Monday, April 17, 2017

Bertrand Russell on War and Social Energy

From Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916:
A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life. Without imagination and love of adventure a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy. It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil. The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull….[Utopians] do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment. Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are only satisfactory, to most men, when they come in the intervals of activity. Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature. They aim rather at securing more leisure, and more opportunity for enjoying it, than at making work itself more satisfactory, more consonant with impulse, and a better outlet for creativeness and the desire to employ one’s faculties.
Utopias are all dreary; what people like to read about is a great struggle with a noble purpose (World War II, Middle Earth) or else an anarchic world with great scope for heroism (Vikings, Caribbean pirates). Of course we could live in one sort of world and read about others, but for many that is just not enough.

Via Marginal Revolution


David said...

When one of society's most accomplished, talented, energetic, and ambitious members opines on what makes the mass of humanity tick, some skepticism is in order.

David said...

That would be true whether the opinion-monger in question is over-identifying their own nature with that of the masses, or, to the benefit of their own glory, over-emphasizing the difference.

G. Verloren said...

As one of the boring people who lacks ambition, I'll take the bland Utopia please. I'm pretty good at keeping myself entertained without having to go around scrabbling for power and influence, asserting my dominance, and generally acting like a gorilla.

As far as I'm concerned, all the conflict lovers can go struggle and war with each other somewhere else, and leave us boring folks alone. Maybe ship them off to deserts and wastelands where they can roam about Mad Max style.

John said...

It is certainly true that within the wide range of human types, it is the most energetic and experience-hungry who end up as famous, quotable characters. And the leaders of nations. One of my favorite parts of Fukuyama's "End of History" was about whether being a leader in a world without great conflicts would have any appeal; would the madly ambitious get bored and start wars just to have something worth doing?

My thinking about all these questions is colored by my wondering, all the time, if people are more anxious and depressed now because life is too boring. I question every part of that narrative, starting with whether people really are more anxious and depressed. But the thought nags at my mind that our safe world is just too different from the challenges we evolved to face, and without tribal enemies to fight and lions to fear certain modules in our brains go haywire.