Friday, June 30, 2017

Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.

From Sceptical Essays (1928) by Bertrand Russell, Chapter 2, Dreams and Facts.
Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day. Some of these convictions are personal to himself: they tell him of his virtues and excellencies, the affection of his friends and the respect of his acquaintances, the rosy prospects of his career, and his unflagging energy in spite of delicate health. Next come convictions of the superior excellence of his family: how his father had that unbending rectitude which is now so rare, and brought up his children with a strictness beyond what is to be found among modem parents; how his sons are carrying all before them in school games, and his daughter is not the sort of girl to make an imprudent marriage. Then there are beliefs about his class, which, according to his station, is the best socially, or the most intelligent, or the most deserving morally, of the classes in the community—though all are agreed that the first of these merits is more desirable than the second, and the second than the third. Concerning his nation, also, almost every man cherishes comfortable delusions. “Foreign nations, I am sorry to say, do as they do do.” So said Mr. Podsnap, giving expression, in these words, to one of the deepest sentiments of the human heart. Finally we come to the theories that exalt mankind in general, either absolutely or in comparison with the “brute creation.” Men have souls, though animals have not; Man is the “rational animal”; any peculiarly cruel or unnatural action is called “brutal” or “bestial” (although such actions are in fact distinctively human); God made Man in His own image, and the welfare of Man is the ultimate purpose of the universe.

We have thus a hierarchy of comforting beliefs: those private to the individual, those which he shares with his family, those common to his class or his nation, and finally those that are equally delightful to all mankind. If we desire good relations with a man, we must respect these beliefs; we do not, therefore, speak of a man to his face as we should behind his back. The difference increases as his remoteness from our-selves grows greater. “In speaking to a brother, we have no need of conscious politeness as regards his parents. The need of politeness is at its maximum in speaking with foreigners, and is so irksome as to be paralysing to those who are only accustomed to compatriots. I remember once suggesting to an untravelled American that possibly there were a few small points in which the British Constitution compared favourably with that of the United States. He instantly fell into a towering passion; having never heard such an opinion before, he could not imagine that anyone seriously entertained it. We had both failed in politeness, and the result was disaster.

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