Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commands for Liberalism

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commands for Liberalism May 18, 2012

From Maria Popova:

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.


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Amen … So Be It (RJS)

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  • Many of these are of course self-refuting kind of like the guy who tells you to “question authority.”

    In his terrific book, Intellectuals, Paul Johnson offers a brilliant assessment of the various problems found in Bertrand Russell’s philosophy.

  • RJS


    With the exception of #10 which is a bit of a gratutitous swipe; how are any of these “of the self-refuting kind?”

    Perhaps we read them differently.

  • Dave,

    I do think that absolutist language (“no respect” for authority, for example) does indeed self-contradict, although I do find that with appropriate modification, the basic ideas are sound. Authority, for example, does deserve some respect, if only so far, and I do not for a minute mean to suggest not respecting the authority of God (which obviously Russell would not have accepted). But even there, we typically only know God’s authority as mediated through human beings, and thus the warning is a good one.

  • Rodney Reeves


    I’m not sure about the rest, but is #1 an absolute? If so, then it seems self-refuting.

  • David

    Perhaps it could be softened so as to be less self-refuting? “You might not want to absolutely certain of anything. But then again, you might.”

  • David

    “When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.”

    If we are speaking of the classroom or a debate club, certainly. But if you are conducting an orchestra and you encounter opposition to your interpretation of the score, is it necessary to meet every challenge with argument? Or does the office of conductor carry any intrinsic authority? This doesn’t sound very realistic to me.

    “Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.”

    This is a non sequitur. If one invokes a contrary authority (B), it does not necessarily mean that one disrespects the first authority (A). You may respect authority (A) so much that you simply recognize that it should not overstep its limits. Hence the appeal to authority (B). This is better: “Have respect for the authority of others enough to appeal to another authority when they overstep theirs.”

  • RJS

    Rodney Reeves,

    #1 is a bit self-refuting. But this is “a vision for responsibilities of a teacher” and I think most of them are pretty good (except 10 as I noted above). For one thing – #8 is telling the teacher to respect intelligent dissent from a student. Certainly this is something we value (or should value) in most educational settings.

    The context is made better in the post Scot links than in the bit clipped here, or in the headline used for the post.

  • RJS

    By the way, I think it is rather telling that those who seem to have been shaped by Russell’s atheism don’t actually appear to follow this decalogue as teachers (and here I think particularly of Dawkins).

  • I’m not absolutely certain about #1 and I cannot respect the authority of #5.

  • Hi RJS,

    All of these “marching orders” come from a guy who believes (the word is instructive) that there aren’t any absolutes. Tough, nay impossible, to prescribe stuff when you live in self-referential world.


  • DRT

    Dave Moore#10, that is an interesting perspective because, as far as I can tell, the world being proposed is only able to be comprehended by understanding it from your perspective. What do you mean “self referential” in that respect? Are you saying ….. I can’t even hypothesize what you might be thinking…….

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles, How about hopping over to the Haidt thread and commenting on that. As one of the clueless liberals I am quite interested in your perspective.

  • Mike M

    This is interesting because the Classic Liberalism of Russel’s time bears very little resemblance to Modern Liberalism which developed in the 1930’s along with FDR’s New Deal. In fact, Classic Liberalism is closer to today’s Libertarianism. See Russel’s writings on analytic philosophy. The “that government that governs best governs least” Democrat Thomas Jefferson would be rolling over in his grave if he knew what modern liberals have done to destroy our liberties.

  • Mike M

    Well, rolling over if he weren’t dust and had consciousness in the “hole.”

  • Tommy

    There’s nothing self-refuting about #1, though I can certainly understand why others would think so. As scientists–I’m a research engineer–we always leave a bit of room for the possibility that we’ve either misunderstood something, or, perhaps more likely, that we’ve left something out that significantly adds to our knowledge, or at least contributes to a better understanding of the question. That doesn’t mean we waffle or that we “wind up believing nothing;” it simply means that while we might believe something with a very high probability of accuracy, we also recognize our limitations as humans, and allow for additional future data that might educate us more fully.

  • Mike M

    Is number 1 an advocacy of Relativsim, the direct antithesis of Christian belief in an Absolute Truth?