Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Bertrand Russell on Love, Sex, What “the Good Life” Really Means, and How We Limit Our Happiness

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid yet luminous thinkers, his ideas tracking between the timeless and the prophetic. A century before our age of distraction and restless productivity, Russell admonished against its perilous effects and championed the role of boredom and stillness in our conquest of happiness. His ten commandments of teaching remain some of the most succinct tenets of education ever committed to words. His insight into human nature illuminates everything from our impulse for destruction to our longing for grace. But nowhere does Russell’s blazing brilliance warm the mind and spirit more thoroughly than in What I Believe (public library) — his 1925 catalog of credos, a kind of moral ecology that also gave us Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

After establishing his definition of the good life — “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Russell writes. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” — he turns to the more essential of these two ingredients, the one humanity has spent centuries trying to define and dedicated entire philosophies to mastering. Russell writes:

Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love. But if people are not intelligent, they will be content to believe what they have been told, and may do harm in spite of the most genuine benevolence.

Once again, Russell’s prescience reveals itself — many decades later, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanhs would come to write that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” But Russell is careful to note that knowing how to love first requires that we come to know love’s many dimensions:

Love is a word which covers a variety of feelings; I have used it purposely, as I wish to include them all. Love as an emotion — which is what I am speaking about, for love “on principle” does not seem to me genuine — moves between two poles: on one side, pure delight in contemplation; on the other, pure benevolence. Where inanimate objects are concerned, delight alone enters in; we cannot feel benevolence towards a landscape or a sonata. This type of enjoyment is presumably the source of art. It is stronger, as a rule, in very young children than in adults, who are apt to view objects in a utilitarian spirit. It plays a large part in our feelings towards human beings, some of whom have charm and some the reverse, when considered simply as objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from ‘The Heart and the Bottle.’ Click image for more.

The alchemy of a complete love, Russell argues, fuses these two elements of delight and benevolence in beholding the beloved:

Love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing. The pleasure of a parent in a beautiful and successful child combines both elements; so does sex-love at its best. But in sex-love benevolence will only exist where there is secure possession, since otherwise jealousy will destroy it, while perhaps actually increasing the delight in contemplation. Delight without well-wishing may be cruel; well-wishing without delight easily tends to become cold and a little superior. A person who wishes to be loved wishes to be the object of a love containing both elements.

The imbalance between the two is, perhaps, what unnerved Susan Sontag as she contemplated “love, sex, and the world between half a century later. For Russell, this two-legged love is inseparable from the second element of the good life: knowledge. But he is careful to note that this knowledge is scientific — a knowledge of the world in its full fact and glimmering reality — rather than ethical. Morality, he argues, is a wholly different matter — and yet, strangely, it too circles back to a psychological force we’ve come to associate with love: desire. In a sentiment that calls to mind the crossroads of Should and Must, he writes:

All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire. I say ends that we desire, not ends that we ought to desire. What we “ought” to desire is merely what someone else wishes us to desire. Usually it is what the authorities wish us to desire — parents, school-masters, policemen, and judges. If you say to me “you ought to do so-and-so,” the motive power of your remark lies in my desire for your approval — together, possibly, with rewards or punishments attached to your approval or disapproval. Since all behavior springs from desire, it is clear that ethical notions can have no importance except as they influence desire. They do this through the desire for approval and the fear of disapproval. These are powerful social forces, and we shall naturally endeavor to win them to our side if we wish to realize any social purpose.

Desire, Russell insists, is a driver so potent that it can’t be legislated against or controlled via any other sticks-and-carrots system — it can only be harnessed and cultivated:

There is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties, among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent. The question for the legislative moralist is, therefore: How shall this system of rewards and punishments be arranged so as to secure the maximum of what is desired by the legislative authority? … Outside human desires there is no moral standard.

Thus, what distinguishes ethics from science is not any special kind of knowledge but merely desire.

And yet our conception of morality, Russell argues, seems completely divorced from the realities of the human experience:

Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules. Originally, certain acts were thought displeasing to the gods, and were forbidden by law because the divine wrath was apt to descend upon the community, not merely upon the guilty individuals. Hence arose the conception of sin, as that which is displeasing to God. No reason can be assigned as to why certain acts should be thus displeasing.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from ‘I, Leonardo.’ Click image for more.

This, of course, calls to mind not only Mark Twain’s general lament about how we’ve used religion to justify injustice but also the particular superstition with which homosexuality has been historically regarded. But even as early as 1925, Russell — a conscientious critic of religion — recognizes the absurdity of such thinking and points to the critical thinking required for making up one’s own mind in evaluating the alleged dangers of what such superstition condemns as “immoral”:

It is evident that a man with a scientific outlook on life cannot let himself be intimidated by texts of Scripture or by the teaching of the Church. He will not be content to say “such-and-such an act is sinful, and that ends the matter.” He will inquire whether it does any harm or whether, on the contrary, the belief that it is sinful does harm. And he will find that, especially in what concerns sex, our current morality contains a very great deal of which the origin is purely superstitious. He will find also that this superstition, like that of the Aztecs, involves needless cruelty, and would be swept away if people were actuated by kindly feelings towards their neighbors. But the defenders of traditional morality are seldom people with warm hearts… One is tempted to think that they value morals as affording a legitimate outlet for their desire to inflict pain; the sinner is fair game, and therefore away with tolerance!

How remarkable to consider that Russell’s admonition comes two decades before those same heartless defenders of so-called morality drove computing pioneer Alan Turing, one of humanity’s most magnificent and significant minds, into the grave and nearly a century before the equality of love triumphed over DOMA. Many decades later, Oliver Sacks would remark in his moving autobiography that “sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.” Indeed, Russell addresses this matter directly:

It should be recognized that, in the absence of children, sexual relations are a purely private matter, which does not concern either the State or the neighbors. Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned.

Much of this, he argues, is the task of education, something at least as urgent today, when creationism — the most standardized mode of superstition — is still being taught in classrooms:

In all stages of education the influence of superstition is disastrous. A certain percentage of children have the habit of thinking; one of the aims of education is to cure them of this habit. Inconvenient questions are met with ‘hush, hush’, or with punishment.

Half a century before The Little Red Schoolbook and before Italo Calvino made his passionate case for reproductive rights, Russell points ever so elegantly at the misogynistic “morality” espoused by the church:

At puberty, the elements of an unsuperstitious sexual morality ought to be taught. Boys and girls should be taught that nothing can justify sexual intercourse unless there is mutual inclination. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church, which holds that, provided the parties are married and the man desires another child, sexual intercourse is justified however great may be the reluctance of the wife. Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love. They should be taught that to bring another human being into the world is a very serious matter, only to be undertaken when the child will have a reasonable prospect of health, good surroundings, and parental care. But they should also be taught methods of birth control, so as to insure that children shall only come when they are wanted.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Returning to the relationship between morality and the two pillars of the good life, Russell — predating Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” by several decades — writes:

Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.


The good life, we said, is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge… [But] in all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.


To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community, and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.

What I Believe is a timeless trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Russell on the power of “fruitful monotony” and why science is essential to democracy.

Published May 18, 2015




Filed Under

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated