Tag Archives: Thomas M. Disch

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.

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  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)