The Exceptional Man
The most eminent living English philosopher, BERTRAND RUSSELL,was asked to deliver the first Reith Lectures, an endowed series of broadcasts, over the BBC. He chose for his theme the conflict between individual initiative. which is necessary for progress, and social cohesion. which is necessary for survival. From the series, we have selected the third talk as of special interest to Atlantic readers. The collected lectures have just been published by Simon and Schuster under the title Authority and the Individual.
by BERTRAND RUSSELL
IN a very primitive community the individual’s impulses and desires play very little part. Hunting and war are activities in which one man may be more successful than another, but in which all share a common purpose. So long as a man’s spontaneous activities are such as all the tribe approves of and shares in. his initiative is very little curbed by others within the tribe, and even his most spontaneous actions conform to the recognized pattern ot behavior. But as men grow more civilized there comes to be an increasing difference between one man’s activities and another’s; and a community needs, if it is to prosper, a certain number of individuals who do not wholly conform to the general type.
Practically all progress, artistic, moral, and intellectual, has depended upon such individuals, who have been a decisive factor in the transition from barbarism to civilization. If a community is to make progress, it needs exceptional individuals whose activities, though useful, are not of a sort that ought to be general. There is always a tendency in highly organized society for the activities of such individuals to be unduly hampered; but on the other hand, if the community exercises no control, the same kind of individual initiative which may produce a valuable innovator may also produce a criminal. The problem, like all those with which we are concerned, is one of balance; too little liberty brings stagnation, and too much brings chaos.
There are many ways in which an individual may differ from most of the other members of his herd. He may be exceptionally anarchic or criminal; he may have rare artistic talent; he may have what comes in time to be recognized as a new wisdom in matters ot religion and morals, and he may have exceptional intellectual powers. It would seem that from a very early period in human history there must have been some differentiation of function. The pictures in the caves in the Pyrenees which were made by Paleolithic men have a very high degree of artistic merit, and one can hardly suppose that all the men of that time were capable of such admirable work. It seems far more probable that those who were found to have artistic talent were sometimes allowed to stay at home making pictures while the rest of the tribe hunted.
The chief and the priest must have begun from a very early time to be chosen for real or supposed peculiar excellences: medicine men could work magic, and the tribal spirit was in some sense incarnate in the chief.
But from the earliest time there has been a tendency for every activity of this kind to become institutionalized. The chieftain became hereditary, the medicine men became a separate caste, and recognized bards became the prototypes of poets laureate. It has always been difficult for communities to recognize what is necessary for individuals who are going to make the kind of exceptional contribution that I have in mind: namely, elements of wildness, of separateness from the herd, of domination by rare impulses of which the utility was not always obvious to everybody.
I wish to consider both in history and in the present day the relation of the exceptional man to the community, and the conditions that make it. easy for his unusual merits to be socially fruitful.
I shall consider this problem first in art, then in religion and morals, and finally in science.
The artist in our day does not play nearly so vital a part in public life as he did in many former ages. There is a tendency in our days to despise a court poet, and to think that a poet should be a solitary being proclaiming something that Philistines do not wish to hear. Historically the matter was far otherwise. Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare were court poets; they sang the glories of their tribe and its noble traditions. (Of Shakespeare, I must confess, this is only partially true, but it certainly applies to his historical plays.) Welsh bards kept alive the glories of King Arthur, and these glories came to be celebrated by English and French writers; King Henry II encouraged them for imperialistic reasons. The glories of the Parthenon and of the medieval cathedrals were intimately bound up with public objects. Music, though it could play its part in courtship, existed primarily to promote courage in battle — a purpose to which, according to Plato, it ought to be confined by law. But of these ancient glories of the artist little remains in the modern world except the piper to a Highland regiment. We still honor the artist, but we isolate him; we think of art as something separate, not as an integral part of the life of the community. The architect alone, because his arl serves a utilitarian purpose, retains something of the ancient status of the artist.
The decay of art in our time is not only due to the fact that the social function of the artist is not as important as in former days; it is due also to the fact that spontaneous delight is no longer felt as something which it is important to be able to enjoy. Among comparatively unsophisticated populations folk dances and popular music still flourish, and something of the poet exists in very many men But as men grow more industrialized and regimented, the kind of delight that is common in children becomes impossible to adults, because they are always thinking of the next thing, and cannot let themselves be absorbed in the moment. This habit of thinking of the “next thing” is more fatal to any kind of aesthetic excellence than any other habit of mind that can be imagined; and if art, in any important sense, is to survive, if will not be by the foundation of solemn academies, but by recapturing the capacity for wholehearted joys and sorrows which prudence and foresight have all but destroyed.
THE men conventionally recognized as the greatest of mankind have been innovators in religion and morals. In spile of the reverence given to them by subsequent ages, most of them during their lifetime were in a greater or less degree in conflict with their own communities. Moral progress has consisted, in the main, of protest against cruel customs, and of attempts to enlarge the bounds of human sympathy. Human sacrifice among the Greeks died out at the beginning of the fully historical epoch, The Stoics taught that there should be sympathy not only for free Greeks but for barbarians and slaves, and, indeed, for all mankind, Buddhism and Christianity spread a similar doctrine far and wide. Religion, which had originally been part of the apparatus of tribal cohesion, promoting conflict without just as much as cooperation within, took on a more universal character, and endeavored to transcend the narrow limits which primitive morality had set.
It is no wonder if the religious innovators were execrated in their own day, for they sought to roll men of the joy of battle and the fierce delights of revenge. Primitive ferocity, which had seemed a virtue, was now said to be a sin, and a deep duality was introduced between morality and the life of impulse — or rather between the morality taught by those in whom the impulse of humanity was strong, and the traditional morality that was preferred by those who had no sympathies outside their own herd.
Religious and moral innovators have had an immense effect upon human life — not always, it must be confessed, the effect that they intended, but nevertheless on the whole profoundly beneficial. It is true that in the present century we have seen in important parts of the world a loss of moral values which we had thought fairly secure, but we may hope that this retrogression will not last. We owe it to the moral innovators who first attempted to make morality a universal and not merely a tribal matter, that there has come to be a disapproval of slavery, a feeling of duty towards prisoners of war, a limitation of the powers of husbands and fathers, and a recognition, however imperfect, that subject races ought not to be merely exploited for the benefit of their conquerors. All these moral gains, it must be admitted, have been jeopardized by a recrudescence of ancient ferocity, but I do not think that in the end the moral advance which they have represented will be lost to mankind.
The prophets and sages who inaugurated this moral advance, although for the most part they were not honored in their own day, were, nevertheless, not prevented from doing their work. In a modern totalitarian state matters are worse than they were in the time of Socrates, or in the time of the Gospels. In a totalitarian state an innovator whose ideas are disliked by the government is not merely put to death, which is a matter to which a brave man may remain indifferent, but is totally prevented from causing his doctrine to be known. Innovations in such a community can come only from the government, and the government now, as in the past, is not likely to approve of anything contrary to its own immediate interests. In a totalitarian state such events as the rise of Buddhism or Christianity are scarcely possible, and not even by the greatest heroism can a moral reformer acquire any influence whatever. This is a new fact in human history, brought about by the much increased control over individuals which the modern technique of government has made possible. It is a very grave fact, and one which shows how fatal a totalitarian regime must be to every kind of moral progress.
In our own day an individual of exceptional powers can hardly hope to have so great a career or so great a social influence as in former times if be devotes himself to art or to religious and moral reform. There are, however, still four careers which are open to him: he may become a great political leader, like Lenin; he may acquire vast industrial power, like Rockefeller; he may transform the world by scientific discoveries, as is being done by the atomic physicists; or, finally, if he has not the necessary capacities for any of these careers, or if opportunity is lacking, his energy in default of other outlet may drive him into a life of crime. Criminals, in the legal sense, seldom have much influence upon the course of history, and therefore a man of overweening ambition will choose some other career if it is open to him.
THE rise of men of science to great eminence in thastate is a modern phenomenon. Scientists, like other innovators, had to fight for recognition: some were banished; some were burned; some were kept in dungeons; others merely had their books burned. But gradually it came to be realized that they could put power into the hands of the state. The French revolutionaries, after mistakenly guillotining Lavoisier, employed his surviving colleagues in the manufacture of explosives. In modern war the scientists are recognized by all civilized governments as the most useful citizens, provided they can be tamed and induced to place their services at the disposal of a single government rather than of mankind.
Both for good and evil almost everything that distinguishes our age from its predecessors is due to science. In daily life we have electric light, and the radio, and the cinema. In industry we employ machinery and power which we owe to science. Because of the increased productivity of labor we are able to devote a far greater proportion of our energies to wars and preparations for wars than was formerly possible, and we are able to keep the young in school very much longer than we formerly could. Owing to science we are able to disseminate information and misinformation through the press and the radio to practically everybody. Owing to science we can make it enormously more difficult than it used to be for people whom the government dislikes to escape.
The whole of our daily life and our social organization is what it is because of science. The whole of this v ast development is supported nowadays by the state, but it grew up originally in opposition to the state; and where, as in Russia, the state has reverted to an earlier pattern, the old opposition would again appear if the state were not omnipotent to a degree undreamed of by the tyrants of former ages.
The opposition to science in the past was by no means surprising. Men of science affirmed things that were contrary to what everybody had believed; they upset preconceived ideas and were thought to be destitute of reverence. Anaxagoras taught that the sun was a red-hot stone and that the moon was made of earth. For this impiety he was banished from Athens, for was it not well known that the sun was a god and the moon a goddess? It was only the power over natural forces conferred by science that led bit by bit to a toleration of scientists, and even this was a very slow process, because their flowers were at first attributed to magic.
It would not be surprising if, in the present day, a powerful anti-scientific movement were to arise as a result of the dangers to human life that are resulting from atom bombs and may result from bacteriological warfare. But whatever people may feel about these horrors, they dare not turn against the men of science so long as war is at all probable, because if one side were equipped with scientists and the other not, the scientific side would almost certainly win.
Science, in so far as it consists of knowledge, must be regarded as having value, but in so far as it consists of technique the question whether it is to be praised or blamed depends upon the use that is made of the technique. In itself it is neutral, neither good nor bad, and any ultimate views that we may have about what gives value to this or that must come from some other source than science.
The men of science, in spile of their profound influence upon modern life, are in some ways less powerful than the politicians. Politicians in our day are far more influential than they were at any former period in human history. Their relation to the men of science is like that of a magician in the Arabian Nights to a djinn who obeys his orders. The djinn does astounding things which the magician, without his help, could not do, but he does them only because he is told to do them, not because of any impulse in himself. So if is with the atomic scientists in our day ; some government captures them in their homes or on the high seas, and they are set to work, according to the luck of their capture, to slave for the one side or for the other. The politician, when he is successful, is subject to no such coercion.
The most astounding career of our times was that of Lenin. After his brother had been put to death by the Tsarist Government, he spent years in poverty and exile, and then rose within a few months to command of one of the greatest of states. And this command was not, like that of Xerxes or Gaesar, merely the power to enjoy luxury and adulation, which but for him some other man would have been enjoying. It was the power to mold a vast country according to a pattern conceived in his own mind, to alter the life of every worker, every peasant, and every middle-class person: to introduce a totally new kind of organization, and to become throughout the world the symbol of a new order, admired by some, execrated by many, but ignored by none. No megalomaniac’s dream could have been more terrific. Napoleon had asserted that you can do everything with bayonets except sit upon them; Lenin disproved the exception.
THE great men who stand out in history have been partly benefactors of mankind and partly quite the reverse. Some, like the great religious and moral innovators, have done what lay in their power to make men less cruel towards each other, and less limited in their sympathies. Some, like the men of science, have given us a knowledge and understanding of natural processes which, however it may be misused, must be regarded as in itself a splendid thing. Some, like ihe great poets and composers and painters, have put into the world beauties and splendors which, in moments of discouragement, do much to make the spectacle of human destiny endurable.
But others, equally able, equally effective in their way, have done quite the opposite. I cannot think of anything that mankind has gained by the existence of Jenghiz Khan. I do not know what good came of Robespierre, and, for my part, I see no reason to be grateful to Lenin. But all these men, good and bad alike, had a quality which I should not wish to see disappear from the world — a quality of energy and personal initiative, of independence of mind, and of imaginative vision. A man who possesses these qualities is capable of doing much good, or of doing great harm; and if mankind is not to sink into dullness such exceptional men must find scope, though one could wish that the scope they find should be for the benelit of mankind. There max he less diflcrence than is sometimes thought between the temperament of a great criminal and a great statesman. It may be that a plain Kidd and Alexander the (treat, it a magician had interchanged them at birth, would haxe each fulfilled the career which, in fact, was fulfilled by the other. The same thing may he said of some artists; the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini do not give a picture of a man with that respect for law which every right-minded citizen ought to have.
In the modern world, and still more, so far as can be guessed, in the world of the near future, important achievement is and will be almost impossible to an individual if he cannot dominate some vast organization. If he can make himself head of a state like Lenin, or monopolist of a great industry like Rockefeller, or a controller of credit like the elder Rierponl Morgan, he can produce enormous effects in the world. And so he can if, being a man of science, he persuades some government that his work may be useful in war. Mut the man who works without the help of an organization, like a Hebrew prophet, a poet, or a solitary philosopher such as Spinoza, can no longer hope for the kind of importance which such men had in former days.
The change applies to the scientist as well as to other men. The scientists of the past, did their work very largely as individuals, but the scientist of our day needs enormously expensive equipment and a laboratory with many assistants. All this he can obtain through the favor of the government, or, in America, of very rich men. He is thus no longer an independent worker, but essentially part and parcel of some large organization. This change is very unfortunate, for the things which a great man could do in solitude were apt to be more beneficial than those which he can only do with the help of the powers that be. A man who wishes to influence human affairs finds it difficult, to be successful, except as a slave or a tyrant : as a politician he may make himself the head of a state, or as a scientist he may sell his labor to the government, but in that case he must serve its purposes and not his own.
And this applies not only to men of rare and exceptional greatness, but to a wide range of talent. In the ages in which there were great poets, there were also large numbers of little poets, and when there were great painters there were large numbers of little painters. The great German composers arose in a milieu where music was valued, and where numbers of lesser men found opportunities. In those days poetry, painling, and music were a vital part of the daily life of ordinary men, as only sport is now. The great prophets were men who stood out from a host of minor prophets.
The inferiority of our age in such respects is an inevitable result of the fact that society is centralized and organized to such a degree that indiv idual initiative is reduced to a minimum. Where art has flourished in the past it has flourished as a rule among small communities which had rivals among their neighbors, such as the Greek city-slates, the little principalities of the Italian Renaissance, and the petty courts of German eighteenth-century rulers. Each of these rulers had to have his musician. and once in a way he was Johann Sebastian Bach, but even if he was not he was still free to do his best.
There is something about local rivalry that is essential in such matters. It played its part even in the building of the cathedrals, because each bishop wished to have a finer cathedral than the neighboring bishop. It would be a good thing if cities could develop an artistic pride leading them to mutual rivalry, and if each had its own school of music and painting, not without a vigorous contempt for the school of the next city. But such local patriotisms do not readily flourish in a world of empires and free mobility. A Manchester man does not readily feel towards a man from Sheffield as an Athenian felt towards a Corinthian, or a Florentine towards a Venetian. But in spite of the difficulties, J think that this problem of giving importance to localities will have to be tackled if human life is not. to become increasingly drab and monotonous.
The savage, in spite of his membership of a small community, lived a life in which his initiative was not too much hampered by the community. The things that he wanted lo do, usually hunting and war, were also the things that his neighbors wanted lo do, and if he fell an inclination to become a medicine man he only had to ingratiate himself with some individual already eminent in that profession, and so, in due course, to succeed lo his powers of magic. If he was a man of exceptional talent, he might invent some improvement in weapons, or a new skill in hunting. These would not put him into anv opposition to the community, but, on the contrary, would be welcomed.
The modern man lives a very different life. If he sings in the street he will be thought to be drunk, and if he dances a policeman will reprove him for impeding the traffic. Ills working day, unless he is exceptionally fortunate, is occupied in a completely monotonous manner in producing something which is valued, not, like the shield of Achilles, as a beautiful piece of work, but mainly for its utility. When his work is over, he cannot, like Milton’s Shepherd, “tel! his tale under the hawthorn in the dale,” because there is often no dale anywhere near where he lives, or, if there is, it is full of tins.
And always, in our highly regularized way of life, he is obsessed by thoughts of the morrow. Of all the precepts in the Gospels, the one Christians have most neglected is the commandment to take no thought for the morrow. If a man is prudent, thought for the morrow will lead him to save; if he is imprudent, it will make him apprehensive of being unable to pay his debts. In either case the moment loses its savor. Everything is organized, nothing is spontaneous. The Nazis organized “Strength Through Joy,” but joy prescribed by the government is likely to be not very joyful.
In those who might otherwise have worthy ambitions, the effect of centralization is to bring them into competition with too large a number of rivals, and into subjection to an unduly uniform standard of taste. If you wish to be a painter you will not be content to pit yourself against the men with similar desires in your own town; you will go to some school of painting in a metropolis where you will probably conclude that you are mediocre, and having come to this conclusion you may be so discouraged that you are tempted to throw away your paintbrushes and take to money-making or to drink, for a certain degree of self-confidence is essential to achievement. In Renaissance Italy you might have hoped to he the best painter in Siena, and this position would have been sufficiently honorable. But you would not now be content to acquire all your training in one small town and pit. yourself against your neighbors.
We know too much and feel too little. At least we feel too little of those creative emotions from which a good life springs. In regard to what is important we are passive; where we are active it is over trivialities. If life is to be saved from boredom relieved only by disaster, means must be found of restoring individual initiative, not only in things that are trivial, but in the things that really matter. I do not mean that we should destroy those parts of modern organization upon which the very existence of large populations depends, but I do mean that organization should be much more flexible, more relieved by local autonomy, and less oppressive to the human spirit through its impersonal vast ness, than it has become through its unbearably rapid growth and centralization, with which our ways of thought and feeling have been unable to keep pace.