Denoting Bertrand Russell, “Red Emma” Goldman, Thomas Jefferson

(This wound up being something of a scattered ramble on different philosophers in history.) I mentioned recently Ayn Rand’s definition of selfishness, as “concerned with one’s own interests.”  It’s straightforward enough. In the ensuing discussion, I described this as less opaque than some of the definitions of Bertrand Russell.  (I had  miswritten his first name as “Bertram”; my apologies.)

I don’t have his works online (edit: found a collection), though some parts of this no doubt exist. Here’s a nice example, from his treatise on Denoting I read last year:

Thus `the father of Charles II was executed‘ becomes: `It is not always false of x that x begat Charles II and that x was executed and that “if y begat Charles II, y is identical with x” is always true of y‘.

This may seem a somewhat incredible interpretation; but I am not at present giving reasons, I am merely stating the theory.

It is amusing how incorrect he is in some of this, primarily based upon sexist assumptions. A woman “begat” Charles II as well, which means his redefinition of the phrase is not strict — and his whole endeavor was to establish something with explicit strictness in his restatement of English language denoting statements. (While admitting that actual users of the language were not, in fact, so limited, such as the sometimes-indefinite use of “the.”)

Russell was very bright, but this one-time communist and perhaps lifelong socialist had views rather similar to our old friend Pentti Linkola, in that he hoped for wars or plague or famine that would eliminate a huge portion of humanity.

And Russell wouldn’t have minded if these eliminated the human race entirely. As he once put it:

All’s well that ends well; which is the epitaph I should put on my tombstone if I were the last man left alive.

He died a bit too early for the current global warming catastrophism, but would have been perfect for it.  But even Russell recognized that not everything that a modern would call “altruism” qualified. He wrote in The Conquest of Happiness:

If you feed an infant who is already capable of feeding himself, you are putting love of power before the child’s welfare, although it seems to you that you are only being kind in saving him trouble.

Indeed, this is even more true when the infant grows up.  Sadly, it does seem that the goal (votes, the ticket to power in our current case) is worth the dependency to the ones in charge.

While Russell got this bit right, he was still quick to praise the notions of altruism, including state-enforced altruism, while being distantly suspicious of individual motives.

He was a brilliant man, but that brilliance was often spent in directions which I find deplorable. I can think of nice things to say about him, of course: one of which is the fact that his ardent, devout communism cooled somewhat after actually meeting Lenin and seeing conditions in post-revolutionary Russia.

Hmm. Even Emma Goldman, a person so vile, murderous and despicable that the Freedom from Religion Foundation just put her up as one of the “three wise men” of their 2012 Nativity display, had the same realization: Communism kills the people that she thought she was helping. By the millions. It took her quite some time to rationalize this into a good thing.  Some time ago I wrote about a dramatization of her experience in a clip from the movie Reds.

The FFRF describes her as a “progressive reformer” — not mentioning that her idea of progressive reform was to assassinate people who disagreed with her.  The assassin who killed President McKinley in 1901 was inspired by her, and she and her lover plotted an assassination on a businessman which failed to kill him.  The Freedom from Religion Foundation also makes this ridiculous claim:

Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father, a passionate advocate of separation between religion and government, who would have disavowed Christian devotional scenes on state property.

A “passionate advocate” he was, of many things, but not that. He mentioned “the separation of church and state” precisely once, in a private unpublished letter to a church that was worried about state persecution, and apparently never mentioned it again. Why were they worried?  A lot of people were, as Jefferson seemed so hostile to religion during the campaign that when he was elected, many people buried their Bibles to keep the federal government from destroying them.  But all of that was based on overheated campaign rhetoric, especially in the demonizing of Jefferson by his rival, the incumbent John Adams.

Jefferson, despite this rhetoric, was certainly committed to protection of the right to worship as one pleased. He never advocated that religious teaching should be removed from government.  In fact, the week he wrote the famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists, he attended church within the Capitol where he was a regular member. (The church services continued in the Capitol building for decades.) This letter, which Jefferson described as “political” and being “seasoned to the Southern taste,” was edited quite a bit before going out — but it can’t be a reliable guide to what the drafters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights had in mind, as Jefferson was not even in the country at that time.

The Danbury Baptists sent Jefferson a 1,200 pound (545 kilogram) block of cheese in appreciation (and relief) for his promised protection of their somewhat frowned-upon sect.  And this makes clear that Jefferson would not have “disavowed Christian devotional scenes on state property,” since that was in fact where the federal church was.  Of course, the FFRF is outraged that Obama even has a Christmas tree — though I imagine that they were put a bit at ease by its having ornaments of Chairman Mao.

But there’s another aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about religion that is instructive. He wrote a treatise on Jesus while President of the United States.  Why would he do such a thing as write “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth”?  So that the federal government could use this in their missionary efforts with American Indian tribes.  That work had the full title The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrased [uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.

It does not appear that the document was ever used for this purpose — but the federal government under Jefferson did fund preachers for “a perpetual mission among the Indian tribes,” a practice for which Jefferson was a “passionate advocate.”  Note that this first draft, despite being described as having been written by “the retired President,” was assembled in 1803 and 1804, in the middle of his 1801–1809 terms.  So much for keeping religion out of government.

This document continued to be revised, ultimately becoming what is now called “The Jefferson Bible.”

The FFRF just gets this utterly wrong.  But they had Charles Darwin listed on the same page as an atheist, so apparently honesty is not a big thing to them. Toward the end of his life, Darwin wrote that he had “never been an atheist,” but had gradually come to think of himself as an agnostic. While working on The Origin of Species, however, he’d been quick to quote Bible passages as the ultimate source of morality, and we would have called him an ‘intelligent design” advocate, or “theistic evolutionist.”

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • HasAClue

    You haven’t a clue about Bertrand Russell and are just projecting straw man arguments to knock down. Don’t delude yourself that you have anything meaningful to add – you’re just noise in the neoliberal echo-chamber.