Bertrand Russell, the great British mathematician, philosopher and stylist (1872-1970), was the leading public intellectual of his century-long life. As such he was constantly asked to write on every subject imaginable and, in Russell’s hands, every subject only he could re-imagine. From March 1933 to April 1935, he was a columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain. The pieces show the quick virtuosity and playfulness of Russell’s mind, whatever the subject. This particular column was published on March 26, 1934. It may be dated in a couple of regards: the reference to Hitler, in power barely a year at the time but whose madness Russell fully detected, is limited to something more esoteric than maniacal. And the habit of nations to either castrate or render infertile people deemed “undesirable” or, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamously crude 1927 Supreme Court opinion, “imbeciles,” has passed. But like so much of Russell’s writing, the piece still speaks beyond its time, particularly to our time: the last paragraph is as contemporary as John Boehner’s tan.
In these days, when various countries are passing laws to make in impossible for “abnormal” people to have children, it becomes for everyone an anxious question, “Am I normal?”
I do not believe that there is, or can be, anywhere any “normal” person. We all have something queer about us. The lettters I receive from unknown correspondents have made me acquainted with more ways of being queer than I should ever have dreamed of. One man thinks that the universe is a dodecahedron, another thinks that positive and negative electricity are male and female. Retired majors send me documents to prove that the Great Pyramid foretells the future and that ancient Egyptian lore is preserved in Mexico. There are many who hold that the British are the Lost Ten Tribes, but their view is vehemently combated by a stricter sect which holds that they are only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Then there are men who want me to do something. Complete strangers write: “Dear Bertrand: My little Tommy, aged ten months, is a bright boy, and as you are interested in education, I shall bring him on Tuesday morning for you to adopt. Your brother in universal fraternity, Jacob.” Others, when I am beginning a lecture tour, write: “I am commanded by the Great Spirit to inform you that the end of the world is at hand and that it is your duty to confine your lectures to the transmission of this message.” All who have some pet reform — anti-vaccination, abolition of capital punishment, vegetarianism, nudism, or what not — consider that I ought to abandon everything else and preach only their particular nostrum. Almost every day I receive some letter of one or other of these kinds. Fortunately, like the pressure of the atmosphere, they push equally in all possible directions and so neutralise each other; but for this, they would make the preservation of sanity almost impossible.
Insanity, in fact, is only excess of egoism: it consists in making openly those claims for ourselves which we all feel secretly to be our due but which sane people repress from a consciousness of the equal and opposite claims of others. Sanity is a result of social pressure: a hermit or an absolute monarch has no need of it and therefore generally goes mad. The ordinary man who allows himself to go mad is ill-advised. It may be very pleasant to believe that one is the King of France or a reincarnation of Zoroaster, but one knows that other people’s egoism will be outraged by such a claim and that they will lock one up for making it.
Prudent people, therefore, pretend to think themselves no better than their neighbors unless they can back up their claims by force. Alexander tile Great, as soon as he was strong enough, said he was the son of Zeus. The Roman Emperors said they were gods. Hitler knows, by revelation, the truth on even the most complicated subjects, such as the Mendelian laws of heredity. But those who have not got the police on their side do not, as a rule, venture to make such claims.
Sanity is thus not the natural condition of the human mind but a product of social life. It is a form of politeness, generated by the pressure of other personalities, which makes us know that we are not omnipotent. This is one of the most important arguments against despotic government since absolute power removes the need for sanity. As soon as rulers cease to depend upon the goodwill of their subjects, they become mad. This has been proved repeatedly in the past and is being proved afresh in the present.