From the I Wish I Had Written It Files

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) has long been a personal hero of mine. I’ve loved him on so many levels, but one of the oldest and strongest draws I have felt toward him is his posture regarding rationalism and humanism. Decades before Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins thought of writing screeds against the social dangers of mythological thinking, Bertrand Russell did it, and did it better. For no better reason than that I love him, I thought I’d share this.

 

HOW TO BECOME A MAN OF GENIUS

Bertrand Russell

If there are among my readers any young men or women who aspire to become leaders of thought in their generation, I hope they will avoid certain errors into which I fell in youth for want of good advice. When I wished to form an opinion upon a subject, I used to study it, weigh the arguments on different sides, and attempt to reach a balanced conclusion. I have since discovered that this is not the way to do things. A man of genius knows it all without the need of study; his opinions are pontifical and depend for their persuasiveness upon literary style rather than argument. It is necessary to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence that is considered a proof of strength. It is essential to appeal to prejudices and passions of which men have begun to feel ashamed and to do this in the name of some new ineffable ethic. It is well to decry the slow and pettifogging minds which require evidence in order to reach conclusions. Above all, whatever is most ancient should be dished up as the very latest thing.

There is no novelty in this recipe for genius; it was practised by Carlyle in the time of our grandfathers, and by Nietzsche in the time of our fathers, and it has been practised in our own time by D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence is considered by his disciples to have enunciated all sorts of new wisdom about the relations of men and women; in actual fact he has gone back to advocating the domination of the male which one associates with the cave dwellers. Woman exists, in his philosophy, only as something soft and fat to rest the hero when he returns from his labours. Civilised societies have been learning to see something more than this in women; Lawrence will have nothing of civilisation. He scours the world for what is ancient and dark and loves the traces of Aztec cruelty in Mexico. Young men, who had been learning to behave, naturally read him with delight and go round practising cave-man stuff so far as the usages of polite society will permit.

One of the most important elements of success in becoming a man of genius is to learn the art of denunciation. You must always denounce in such a way that your reader thinks that it is the other fellow who is being denounced and not himself; in that case he will be impressed by your noble scorn, whereas if he thinks that it is himself that you are denouncing, he will consider that you are guilty of ill-bred peevishness. Carlyle remarked: “The population of England is twenty millions, mostly fools.” Everybody who read this considered himself one of the exceptions, and therefore enjoyed the remark. You must not denounce well-defined classes, such as persons with more than a certain income, inhabitants of a certain area, or believers in some definite creed; for if you do this, some readers will know that your invective is directed against them. You must denounce persons whose emotions are atrophied, persons to whom only plodding study can reveal the truth, for we all know that these are other people, and we shall therefore view with sympathy your powerful diagnosis of the evils of the age.

Ignore fact and reason, live entirely in the world of your own fantastic and myth-producing passions; do this whole-heartedly and with conviction, and you will become one of the prophets of your age.

New York American and other Hearst papers, December 28, 1932; reprinted in Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell’s American Essays 1931-1936, v.1, Harry Ruja (ed.), Allen & Unwin, 1975, pp. 148-149

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~ by poǝןɔɐɯ uǝʞɔɐɹq on 27/08/2013.

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