Transcending Personal Hopes and Interests

None of the chapters of Conquest directly confronts the fear of death, which is undoubtedly one of the great obstacles to happiness. In Chapter 2 Russell leaves unchallenged the notion that death makes all our long-term hopes vain, and argues only that the present is sufficient for happiness. Late in the book, however, it becomes clear that Russell does have long-term hopes and an answer to the fear of death. The sections of the text that put these views forward are largely tangential to the chapters in which they appear -- as if Russell sees the end of the book approaching and regrets not having brought these ideas up sooner, but does not want to rewrite earlier chapters to include them.

The central concept here is unconquerable hope, which Russell presents in Chapter 16 as leading to the positive kind of resignation, through which you come to accept the unavoidable imperfections and inadequacies of the world. "Hope which is to be unconquerable must be large and impersonal. Whatever my personal activities, I may be defeated by death or by certain kinds of diseases; I may be overcome by enemies; I may find that I have embarked upon an unwise course which cannot lead to success. In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may be unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes." [page 182] A man motivated by these larger hopes "may be forced to realize that what he has worked for will not come about in his lifetime. But he need not on that account sink into complete despair, provided that he is interested in the future of mankind apart from his own participation in it." [page 183]

The unconquerability of this hope is related to Russell's faith in the ultimate progress of humankind. "[If] you have as part of the habitual furniture of your mind the past ages of man, his slow and partial emergence out of barbarism, and the brevity of his total existence in comparison with astronomical epochs -- if, I say, such thoughts have molded your habitual feelings ... you will have, beyond your immediate activities, purposes that are distant and slowly unfolding, in which you are not an isolated individual but one of the great army of those who have led mankind towards a civilized existence. If you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you, whatever your personal fate may be. Life will become a communion with the great of all ages, and personal death no more than a negligible incident." [page 174]

Russell uses the term greatness of soul to denote the ability to expand one's sense of self to encompass humankind as a whole. "A man who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him. The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe. He will see himself and life and the world as truly as our human limitations will permit; realizing the brevity and minuteness of human life, he will realize also that in individual minds is concentrated whatever of value the known universe contains. And he will see that the man whose mind mirrors the world becomes in a sense as great as the world. In emancipation from the fears that beset the slave of circumstance he will experience a profound joy, and through all the vicissitudes of his outward life he will remain in the depths of his being a happy man." [pages 175-176]

I find myself wishing that Russell had said more about how greatness of soul is achieved. This seems to me to be the central question of practical humanism: How (without God, an afterlife, or any other mythological concept) do we attach ourselves to transpersonal interests so firmly that we can face inevitable personal death with equanimity? Without an answer to this question, it seems to me that the humanist is left to choose between a life-in-the-moment, ignoring the possibility of death, and the Byronic unhappiness of Chapter 2. If you consider yourself a humanist, have you found an answer to this question in your own life? How well does it work?

The decades that followed Conquest challenged this faith in ways that Russell could hardly have imagined in 1930. Because it occurred at the center of civilization rather than on the primitive periphery, the Holocaust brought into question the idea that humankind really is progressing. And the atomic bomb opened the possibility that the human race might destroy itself before it achieved any further progress. By the 1950s Russell's notion of "unconquerable hope" seemed much more conquerable than he had anticipated. Do either of these events cause a problem for your personal outlook on life?