Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a British philosopher who over the course of his long life wrote prolifically on topics ranging from logic and mathematics to pacifism and Christianity. I am assigning his essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in my upcoming ethics course, and rereading it, I am again in awe.
Russell gave up Christianity and religion by age 18 and was led to wonder whether, without belief in an intelligent God, there was any point to human existence. Modern science depicts the universe as purposeless and as terrifyingly powerful, destructive and vast. “How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished?”
Had they been contemporaries, Russell might have taken comfort in Woody Allen’s profound recognition that “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends” and that “Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it”, but alas Russell was on his own…
His approach was to contrast the attitude of the savage with that of enlightened man. They are both faced with the same fearsome powers of Nature, but the savage reacts with the “cringing submission of the slave,” prostrating himself before the violent force of the universe, and then in turn declaring himself master and unleashing his own violent force against his fellow man. “The worship of Force…is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe: it is itself a prostrate submission to evil, a sacrifice of our best to Moloch.”
The free man rejects the master-slave dynamic, and refuses to spend his brief time on earth either submitting to fate or indignantly fighting it. Instead, he crafts his own ideals and is guided by his visions of truth, beauty, and goodness. He thereby frees his mind, if not his body, from the ravages of nature.
In order to avoid butchering Russell’s beautiful essay, I will stop here and recommend highly that you read it for yourself. Lots to ponder if you’re in an existential mood.