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Reflection Essay on Bertrand Russell's "A Free Man's Worship"


First published in 1903, “A Free Man's Worship” is the best known essay of British mathematician-philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Russell composed it at a time when he was abandoning the last vestiges of his earlier metaphysical idealism and Platonism and adopting instead logicism (“logical atomism”)—a new, mathematics-based philosophical vision described at length in his Principia Mathematica (1903). Russellian logicism holds the revolutionary idea that mathematics is nothing but logic and therefore logical analysis rather than synthesis (the dialectical triad of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”) was the most rational method of doing philosophy (which would make nearly all previous philosophical writings scientifically outdated). Along with the Vienna Circle's logical positivism (to which Russell is often linked by historians), logical atomism has exerted the most profound influence on the development of Analytic Philosophy—the modern philosophical tradition which is dominant today, at least in the English-speaking world.

Bertrand Russell's “A Free Man's Worship” should therefore be seen as part of what is often called “the revolt against Idealism” staged by Russell and other former Idealists at the turn of the 20th century. According to the essay, modern science has shown us that the world is purposeless and void of any meaning (and perhaps even “absurd,” as French existentialist Albert Camus would say fifty years later). “A Free Man's Worship” thus represents further proof that Britain's most distinguished philosopher in the 20th century was an avowed atheist who firmly believed that surrendering oneself to an ostensibly “higher” authority up in Heavens is “slavishness” and that all believers hence need to free themselves from “the tyranny of non-human Power.” Rather than a creation of God, Man is the product of impersonal and unthinking material forces. Mankind’s origin, growth, struggles, fears, and beliefs are all “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms”—that is, the product of sheer cosmic accident and randomness (to borrow from fellow philosopher Derek Parfit's materialist explanation). For, in the final analysis, humanity and all human achievements are “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” amidst a finite (rather than timeless) Universe inevitably heading for a future violent end.

At the same time, Russell seems to be at least temporarily drawn back in the direction of some form of ethical (or perhaps epistemological) Idealism. Such a change in perspective is not hard to understand. For how could a militant atheist like Russell find existential value and meaning in a godless and “meaningless” cosmos which is unaware of and quite indifferent to our plight as nearly invisible specks of sand lost somewhere in the boundless vastness of the Universe? In “A Free Man's Worship,” he suggests that instead of God we, as free men, should “worship our own ideals.” But Russell rejects the “worship of Force” and “the creed of Militarism” advocated by Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other anti-liberal proponents of naked power and the “false recognition of facts” which, in his view, are in essence “a prostrate submission to evil” and “a sacrifice of our best to (the religion of) Moloch.” Rather surprisingly, Russell rejects also the “Promethean philosophy of rebellion” or the “spirit of fiery revolt” against “an evil world”—and even the “Stoic freedom“ of Nirvana-like spiritual resignation to the world's wrongs and injustices. He is rather in favor of “submitting” “our thoughts” and “our desires” to the “inevitability” (“Power”) of “a hostile universe.” Almost like a humble Buddhist monk, he muses that “This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.”

The essay suggests that, faced with the meaningless of the cosmos and our own mortality, our liberation is in learning “to live constantly in the vision of the good” as well as “to abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn for passion for eternal things.” Unlike Karl Marx who proclaimed that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world.... The point, however, is to change it” (as inscribed upon his grave in London) and who always insisted that “life is struggle,” Russell is talking here—as if he is some social worker—only about “lightening the sorrows of others with the balm of sympathy” and “instilling faith in the hours of despair.” You wonder: has our intrepid “atheist” and most prominent exponent of scientific “logical atomism” found (Eastern) religion?


Works Cited

Russell, Bertrand. “A Free Man's Worship.” London: Routledge, 1930.

Russell, Bertrand. Principia Mathematica. London and New York: Rough Draft Printing (Paperback), 2011 (1903).