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                         The Advantage of Cowardice Bertrand Russell 

 

During the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror came to an end, it was found that no one was left alive among the politicians except prudent cowards who had changed their opinions quickly enough to keep their heads on their shoulders. The result was twenty years of military glory, because there was no one left among the politicians with sufficient courage to keep the generals in order. The French Revolution was an exceptional time, but wherever organisation exists cowardice will be found more advantageous than courage. Of the men at the head of businesses, schools and lunatic asylums, and the like, nine out of ten will prefer the supple lickspittle to the outspoken man of independent judgement. In politics it is necessary to profess the party programme and flatter the leaders; in the navy it is necessary to profess antiquated views on naval strategy; in the army it is necessary to maintain a mediaeval outlook on everything; in journalism wage slaves have to use their brains to give expression to the opinions of millionaires; in education professors lose their jobs if they do not respect the prejudices of the illiterate.


The result of this state of affairs is that in practically every walk of life the men who come to the top have served a long apprenticeship in cowardice, while the honest and courageous have to be sought for in workhouses and prisons. Is this regrettable?


The modern world, owing to industrialism, requires social co-operation more than it was required in any earlier stage in the world's history. Now there are three reasons for which you may co-operate with a man: Because you love him and because you fear him, or because you hope to share the swag. These three motives are of differing importance in different regions of human co-operation: The first governs procreation, and the third governs politics. But the ordinary everyday business of government, whether in the state or in any other social institution, depends upon fear. A collection of fearless men would be ungovernable. The Vikings were men whom the King of Norway found ungovernable; They left Norway because they would not submit themselves to his sway. After a few centuries of adventure, they became peasants in the frozen valleys of lceland.


Consider, as a contrast, the great Duke of Marlborough. He secured the first steps in his career by causing his sister to become the mistress of James II. His great days were due to the passionate friendship between his wife and Queen Anne. Whenever he fought the French he beat them, but he was always ready to refrain from fighting if the King of France made it worth his while. He left a great name, and a great fortune, and his descendants to this day are patterns for patriots. The arts of success have changed little since his day, in spite of the nominal advent of democracy. Now, as in the past, if you wish for success you should be insinuating and pusillanimous rather than bold and self-reliant.


To those, therefore, whose ambition it is to die in the odour of sanctity, respected by bank managers, admired by friends and neighbours, and universally regarded as models of what a citizen should be, my advice is: Don't express your own opinions but those of your boss; Don't endeavour to realise ends which you yourself think good, but pursue rather those aimed at by some organisation supported by millionaires; In your private friendships select influential men if you can, or and failing that, men whom you judge likely to become influential. Do this, and you will win the good opinion of all the best elements in the community.


This is sound advice, but for my part, I would sooner die than follow it.


Bertrand Russell. [From: Mortals and Others, v.1, 1975.]

 

 

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