

                              (2)     My growth, hopes, fears, loves, beliefs are not purely accidental; many of them I have chosen and for good reasons

          c.       No fire, heroism, no intensity of thought/feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave

                    i.        But the causes an individual stands for can and do outlive individuals

          d.       All the labor of the ages, all devotion, all inspiration, all human genius, all of Man’s achievement are destined to extinction in vast death of solar system and universe in ruins

2.       One’s philosophy of life must be build on these truths

3.       And they (that is, the scientific beliefs about the origin and future of world) provide “a firm foundation of unyielding despair”

          a.       Why? Both Gould and Dawkins claimed that science provides a positive view of the universe (“uplift” one calls it)

          b.       There is purpose and meaning in nature–there certainly is value

          c.       And there is certainly purpose, meaning, and value in culture

          d.       Russell himself claims that the death–in the exceedingly distant future--of earth and universe is not something people really do worry about

                    i.        If you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course . . . the sort of thing to which the earth is tending -- something dead, cold, and lifeless. I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. . . nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence.” (from “Why I’m not a Christian”)


4.       Nature has created Man, who is a being superior to nature in virtue of his ability to judge and evaluate the works of nature

          a.       We are still subject to nature’s power (e.g., death)

          b.       But have knowledge of good and evil (something nature lacks)

          c.       Are free to examine and criticize this controlling parent (nature)

                    i.        And our salvation comes from our ability to do this

                    ii.       Religious instincts satisfied by this examination


5.       Distinguishes the world of fact/power/force/tyranny/nature (which is relentlessly negative) from the ideal world (of morality and beauty and good ness and perfection)

          a.       Much in the world of fact is bad and does not agree with our ideals/values

          b.       The unconscious universe (world of facts) cares nothing for our ideals and values

          c.       Russell on nature as bad/negative

                    i.        “The petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl”

                              (1)     We can free ourselves from this in thought

                    ii.       “A hostile universe”

                    iii.      “Non-human world unworthy of our worship”

          d.       But isn’t there much good in nature? Certainly much beauty, but also much good of other kinds too (life support, organisms flourishing)


6.       Importance of our ideal of the good: Man’s true freedom involves worshiping only “the God created by our own love of the good” (and acting on that ideal of good)

          a.       “The temple for the worship of our own ideals”

          b.       “Learn the energy of faith that enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good”

          c.       “Descend in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us”

          d.       From the freedom of our thoughts springs whole world of art and philosophy and the vision of beauty by which we half reconquer the reluctant world


7.       Importance of resignation: Wisdom comes from resigning ourselves to the fact that the world was not made for us and that our (personal) hopes/plans may be (and ultimately will be) dashed

          a.       Submit to power/nature to this extent

          b.       Courage involves accepting the misfortunes (of death, illness, poverty) and turning thoughts away from vain regrets

          c.       Must free ourselves from desire for personal goods (which are subject to destruction by time) and achieve the virtue of resignation

                    i.        Only by abandoning Self (eagerness/greed of untamed desires) can we become free from Fate


8.       Tragedy is the highest of the arts for it finds beauty in the worst that the world can deal to us

          a.       “It builds its shining citadel in the center of the enemy’s county (in the midst of Death, Pain and Despair and the tyrant of Fate)

          b.       One way the mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature


9.       That humans persist in face of and knowledge of fate makes us special

10.     Beauty and sacredness of human existence comes from lonely and courageous endurance of the individual against the forces of an uncaring and hostile universe (death, intolerable pain and suffering)

          a.       “Sacredness, overpowering awe, the vast inexhaustible mystery of the universe evident as the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow”

          b.       To feel these things and know them is to conquer them


11.     Life of man (viewed outwardly) is small compared to nature

12.     Time, Fate, and Death are far greater than Man

          a.       They devour all his thoughts

13.     But humans' ability to think about Time, Fate, and Death (“to feel their passionless splendor’) is even greater and it makes us free


14.     To abandon struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things (the good?), is what frees man from nature

          a.       Fate subdued by mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time

                    i.        Fate can’t touch you if you care nothing for what fate brings or doesn’t bring


15.     People are united by common tie of doom

          a.       They are fellow-sufferers in same darkness, actors in same tragedy

16.     Loving and caring for others is also path to our salvation

          a.       Helping other achieve happiness and avoid misery

          b.       Lighten their sorrows through sympathy

          c.       Give them pure joy of never-tiring affection

          d.       Help strengthen their failing courage

          e.       Instill faith in hours of despair

          f.       Encourage them whenever a spark of divine fire kindles in their hearts


17.     Human salvation found in

          a.       Humans proud defiance and condemnation of the irresistible forces

          b.       And our sustaining of our ideals against the universe’s uncaring fate