[Although famous in skiing circles, Arnold Lunn was not of the eminence which would have permitted him to publicly challenge a man of Bertrand Russell’s intellectual stature. Russell’s formidable debating skills, however, would have been no deterrent to a man like Lunn. A veteran controversialist and possessor of a quicksilver mind, he never lacked for confidence. In the following excerpt from his 1942 war time autobiography, And the Floods Came, Lunn recounts how he managed to arrange a skirmish with the great philosopher. It is interesting to note how in those far off days at least some intellectual prize-fighters took it for granted they had a duty to entertain their listeners as well as enlighten them. Nor did the philosophical gulf that separated the contestants forbid friendly personal relations.]
On February 9th, 1941, I found myself on the same platform with Mr. Bertrand Russell. He was reading a paper on “Education for Democracy” before the Washington Open Forum. I had been asked to join the panel consisting of three or four representatives of different schools of thought who were to be allowed to ask one or at most two questions at the end of Mr. Russell’s lecture. I replied that I would not travel all the way to Washington to ask Mr. Russell a respectful question at the end of his lecture, but if I were allowed fifteen minutes to pull his leg I would do my best to put in an appearance.
Mr. Russell spoke for about forty minutes. He began by hinting very discreetly at certain defects in American democracy. He insisted that democracy could function only where there was a tradition of tolerance for minorities.
“If we wish to educate children for democracy,” he said, “we must immunize them against propaganda, we must develop in them the habit of scepticism. It is the dogmatic temper which destroys democracy and paves the way for dictatorship. My own opinions, for instance, may be mere prejudice. It is very important that those of us who are in contact with the young should not encourage them to assume that the particular thing in which we ourselves most fervently believe is the one thing which matters. The most important thing in education is to respect the freedom of the individual. The great religions have all agreed in their emphasis on the importance of the individual. We need to defend anew all forms of freedom, including academic freedom”
The programme of the meeting informed us that the chief speaker was Earl Russell, but that he preferred to be known quite simply as Mr. Bertrand Russell. I began by pointing out that if I were to wander round America describing myself as Lord Lunn Mr. Russell would be very much surprised, and that I resented this aristocrat masquerading as a mister and stealing my democratic thunder. He, Lord Russell, I insisted, would have no ground for complaint if I referred to him as he would be referred to in the House of Lords, as “the noble Lord.”
“The noble Lord has begged you to be sceptical, and has assured you that his own views may be nothing more than prejudices. Had I the time I would be prepared to defend my own beliefs, not because they are mine but because they are true, and because they can be proved to be true. Lord Russell in one of his essays has remarked that there is nothing but prejudice and habit for the belief that the external world exists. You and I belong to Lord Russell’s external world, and I think he should make up his mind whether we exist before telling us how to educate our children. He insists on the extreme importance of the individual, but does not explain why he considers the individual to be important. If a man is, as he seems to imply in many of his books, nothing but a walking combination of chemicals and water, then the individual is no more important than chemicals and water. If he be nothing more than first cousin to the chimpanzee there is no reason why a dictatorship should not put him behind bars. The only rational basis for our belief in man’s right to freedom is the doctrine that man has rights which derive from God. Lord Russell pleads for academic freedom, but as a determinist he denies the possibility of freedom, academic or otherwise. He is identified with the school of thought which insists that we should begin by discovering what children would like to be taught and at what hour it would suit them to be taught. Thomas Huxley, the great agnostic, once remarked that he doubted whether any modern university provided a better education than the mediaeval universities.
“The great centuries which gave Europe her noblest art and architecture, in which were founded the great European universities, were dominated by educational ideals very different from those which the noble Lord has propounded. The mediaeval thinkers believed that it was important to decide for what purpose a man had been created before deciding for what he should be educated. Instead of organising Gallup polls to discover what boys would like to be taught they used the stick as an accessory in teaching them what it was intended they should learn, with the result that they produced scholars, whereas today we are slowly drifting down towards Moronia.
“Lord Russell, like another distinguished visitor to this country, Mr. H. G. Wells, is a survivor from the great debunking age. These ‘Prophets of the Dawn’ debunked religion, patriotism, and traditional morality, but left a void which the dictators proceeded to fill. Nature and youth abhor a vacuum. If you drive out sense you prepare the way for nonsense. The debunkers have done very well—all too well, and the rebunkers are now busy filling the void with ideological nonsense.”
The noble Lord made a most entertaining speech in reply. He was nettled by my suggestion that he was responsible for Hitler, and explained that Hitler and Mussolini would be delighted to imprison him. Of course they would. Rebunkers have always sent debunkers to the guillotine or the concentration camp after they had served their purpose.
“The noble Mister,” said Lord Russell, “implies that all he learnt in the days of his youth was learnt under the menace of the stick. His education appears to have been neglected, and I regret that I have not been provided by the committee with the instrument which would enable me to complete it. The noble Mister, in his remarks about free will and academic freedom, has ingenuously confused the philosophical and the commonsense use of those terms. It is true that I recommend scepticism to the young, but I have also urged people to cultivate the faculty which enables us to distinguish varying degrees of probability. For instance, it is not demonstrably certain that the noble Mister exists, but I consider it sufficiently likely to believe it to be worth while to refute the arguments of the hypothetical Mister.”
The audience seem surprised that two people who differed so fundamentally should get so much obvious fun out of each other’s cracks.
I called on the Russells next day. They were both desperately homesick. “The tolerance which you advocated last night,” I remarked, “is a characteristic, not of the democratic but of the aristocratic tradition. It is always easy for people who are secure and on top to be tolerant. The House of Commons in the Victorian age was often described as the best club in London, and naturally one does not throw bottles at the other members of the same select club.”
He was inclined to agree. He was feeling rather bitter over his treatment, for he had been driven out of two American universities in succession because parents had taken great exception to the moral, or non-moral, views he had propounded in his book on marriage.
Lady Russell is young and beautiful, and Lord Russell may insist on being called Mr. Russell, but Mrs. Russell is equally insistent on being addressed as Lady Russell.
“Somebody said to me the other day,” she remarked, ‘Don’t you feel guilty in these democratic days when people call you Lady Russell? I said, ‘No, but I should feel guilty if I was wearing your expensive mink coat.’”
“You have no idea,” she continued, “how hard it is to realise that poor Bertie is regarded as a monster of wickedness in New York of all places.” And she told me that her mother, who has seldom stirred out of her country home, and whose views on America are apparently based on a careful study of the New Yorker, was equally puzzled. “‘I cannot understand,’ my mother writes, ‘why these Americans make such fuss about Bertie. I had always understood that the Americans were so terribly licentious.’”
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