Quentin Smith on Bertrand Russell on “Unyielding Despair” and the Meaning of Life

Photo of Bertrand Russell

In his essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” Bertrand Russell writes:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand…

How in such an alien and inhuman world, so powerless a creature as man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.[1]

How should this passage be interpreted? Many writers, including and especially theistic proponents of a moral argument for God’s existence, interpret this passage as evidence that Russell believed the nonexistence of God goes hand-in-hand with the meaninglessness of life. In his history of twentieth century metaethics, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, a book which most theists who write on moral arguments have ignored, Quentin Smith argues that that is a misinterpretation of Russell.

Before I can summarize why Smith thinks this, I first need to summarize how Smith defines his terms.

“Human life has an objective ethical meaning” =df. moral realism is true, that is, if and only if moral facts obtain independently of whether humans believe they obtain.[2]

“Human life has an objective religious meaning” = df. theism is true.[3] (p. vii)

With these definitions in mind, Smith argues that Russell’s essay is an expression of ethical meaning and religious meaninglessness:

There is no God but “the God created by our own love of the good” (57), and thus the locus of objective meaning in our lives must reside in “that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good” (58). Thus, Russell suggests that the desire for an objective religious meaning is unsatisfied and that in this respect human lives must be devoid of fulfillment. But there are moral ideals of which we have knowledge, and whatever fulfillment, regarding objective meaning, we are capable of achieving must involve the valuation of these ideals.[4]

Furthermore, as Smith observes, “Russell offered little by way of argument for these claims about objective meaning and meaninglessness.”[5] But let’s assume that Russell is correct. What, then, would be the implications of his view? Once again, let’s turn to Smith.

If Russell’s and Moore’s position is correct, namely, that human life is religiously meaningless but ethically meaningful, then only part of the human desire for objective meaning can be fulfilled. We should side with Russell rather than Moore and hold that the emotional fulfillment of an ethically meaningful way of life should be built on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair” about religious meaning. But this also is not quite accurate, because the desire or need for religious meaning is not universal; if somebody has no desire for religious meaning, then God’s nonexistence will not produce despair in him. Accordingly, we should say that for any person who has a desire for a religious and an ethical meaning of life, the happiness he attains through his ethically meaningful life should coexist with his despair at the lack of a religious meaning. This appeared to be Russell’s attitude at the time he wrote “A Free Man’s Worship.”[6]


[1] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 1903.

[2] Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (Yale University Press, 1997), p. vii.

[3] Smith 1997, p. vii.

[4] Smith 1997, p. 6.

[5] Smith 1997, 6. For a defense of these claims, Smith says that one must turn instead to the writings of G.E. Moore, which is beyond the scope of this essay.

[6] Smith 1997, 7.