Logicomix is one of the most acclaimed graphic novels published since the turn of the century. It tells the story of British philosopher Bertrand Russell and his tortured search for truth, which he believed could be achieved by establishing the foundation of mathematics on absolute certainty. The book touches upon an instructive passage from Russell’s life that marks him out as a man with the courage to change his mind about a long-held political position.
Russell, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, was an avowed pacifist who was jailed for six months for opposing conscription and for his anti-war campaign during the First World War. His beliefs were put to the test two decades later. The book begins on September 4, 1939, three days after the Second World War broke out. Russell was on a lecture tour in the United States and was speaking about “the role of logic in human affairs” at a university.
The lecture was attended by a group of American isolationists who wanted their country to stay away from the butchery. They expected Russell to back their cause. Instead, to their dismay, the pacifists got a cautionary tale from the British thinker – about his life and failed quest for truth.
“Reflect on this please,” the philosopher urged. “If even in logic and mathematics, the paragons of certainty, we cannot have perfect assurances of reason, then even less can this be achieved in the messy business of human affairs – either private or public.”
“Yes, but what does this tell us about the war?” asked a sceptical member of the audience.
“Directly about the war...maybe nothing,” Russell responded. “But it tells you a lot about your stance on it. Or, rather about your conviction that you are absolutely right in your views...Like many in this hall, I still try, and very hard, to remain a pacifist. Yet the thought of Hitler and Stalin taking over Europe is too hard to bear.”
Though this may not be exactly how the episode played out, Russell indeed adopted a more pragmatic stance on the question of war, and stridently opposed the rise of fascism. He explained his move away from pacifism in Unarmed Victory: “I had hoped until after the time of Munich that the Nazis might be persuaded into not invading other countries. Their invasions proved that this hope was in vain, and at the same time evidence accumulated as to the utterly horrible character of their internal regime. The two factors led me reluctantly to the conviction that war against the Nazis was necessary.”
At a time when our national conversation seems to have ossified into echo chambers, Russell’s courage, wisdom and moral conviction are worth emulating.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.
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