“Cosmic impiety” will destroy us

I’m on page 783 of Bertrand Russell’s 789-page History of Western Philosophy that I was given as a prize at school in 1968. Reading the book has been a long, fascinating, and sometimes, I must confess, incomprehensible journey, and I plan to start another long book of philosophy as soon as I finish. I’ve been most taken with Russell’s long views of philosophy, and what I read this morning is a good example.

Russell surveys in one paragraph man’s attitude to what he calls the “non-human environment,” but which I’d rather call nature. The Greeks (still probably the smartest humans ever) had a “dread of hubris” (and fear of the nemesis, revenge of the gods, that would follow) and “carefully avoided…insolence to nature.”

The people of the Middle Ages, for whom “humility to God” was their first duty, submitted even further to nature. Initiative and originality didn’t fit with this world view, and so nobody tried combatting nature.

The Renaissance “restored human pride” but only for it to lead to “anarchy and disaster.” There wasn’t enough agreement to start trying to conquer nature.

The Reformation and Counter-reformation put man back under the power of God or nature.

But “modern technique,” as Russell calls it writing in 1943, has revived the human pride of the Renaissance but thought of it less in terms of individuals and more in “the collective power of human communities…. “Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself almost as a God.”

Russell wrote this before the creation of the atomic bomb and the capacity to destroy all of mankind in a nuclear holocaust. He wouldn’t have heard of a climate change, and, although he knew the works of Malthus, there wasn’t much talk of overpopulation, deforestation, desertification, and destruction of biodiversity.

But I remember Russell as a thin, parrot-nosed, aristocratic intellectual being dragged away by the police on marches against nuclear weapons.

Man, wrote Russell in 1943, “is on the road towards a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power…In all of this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety.” He concludes: “I am persuaded that this intoxication of power is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.”

 

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