Saturday, September 18, 2010

Attempt a critical examination of Russell’s essay, Ideas That Have Helped Mankind.

An Impressive Array of Ideas
In the essay under consideration, Russell presents us with an impressive array of ideas which have helped mankind. He first mentions very briefly the ideas that helped mankind during pre-historic times, and then goes on to consider at some length the ideas which have helped mankind during historic times.

Helpful Ideas During Pre-historic Times
During pre-historic times, the main ideas which helped mankind were the invention of language, the utilization of fire, the taming of animals for domestic purposes,, the invention of agriculture, and the invention of the art of writing. These were surely some of the most striking features of the progress of mankind during pre-historic times, and Russell has summed up all these in only a couple of pages in his inimitable lucid style.
Two Kinds of Ideas
Russell then proceeds to consider the progress achieved by mankind during historic times. He divides ideas into two kinds: those that have contributed knowledge and technique, and those that have been concerned with morals and politics.
Mathematics and Astronomy
The study of mathematics and astronomy began in Babylonia in times of antiquity. Subsequently, the Greeks contributed a good deal to the advancement of these branches of knowledge. One of the greatest Greek mathematicians was Archimedes, and one of the most famous astronomers was Aristarchus of Samos who is said to have evolved the complete Copernican hypothesis which, however, was rejected by those who followed him. The Greeks acquired the habit of expressing natural laws in mathematical terms.
Helpful Ideas Contributed by 17th-century Scientists
Amazing advances were made in the study of natural laws during the seventeenth century. The most important names in this connection are those of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz. Modern technique in industry and war, with the sole exception of the atomic bomb, is still wholly based upon a type of dynamics developed out of the principles of Galileo and Newton. Galileo unified the principles governing the earth and the heavens by his single law of inertia according to which a body, once in motion, will not stop of itself but will move with a constant velocity in a straight line whether it is on earth or in one of the celestial spheres. From the seventeenth century onwards, it has also become increasingly clear that, in order to understand natural laws, we must get rid of every kind of ethical and aesthetic bias. Every kind of bias had to be discarded by seventeenth-century astronomy. The Copernican system showed that the earth was not the centre of the universe and that perhaps man was not the supreme purpose of the Creator.
Geology and the Theory of Evolution
It was geology and Darwin’s theory of evolution that dealt a real blow to the orthodox religious beliefs of scientists and the common people. One of the grand conceptions which were found to be scientifically useless was the soul. Scientists have found that the soul, if at all it exists, plays no part in any discoverable causal law.
Russell’s Lucid Exposition of Certain Valuable Ideas
The advances made by scientists have been stated by Russell in a manner that is easily intelligible even to the layman. The account of these advances has been given by Russell in a very compact and close-knit form. One of the most valuable ideas to which he draws our attention in this account is the need to shed every kind of ethical and aesthetic bias in case we want to understand natural laws. It is, however, a misfortune that mankind continues to be in the grip of all kinds of ethical and aesthetic bias, the only persons free from such bias being the scientists themselves or those genuinely influenced by scientific ideas. It is a strange contradiction that, while mankind makes use of scientific inventions and scientific knowledge in the course of their daily practical lives, human thinking is largely governed by various kinds of bias. But for different kinds of bias, mankind would manage its affairs in a rational manner and achieve a fair degree of happiness. But, as human beings are largely guided by bias, there is persecution, cruelty, and avoidable suffering in this world. Even world wars are a direct outcome of certain kinds of bias. Again, a large majority of people continue to cling to their orthodox religious beliefs which are nothing but superstitions. Even the belief in the existence of the soul continues, and we continue to perform all kinds of rituals and ceremonies for the peace of the souls of our dear departed ones. Another valuable idea that Russell gives us here is the capacity of governments to make use of the science of human behaviour in order to produce a population of sane and intelligent people. But, as Russell says, such a result can be achieved only if there is an international government possessing a monopoly of armed force.
Russell’s Sound Approach
Then there are ideas in the second group, namely, moral and political ideas as distinguished from technical ideas. Scientific or technical progress without a corresponding moral and political progress, says Russell, may only increase the magnitude of the disaster that a misuse of skill may bring about. For instance, political narrow-mindedness, such as we witness in the quarrel between the Jews and the Muslims for the control of Palestine, may lead to a world war in which atomic weapons will be used and which therefore might destroy the entire world. The warning that Russell here sounds is perfectly justified. Mankind has made enormous progress so far as knowledge and technique are concerned, but in the field of morality, and especially in the field of political morality, mankind is still very backward. There is absolutely no feeling in any section of the world-population of the oneness of mankind; there are divisions and there are diverse communities and groups, each thinking itself to be more important than the others. Never were narrow ideas of nationalism so rampant and powerful as they are today. The world offers the spectacle of a house divided against itself. The goal of a world-government is as remote from the minds of people as the most distant planets in the solar system. If mankind, is to survive, it must devote some attention to moral and political progress.
The Concept of the Brotherhood of Man
Among the ideas that have helped mankind in the moral sphere is the concept of the brotherthood of man. This concept owed its first force to certain political developments, and it was invented by the Stoics. Subsequently, this concept was strengthened by Buddhism and Christianity. Christianity did much to mitigate the sufferings of the slaves; it established charity on a large scale and set up hospitals. However, a large number of Christians have failed to live up to the ideals that are advocated by their religion.
The Practical Value of this Concept
We agree with Russell that the concept of the brotherhood of man is one of the cardinal ideas which have helped the moral progress of mankind. Although almost every nation of the world regards itself as a separate entity suspicious of other nations, yet this concept does have a hold upon the minds of some people in the world. No ideal can be held by this world on a universal scale, because of the wide diversity that prevails. Still this particular concept has always played a vital and valuable role in human affairs. This concept has not been able to prevent world wars or even limited conflicts; yet it has proved to be of great service in diminishing human brutality.
Liberty and Democracy, also Among Ideas that Have Helped Mankind
The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity have also proved very helpful to mankind. These ideas had religious origins. The idea of individual liberty, for instance, entered practical politics in the form of religious toleration. One of the greatest theoretical advocates of liberty was the seventeenth century philosopher, John Locke, who tried to reconcile the maximum of individual liberty with the minimum of governmental control. Other great ideas in the political sphere have been those of law and government. Of these two, government is the more fundamental. Government may be defined as the collective force of a community, a force which is able to control individual citizens and to resist pressure from foreign States. The control of a government over private citizens is always greater when there is war or the danger of war than when peace seems secure. Governments always try to increase their power at the cost of citizens. Previously this political power was misused by autocratic kings, and in our times this power is misused by totalitarian States (like Russia and China). Democracy is a form of government which aims at reducing the misuse of political power by the government to the minimum. In a democracy a government can continue only if the people so desire. Besides, in a democracy no man can be punished except by due process of law. Furthermore, democracy allows freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. A democracy is altogether different from .what is known as a police State where the government controls the individual citizen fully and completely without permitting him any freedom.
Russell’s Progressive Views about Government
In his discussion of the concepts of liberty and democracy, again, Russell adopts an approach with which no right-thinking person can quarrel. Of course, hard-boiled communists will never accept Russell’s thesis about the value of freedom and democracy; such persons are fanatical believers in totalitarianism or in vesting the State with unlimited power to control the actions and thoughts of its people. Nor can we deny that even in totalitarian countries great scientific progress is possible. The first artificial satellite of the earth was, after all, shot into space by the Russians and, even as regards destructive weapons, the Russian armoury is as formidable as the American. But what the human spirit vainly yearns for in a totalitarian state is the freedom to think what one pleases, to talk what one pleases, and to like or dislike things according to one’s own inclinations. The freedom which democracy offers is one of the greatest blessings that the human spirit has always longed for; this kind of freedom is essential for the well-being and happiness of mankind no matter what the believers in the opposite system of government may assert. In this connection, Russell rightly points out that Stalin could never understand why Churchill allowed himself to be deprived of his prime ministership just because his party had failed to win the majority of seats in parliament in the general election. A mind accustomed to think along totalitarian lines will never understand the value of democracy.
The Idea of a World-government
Finally, Russell offers us an idea which, according to mm, can greatly help mankind in the future. This is the idea of an international government, that is, a single government for the entire world. The future of mankind would, according to Russell, be very dark in case a world-government is not established. The world of today, says Russell, faces a new crisis. In this new crisis we are faced with two alternatives: either man must again go back to primitive conditions as a result of the destruction of civilization by a world war, or human beings must agree to the establishment of an international government. If an international government of some kind is established, a new era of progress, happiness, and well-being will begin for mankind. There are at present only two States which are truly independent in the world; and they are United States and the Soviet Union. All that is needed, to save mankind from complete destruction by a world war, is the step from two independent States to one, and this should be achieved by mutual agreement.
World-Government Not Feasible
This idea of an international government is certainly valuable, but it is wholly impractical. Divided as the world is into one hundred and fifty odd nations, each sovereign and each proud of its own entity, the establishment of a world-government acceptable to all is entirely out of the question. Even if we were to limit our attention to the two super powers, neither of them would agree to merge with the other. Besides, the danger of a world war has greatly receded since the time when this essay was written. Russell thought that within twenty or thirty years, the world would either destroy itself or save itself by the establishment of a world-government. Neither of those two possibilities has materialized. We are still having world peace and we shall continue to have it without the establishment of a world-government. Peace will continue because of a full realization by all the parties concerned that the next world war would completely destroy the world. The world will be saved by the instinct for self-preservation and not by the establishment of a world-government which will remain a dream. If nuclear weapons can destroy the world, they can also serve as a deterrent against war.

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