Russell’s contribution to prose writing is a great one. He has written essays on almost all the social, political and religious topics. He has given his precious and thought provoking views for the benefit of mankind. He takes man as a rational entity at his high level. It is man’s rational ability which enables a man to ponder over any matter object and fact of nature. Human beings get or form ideas from these facts or objects of the universe. Some ideas can be very helpful to mankind and can lead mankind to the path of peace and prosperity. There are also some harmful ideas which can cause destruction for mankind.
Russell has written many essays on almost every topic or field of life and all his essays have their own worth and fame. But the essay “Of Ideas that Have Harmed Mankind” has its own unique importance. In this very essay, Russell discusses harmful beliefs that have harmed mankind. Huge destruction has already been made and will go on unless proper precautions and protective measures are not taken to eliminate them. History itself has shown the destruction caused by these harmful ideas.
Actually these ideas become such kind of beliefs which gradually start becoming a permanent source of man’s unhappiness throughout life. When such ideas or beliefs get into the blood of any society, the good and evil passions always go side by side within human beings. These ideas also lead man to a conflict between evil and good passions and sometimes one dominates the other. It is often observed that evil beliefs instigate the evil passions and they become dangerous and destructive for the society. These ideas and beliefs very often become a source of evil passions which ultimately take the form of pride, cruelty, avarice, greed, revenge, etc.
Russell very beautifully argues that passion for cruelty is more destructive. To clarify it, he exemplifies that when some one enjoys the sight of the sufferings of others, it means that he is pacifying his own cruel passions. It is really below the ethics of humanity and is a kind of severe cruelty to beat the insane person to make him free from the evil spirits believing that the beating will affect the evil spirit but not the body of the patient.
Talking about the ideas of the future, Russell points out that beliefs about the future in most of the cases have been a permanent source of harm to mankind. As no orie can predict or foretell about the happenings of the future exactly, then it is useless to think about the coming harms of the future. It is equally difficult to choose one out of the variety of beliefs available. Russell very strongly condemns those who think about the harms of the future of which they have no solid proof or surety to happen. These are such kind of harmful ideas or thoughts which stop the progress of the future progress in a country. In other words, under the influence of these beliefs, human progress becomes standstill.
Russell further elucidates the harmful ideas which work through the fertile mediums of selfishness, pride, envy, conceit and superstition. Religious beliefs are actually superstitions which have already done immense harm to mankind. It is laid stress in the religion that there should be total destruction of the defeated enemy. In stead of sympathizing with the suffering people, dogmatic people always enjoy the sight of their torture. The people who are religious minded and have the belief in self-righteousness think or believe that they are right, and hence they can harm others who are the non-believers.
These are such kinds of people who cause of great destruction and harm for the non-believers and they treat the non-believers as beasts.
Talking about the passions of pride and envy, Russell says that these are the fruit of harmful ideas which have also done great damage to mankind. Pride generates a sense of superiority either of sex or color or race of religion. Speaking rationally, pride and envy are absolutely baseless. To exemplify it, Russell argues that except having tougher muscles, the male does not have any inherent superiority over the female.
Such a kind of sense of superiority even does exist in super powers America, Russia, England, France, etc. Everyone regards those above who are equal to him, but thinks that he is superior to those who are below from him in status. In Russia, a new privileged class has appeared which is termed as proletariat. Pride of creed makes one look upon all as sinners who profess a different faith and who are surely doomed for hell.
The passion for envy which is an outcome of harmful ideas in one’s inner self, does not only cause of great harm in personal and public life but also in an international life. Both envy and selfishness are responsible for the source of “undignified behavior in a person. It becomes even more harmful and dangerous when it erupts between two nations which ultimately becomes more harmful than the personal envy.
Economic interest of every nation is different and this tendency is very dangerous for mankind. To make this point clear, Russell exemplifies by saying that if a barber or a butcher does the same, it only affects a limited circle of life but if it is practised by different nations then the whole human race is affected by it.
Nationalism is another very harmful idea which creates anarchy and roots among the different nations. Any kind of sense of self-importance whether personal or sectional or of the species is condemned by Russell in a very strong and severe criticism. Belief in magic and witchcraft is the result of this sense of self-importance.
To check these such a kind of harmful ideas, Russell himself suggests some precautions. By acting upon such suggestions, one can avoid these dogmatic beliefs. If the precautions are taken in time then the tensions produced by the harmful beliefs and ideas can be minimized to a very large extent. It is very necessary for someone to remain conscious of any belief which causes flattering one’s sense of self-esteem. Russell also makes it clear that if one does so one must not think or regard him as a divine savior or scourge. Suggesting another useful point, Russell says that the knowledge gained from social sciences must penetrate to the great mass of men because, in a democratic country, people have the final authority to choose the government and to judge its success or failure. It cannot be practiced in a nation which does not welcome the process of democracy. Democracy is a constant and gradual process and an abrupt introduction of it would be harmful for the masses in a country.
So, we can say in the concluding remarks that harmful ideas are the result of base, worthless and cheap passions. The real remedy or solution of these harmful ideas lies in the restrictions on such moral passions. Tolerance, compassion and kindness are such kind of supreme virtues that must be cultivated among the people at personal as well as public level so that a society could be purified from harmful ideas or beliefs.