Quotes out of Context: Bertrand Russell

Picture this: Trump, sitting in with his team of health experts, barely conscious because this isn’t about him and he doesn’t understand it anyway. But he perks up when he hears something he can comprehend – the word “disinfectant” – and takes this confidence in his natural scientific ability to the podium, giving us the moment in history that so perfectly illustrates the quote:

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”  – Bertrand Russell

You might think this is from Bertrand Russell’s Big Book of Burns, but it’s actually from his History of Western Philosophy, where he discusses the credibility of one of Socrates’ reporters, Xenophon:

There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This is a very invalid line of argument. A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy. We cannot therefore accept what Xenophon says if it either involves any difficult point in philosophy or is part of an argument to prove that Socrates was unjustly condemned

For someone who is protective of ideas retaining the intended meaning/nuance, the quote itself rings true logically, if not a bit petulantly. I’m not surprised then that in context we learn he is using it to attack someone… someone who really must have gotten under his skin to be mentioned in his magnum opus like this, and that is much more interesting!

I looked into this Xenophon character to see if he is really as stupid as Russell seems to think he is. Little is know about him personally, besides a “good basic education and military training”, but he made a mark as a “brilliant leader” and “kind horseman” . He wrote practical treatises on horse training, hunting and running a household, and about certain figures of the day – including Socrates, whose moral philosophy resonated with him.

Over the span of four books called Memorabilia, Xenophon describes Socrates as a down-to-earth figure and dispenser of practical advice, who is “committed to helping people improve their lives in all practical dimensions”. This account differs from Plato’s Socrates, who is a purebred philosopher, committed to “follow the argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us”. If you ask me, their versions of Socrates sound suspiciously created in their own image, but nevertheless, Plato, an actual philosopher, was considered the more trusted reporter of philosophy.

So why the disrespect, Bertie? The first line of the quoted paragraph indicates some saltiness that people generally take Xenophon for true, even though, in your words, he is “not very liberally endowed with brains”. Hmm. Seems harsh to call him “stupid” since he wrote several works and had an audience. Socrates was his mentor as much as he was Plato’s.

It could be that Russell saw something in Xenophon – or saw through him – that wasn’t so obvious to non-geniuses, and was frustrated by his popularity with the general population. But from a historical perspective, it sure seems like Russell was just engaging in some good old-fashioned prejudice of non-intellectuals and simply didn’t think it was the place for a non-qualified philosopher to speak for someone as profound as Socrates (who never wrote anything down himself). What’s more, the criticism of Xenophon doesn’t even suggest he is guilty of misunderstanding Socrates so much as reporting on him superficially – in a way the layman can understand. But isn’t that the mark of a good teacher?

Sorry, Bertie. I’m usually on your side, but I think Socrates would agree you were being kind of a dick here.

And yet again, the quote really only works for me if I don’t do a deep dive!

3 thoughts on “Quotes out of Context: Bertrand Russell

  1. Are you back again, Jess? I remember your earlier contributions to the Blog. And then you disappeared. Hope you are back and contributing to the discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

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