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When Debate Is Futile: Bertrand Russell’s Remarkable Response to a Fascist’s Provocation

“The emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.”

When Debate Is Futile: Bertrand Russell’s Remarkable Response to a Fascist’s Provocation

“To approach someone else convincingly you must do so with open arms and head held high, and your arms can’t be open unless your head is high,” the Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf wrote in his timeless, increasingly timely reflection on how to disagree. It is in times as divisive as ours and as sundered by conflicting perspectives that the mastery of such intelligent, kind-hearted, and considered disagreement emerges as a supreme art of living. To respond in a reactive culture, to marry firm moral conviction with a spirit of goodwill and the porousness necessary for appraising other perspectives in order to evolve one’s own, is a Herculean feat of character.

And yet there are instances in which it is unsound to engage with another whose values are so antithetical to one’s own that the collision is bound to shatter one’s sanity rather than build common ground. To recognize those rare instances and choose to stand down is an act of moral courage rather than moral weakness, and no one has articulated that difficult courage with more intellectual elegance and moral grace than the great English philosopher Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) — a formidable intellect animated by an extraordinary generosity of spirit, awarded the Nobel Prize for “his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”


In January of 1962, Russell received a series of letters from an unlikely correspondent — Sir Oswald Mosley, who had founded the British Union of Fascists thirty years earlier. Mosley was inviting — or, rather, provoking — Russell to engage in a debate, in which he could persuade the moral philosopher of the merits of fascism. Russell’s considered and morally unflinching response, included in Ronald Clark’s excellent biography The Life of Bertrand Russell (public library), stands as a manifesto for the right not to engage in a debate with a counterpart so morally misaligned with oneself as to guarantee not only the self-defeating futility of such engagement but its detrimental cost to one’s own sanity.

Shortly before his 90th birthday, Russell writes:

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Yours sincerely,

Bertrand Russell

The Life of Bertrand Russell remains an invaluable portrait of one of the greatest intellects and largest spirits our civilization has produced. Complement this particular fragment with Blaise Pascal on how to change minds, Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness, and Susan Sontag on the three steps to refuting any argument, then revisit Russell on freedom of thought, what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, the nature of time, and the four motives driving all human behavior.


The Secret Life of Smell and What Dogs Can Teach Us About Accessing Hidden Layers of Reality

“To follow animals is to become more attuned to our own existence.”

The Secret Life of Smell and What Dogs Can Teach Us About Accessing Hidden Layers of Reality

“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself,” the great science storyteller Lewis Thomas wrote in his beautiful 1985 meditation on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge. But, like the conditioned consciousness out of which our thoughts arise, our olfactory perception is beholden to our cognitive, cultural, and biological limitations. The 438 cubic feet of air we inhale each day are loaded with an extraordinary richness of information, but we are able to access and decipher only a fraction. And yet we know, on some deep creaturely level, just how powerful and enlivening the world of smell is, how intimately connected with our ability to savor life. “Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life — but the noticing eclipses the getting, for the salt water breeze is lost on any life devoid of this sensorial perception.

Dogs, who “see” the world through smell, can teach us a great deal about that springlike sensorial aliveness which E.E. Cummings termed “smelloftheworld.” So argues cognitive scientist and writer Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, in Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (public library) — a fascinating tour of what Horowitz calls the “surprising and sometimes alarming feats of olfactory perception” that dogs perform daily, and what they can teach us about swinging open the doors of our own perception by relearning some of our long-lost olfactory skills that grant us access to hidden layers of reality.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

The book is a natural extension of Horowitz’s two previous books, exploring the subjective reality of the dog and how our human perceptions shape our own subjective reality. She writes:

I am besotted with dogs, and to know a dog is to be interested in what it’s like to be a dog. And that all begins with the nose.

What the dog sees and knows comes through his nose, and the information that every dog — the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch — has about the world based on smell is unthinkably rich. It is rich in a way we humans once knew about, once acted on, but have since neglected.

Dogs have become our olfactory informants — sensory prosthetics of sorts, capable of detecting what our creaturely capacities cannot: drugs, bombs, storms, sicknesses of body and spirit. But they are also, Horowitz notes, our teachers in recovering some of those capacities long-ago relinquished to evolution:

By following the dog’s lead, we can learn from him about what we are missing — some of which is beyond our ability to sense, and some of which we simply need a guide to see. The world abounds with aromas, but we are spectacle-less. The dog can serve as our spectacles.

In so doing, we may also see how to return to that perhaps more primal, so-called animal state of knowledge about ourselves and the world that we have forgotten in a culture wrought of technology and lab tests. To follow animals is to become more attuned to our own existence. To follow dogs is to begin to apprehend the experience of our silent, loyal partners through our days.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

The way dogs use smell offers clues to their very consciousness and the profound ways in which it differs from ours. Horowitz considers one central question of consciousness — “self-recognition,” or having a sense of oneself and recognizing oneself as distinct from others. The common method scientists use to test for self-recognition, known as the mirror mark test, is ingeniously simple: A visible mark is made on the subject’s face or body to see if they attempt to remove it when they face the mirror. In humans, self-recognition occurs around the age of eighteen months, so young infants don’t reach for the mark and thus fail the test.

More than seven decades after pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer wrote about how our questions shape our answers and direct our orientation of mind, Horowitz points to the flaw of using this human-centric method to test for self-recognition in other animals:

Chimpanzees pass (after being inked on their foreheads), an elephant named Happy passed (when an X of tape was placed above her eye), and captive dolphins pass (by doing bodily convolutions in order to examine the ink marks in reflective glass).

Dogs do not. Imagine showing your dog the mirror when his face is covered with stickers. He will, no doubt, express indifference. What looks foolish to us is not of moment to him. But this is not sufficient evidence to say that dogs fail the test and thus have no sense of themselves. For one thing, dogs do not groom themselves (like primates) and show little concern for maintenance of appearance. So they are simply unlikely to want to correct an errant mark on their faces. Neither are they visually oriented as primates are. While the mirror test is appropriate for some species, this paradigm offers challenges for dogs, who show little interest in a mirror.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

In a testament to the fact that cognitive scientists are — perhaps because they need to be — among the most inventive of experimentalists, Horowitz describes the clever method she and her team half-discovered, half-devised to bypass the species-bias problem of the mirror mark test:

Some research hints that dogs might nonetheless be able to pass such a test, if a kind of olfactory mirror were designed: something that smelled like them, but was a small bit different. While walking his dog in the winter in the foothills of Colorado, researcher (and my colleague) Dr. Marc Bekoff wondered if every “yellow spot” in the snow was equally interesting to his dog Jethro. Bekoff began carefully noting where his dog peed and where his dog sniffed. He even ported some yellowed snow to new locations to see what happened. He found that Jethro avoided smelling his own urine but smelled others’: a kind of recognition of himself, written in the snow.

To test for this, Horowitz and her team created a version of the classic self-recognition test based on olfactory rather than visual reflection, using a canister exuding odor instead of a mirror. What they found was that dogs did recognize the “scent-image” of themselves from that of other dogs — that is, they demonstrated the seemingly simple yet cognitively complex ability of self-recognition.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

Among the misconceptions and mysteries Horowitz illuminates — including how dogs discern each other’s age by smelling the biochemistry of the metabolic process and why male dogs sniff the hind-sides of other dogs, but females and wolves go for the face — is the question of how dogs actually use “scent-marking”: not in the way common lore perpetuates. Horowitz explains:

Here’s a surprise: in contrast to these other marking animals, domestic dogs do not mark territorially. Yes, you read that right. Dogs are not “marking their territory.” How do we know this? Simply by looking at where dogs do — and do not — pee. Owned dogs do not mark the periphery of their homes. The apartment-living dog does not pee along the walls and threshold… When living in fenced suburban yards, dogs do not assiduously line the border of the property with pee. Research in India on the massive free-ranging dog population there — stray dogs who actually might have home territories at risk of being wandered into by others — found that they, too, rarely mark on the boundary of a territory. Dogs walked along shared paths and parks could not verily consider these areas their “territories,” given the occasionalness of their occupying them — and indeed they show no accompanying behaviors that would indicate that dogs feel that a path is “theirs.”


Most likely, it is social information being left.

To decode what messages that information actually contains, Horowitz applied to the New York City Parks Department and proceeded to perform a series of clever experiments and observations in public parks. What she learned about the astonishing olfactory universe of dogs profoundly altered her own experience of the world. In a lyrical passage that crystallizes the invitation at the heart of the book, she writes:

A summer trip in the car is not complete without notes of gasoline, cut grass, honeysuckle, warmed vinyl, sunscreen, overheated-dog breath, and wet sandals, stirred by wind from the open windows or wafting up from the floorboards.

I smell a thunderstorm approaching on my last visit to Colorado, the home of my family during my childhood, when I come to help clean out the house after my father’s death. The watery, fresh smell of sea air comes, I now know, from ozone carried down from higher altitudes on the winds of a storm. It is also the odor of the city when I emerge after swimming, the receptors pinging chlorine! silent for a long enough moment for me to smell the world in its absence.

I smell gin on the man who sits next to me in 10C.

I smell the acrid, lingering piles of freshly turned, festering wood chips on the other side of the park.

I see two people with a dog; then a second later smell that dog’s poo, which must’ve recently been deposited in a trash bin.

I smell the art room at kindergarten before seeing it.

I smell every book I open.


I will never smell as a dog does. I accept it. It is dogs’ difference I celebrate — and their ways of smelling — their very noses — are different. Quiet distillers of a world that we have stood up from and forgotten.

Complement the fantastically fascinating Being a Dog with Diane Ackerman on the science of smell, then revisit Horowitz on the art of looking.


Rilke on Writing and What It Takes to Be an Artist

“Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”

Even more complex and nuanced than the question of how to be a good writer, which has elicited answers from some of humanity’s most beloved authors, is the question of why be a writer at all — why, that is, do great writers write?

Among the most memorable and invigorating answers are those sprung forth by W.H. Auden, Jennifer Egan, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. But the finest, richest, truest answer of all comes from Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — those invaluable packets of wisdom on writing and life, which Rilke bequeathed to a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus.

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law

In the very first installment from their now-iconic correspondence, the young poet shares some of his writing with his mentor and extends the simple, enormously difficult question of how one knows one is a writer. Echoing Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Rilke offers:

Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bukowski’s incantation from his poem “So you want to be a writer”“unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket … don’t do it,” he admonished — Rilke adds:

This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.


A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.

But despite his opening caveat, Rilke does offer young Kappus advice both practical and poetic:

Try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty — describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.

Rilke concludes with a numinous definition of what it means, and what it takes, to be an artist:

I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.

Letters to a Young Poet remains nothing short of secular scripture for the creative life, replete with Rilke’s wisdom on what books do for our inner lives, the life-expanding value of uncertainty, what it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves. Complement this particular portion with artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández on what it really means to be an artist and writer Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Rilke on our fear of the unexplainable and his stirring letter to his boyhood teacher at the military academy that nearly broke his spirit.


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