I Would Never Die for My Beliefs Because I Might Be Wrong

Bertrand Russell? Ayn Rand? Apocryphal?

russell08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, while reading my Facebook feed I saw a graphic from a major media organization (The Economist) that displayed a picture of the influential philosopher Bertrand Russell coupled with the following quotation:

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.

Are these really the words of Russell? I could not find a proper citation.

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in “The Objectivist Newsletter” in June 1965. This periodical was edited by the controversial philosopher Ayn Rand and her partner Nathaniel Branden. The expression was printed in a section of the newsletter containing miscellaneous quotations that Rand had collected which she felt depicted contemporary currents of thought. Rand included a fairly precise citation for the remark: 1

“I once asked [Bertrand] Russell if he was willing to die for his beliefs. ‘Of course not,’ he replied. ‘After all, I may be wrong.'” Leonard Lyons, The New York Post, June 23, 1964.

The phrasing above differed from the version given by the questioner because Lyons and Russell were engaged in a question and answer interaction. But Russell’s response in context provided a solid match.

QI has not yet been able to access microfilm of the “New York Post” on the date specified. Hence, QI has not verified the citation and determined its exact location in the newspaper. Unfortunately, the quotation cannot be found in the “Post” via an electronic database search because issues from 1964 have not been digitized.

Lyons was a popular and widely-syndicated columnist, but QI believes that the quotation did not appear in his syndicated column because QI has been unable to find it in several large databases of newspapers. Perhaps it appeared in a profile of Russell that was only published in the “Post”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1916 the book “Justice in War-Time” by Bertrand Russell was published, and he discussed skeptically the willingness of individuals to die during warfare. He suggested that they were being miseducated. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

For ages past, education has been largely directed to producing these qualities for the sake of war. They now exist so widely that in every civilised country almost every man is willing to die on the battlefield whenever his Government thinks the moment suitable. The same courage and idealism which are now put into war could quite easily be directed by education into the channel of passive resistance.

In 1922 Russell published “Free Thought and Official Propaganda”. He stated that some people who were willing to die for principles were being unscrupulousness manipulated: 3

Meanwhile, the whole machinery of the State, in all the different countries, is turned on to making defenceless children believe absurd propositions the effect of which is to make them willing to die in defence of sinister interests under the impression that they are fighting for truth and right. This is only one of countless ways in which education is designed, not to give true knowledge, but to make the people pliable to the will of their masters.

The 1916 and 1922 citations above differed from the saying under investigation, but they did overlap thematically.

In 1965 the following appeared in “The Objectivist Newsletter” as noted previously:

“I once asked [Bertrand] Russell if he was willing to die for his beliefs. ‘Of course not,’ he replied. ‘After all, I may be wrong.'” Leonard Lyons, The New York Post, June 23, 1964.

In 1976 a columnist in a Carrizozo, New Mexico newspaper printed the exchange and mentioned Russell but not Lyons: 4

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, asked if he was willing to die for his beliefs, replied; “Of course not, after all, I may be wrong”

In 1977 a filler item in a Sikeston, Missouri newspaper printed the exchange and named both participants but did not give a citation: 5

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, asked if he was willing to die for his beliefs, replied: “Of course not. After all, I may be wrong.” Leonard Lyons

In 1986 an Australian newspaper reviewed a BBC documentary; the words of an interviewer named Peter France were recounted. France employed a quotation that he ascribed to Russell that provided a partial thematic match to the saying: 6

. . . prompts France to quote the following words from Bertrand Russell: “If you’re certain of anything, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves absolute certainty.”

In 1989 the science fiction author Thomas M. Disch wrote a piece in “The Washington Post” that included a description of his visit to Pakistan where Disch heard a version of the quotation: 7

Once, Sir Bertrand Russel [sic] when asked if he was prepared to die for his beliefs, replied, ‘Certainly not, after all I may be wrong.’

In conclusion, the citation in 1965 provided evidence that Bertrand Russell did make the remark although the information was given indirectly through Leonard Lyons and then via Ayn Rand. Russell died in 1970 and QI believes it was plausible that he conversed with Lyons and made this comment.

If QI is able to access the 1964 “New York Post” in the future he may be able find the original article and remove one level of indirection. This would increase the level of confidence.

Image Notes: Picture of Bertrand Russell accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Detail from the painting The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Markus Hietanen whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to a kind librarian at the Florida Gulf Coast University for help verifying the 1965 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1965 June, The Objectivist Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 6, Edited and Published by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, From the “Horror File”, Quote Page 25, Column 2, The Objectivist Newsletter, Inc., New York, Reprint collection published by Second Renaissance, Inc., c/o Ayn Rand Institute, Irvine, CA 92606 (Verified with scans; thanks to the library of the Florida Gulf Coast University)
  2. 1916, Justice in War-Time by Bertrand Russell, Chapter: War and Non-Resistance, Quote Page 48, The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1922, Free Thought and Official Propaganda by Bertrand Russell, (Conway Memorial Lecture delivered by Bertrand Russell at South Place Institute, London on March 24, 1922), Quote Page 23, B. W. Huebsch, Incorporated, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1976 March 4, Lincoln County News, A bowl of activities From Nogal by Roby Burke, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Carrizozo, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1977 May 20, The Daily Standard, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Sikeston, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1986 August 25, The Sydney Morning Herald, Section: The Guide: Television for August 28, Man of God and woman of Steele, two unlikely stories Quote Page 12, Column 2, Sydney, Australia. (Google News Archive)
  7. 1989 June 18, The Washington Post, Section: Book World, Essay: Notes of A Literary Ambassador by Thomas M. Disch, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)