Ten Great Quotes From ‘Power’ By Bertrand Russell

Todays Top Ten Tuesday list from That Artsy Reader Girl is for ‘Favourite Book Quotes’. But there is simply no way I could possibly trim down the huge list of quotes I have collected from books I have read in the last few years, let alone rediscover the ones that would have made the list if only I could remember them. Instead I am going to list my favourites from just one book – Power by Bertrand Russell.

I read Power back in 2015 (see my review here). It lends itself well to quotation because of the way the great logician has of expressing the essence of complex problems. I did not know at the time just how the words of this book would keep coming back to me, more than anything else I have read in recent years. That’s because Russell was motivated to write Power to explain his times (first published in 1938); with the rise of Hitler and Stalin and the seeming inevitability of war.

Since I have read it, it would seem we are living in an era of dissolved political certainty, a return of nationalism and overt expressions of racism and other bigotry. Many seem to be looking around for someone to make sense of these events. We should look no further than Berty, whose words have transcended the generations.

1. “Organised greed, with little or no disguise, has played a very large part in the world’s wars”

It is remarkable how often war is justified on the grounds of patriotism or other matters of principle by those who support it, or explained as a manifestation of man’s violent tendencies by those who denigrate it. Organised greed probably offers a better explanation of the motives in play. Consideration of who benefits and who pays would be a better method for assessing its justification.

2. “And if it were Berlin and Rome, not London and Paris, that were destroyed by the thunderbolts of the new gods, could any humanity survive in the destroyers after such a deed?”

Perhaps prophesising the bombing of Dresden, the millions who died in India from man-made famines, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other times the Allies failed to uphold the values they claimed they were defending, Berty reminds us that if winning the war comes at the cost of our humanity, there are no winners.

3. “In former days, men sold themselves to the Devil to acquire magical powers. Nowadays they acquire these powers from science, and find themselves compelled to become devils. There is no hope for the world unless power can be tamed, and brought into the service, not of this or that group of fanatical tyrants, but of the whole human race, […] for science has made it inevitable that all must live or all must die”

Again, a prophesy of the coming nuclear age.

4. “The right of free speech in nugatory unless it includes the right to say things that may have unpleasant consequences to certain individuals or classes”

Something I am known to rant about frequently!

5. “The temper required to make a success of democracy is, in the practical life, exactly what the scientific temper is in the intellectual life; it is a half-way house between scepticism and dogmatism. Truth, it holds, is neither completely attainable nor completely unattainable; it is attainable to a certain degree, and that only with difficulty”

Again, something I am known to rant about a lot!

6. “All great moralists, from Buddha and the Stoics down to recent times, treated the good as something to be, if possible, enjoyed by all men equally”

7. “Apart from what private individuals and groups can extract by bargaining, the State retains the right to take by force whatever it considers necessary. And influential private groups can induce the State to use this right, as well as the power of making war, in a manner which is advantageous to themselves though not necessarily to the nation as a whole”

Should private individuals and corporations be able to profit from their relationship with the State’s military?

8. “Cromwell, Napoleon, and Hitler appeared in the early days of democracy in their respective countries; in the view of the first two, the third should be in no way surprising”

Russell’s quote could apply to so many elected dictators in young democracies that emerged across the world since he wrote it, most prominently in the current world; Putin.

9. “In exciting times, a politician needs no power of reasoning, no apprehension of impersonal facts, and no shred of wisdom. What he must have is the capacity of persuading the multitude that what they passionately desire is attainable, and that he, through his ruthless determination, is the man to attain it”

Sound like anyone you’ve heard of? Or maybe many people you’ve heard of?

Finally, there is one quote from this excellent book that has stayed with me the most. It could be used to describe the founding of most religions and governments as well as the many revolutions, reformations and restorations that follow. It applies to early Judaism, early Christianity and early Islam. It applies to both Nazism and Naturalism. It is a part of the strategy of Reaganism, Thatcherism, Putinism and Trumpism. All in one sentence:

10. “The usual plan is to invent a more or less fictitious past and pretend to be restoring its institutions”


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