The Difficulty Is To Persuade the Human Race To Acquiesce in Its Own Survival

Bertrand Russell? George Orwell? Arthur Koestler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Humanity faces many existential dangers: hydrogen bombs, bioweapons, asteroid impacts, nanoplagues, and artificial intelligence. Yet, most of these dangers were created by humankind, and all can be ameliorated by wise decisions. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said something like:

The question is how to persuade humanity to consent in its own survival.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The first atomic bombs were detonated in 1945. Scientists involved in the creation of these astonishingly powerful weapons began to publish “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” that same year. Bertrand Russell wrote a piece titled “The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War” for the periodical in October 1946 which discussed the momentous challenges emerging from the new scientific and technological advances. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If any of the things that we value are to survive, the problem must be solved. How it can be solved is clear; the difficulty is to persuade the human race to acquiesce in its own survival. I cannot believe that this task is impossible.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Russell’s essay was noticed by others. For example, in December 1946 the “Medford Mail Tribune” of Medford, Oregon published an article titled “A Wise Man Speaks” which reprinted an excerpt from the essay containing the text above. 2

In 1947 prominent English novelist and essayist George Orwell published an article in the “Partisan Review” titled “The Future of Socialism” which discussed his hopes for a flourishing and united Europe. Orwell referred to the statement by Russell although he presented a paraphrase instead of a direct quotation: 3

Now as to the difficulties. The greatest difficulty of all is the apathy and conservatism of people everywhere, their unawareness of danger, their inability to imagine anything new—in general, as Bertrand Russell put it recently, the unwillingness of the human race to acquiesce in its own survival.

In 1955 Arthur Koestler who is best known for the anti-totalitarian novel “Darkness at Noon” published an essay in the journal “Encounter”. Koestler likened humankind with its new and frightening capabilities to a deranged version of the mythical Greek hero Prometheus. Koestler acknowledged Russell while presenting a close match to his remark: 4

The Promethean myth seems to be coming true with a horrible twist: the giant reaching out to steal the lightning from the Gods is morally insane. Hence the difficulty, as Bertrand Russell wrote a few years ago, “to persuade mankind to acquiesce in its own survival”.

In 1956 a columnist in an Alaskan newspaper mentioned the saying: 5

Political, military and scientific leaders are not the only ones involved in the struggle to persuade mankind, as Lord Russell recently phrased it, “to acquiesce to its own survival.”

Bertrand Russell wrote a thematically related remark in 1964 within the essay “The Duty of a Philosopher in This Age” which was published posthumously in 1976: 6

There is, perhaps, one duty which falls specially within the province of philosophy, and that is to persuade mankind that human life is worth preserving and that an opposite view is only open to fanatics.

In 1968 Arthur Koestler received the Sonning Prize from Copenhagen University. His acceptance speech included an instance of the saying attributed to Russell: 7

The question is, as Bertrand Russell, once said, how to persuade humanity to acquiesce in its own survival. The thermonuclear reaction, once invented, cannot be disinvented, and the Pandora boxes of biological warfare are just waiting to be opened. One cannot play Russian roulette for long.

In conclusion, Bertrand Russell should receive credit for the passage he wrote in 1946. Two other leading intellectuals, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, used versions of the phrase and credited Russell.

Image Notes: Picture of nuclear weapon test Bravo on Bikini Atoll. Public domain image created by an employee of the U.S. government. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(QI was notified of a German version of this saying via a twitter discussion with participants that included tatsächlichBuerstmayr, Sociopathblog, and Gerald Krieghofer. The German statement was “Die Frage heute ist, wie man die Menschheit überreden kann, in ihr eigenes Überleben einzuwilligen”. The statement was attributed to Bertrand Russell. Krieghofer identified the 1964 English citation. QI formulated the question above and performed the research to create this article.)

Notes:

  1. 1946 October 1, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 2, Numbers 7 and 8, The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War by Bertrand Russell, Start Page 19, Quote Page 21, Column 3, Published by The Atomic Scientists of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1946 December 4, Medford Mail Tribune, A Wise Man Speaks, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Medford, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1947 July-August, Partisan Review, Volume 14, Number 4, The Future of Socialism by George Orwell, Start Page 346, Quote Page 348, Published by Partisan Review, New York. (Verified with scans at Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University at archives.bu.edu) link
  4. 1955 May, Encounter, Volume 4, Article: The Trail of the Dinosaur, Author: Arthur Koestler, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, The Congress for Cultural Freedom, Published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., London. (Unz)
  5. 1956 January 12, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Everybody’s Crusading by Mary Margaret McBride, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Fairbanks, Alaska. (Newspapers_com)
  6. Website: The Bertrand Russell Research Centre, Website Section: Sample Texts from The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Article Title: The Duty of a Philosopher in This Age [1964], Article Description: Essay written for and published in Essays in Honor of Paul Arthur Schilpp, The Abdication of Philosophy: Philosophy and the Public Good, edited by Eugene Freeman, and published by Open Court in La Salle, Illinois, in 1976; Russell wrote this paper in August 1964, Website Description: Website of research center dedicated to Bertrand Russell located at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. (Accessed humanities.mcmaster.ca on December 15, 2018) link
  7. 1968 May 5, The State Journal, A Hitch in Man’s Evolution? Group Loyalty, Not Greed, Seen Root of Troubles (Excerpts from a speech by Arthur Koestler at Copenhagen University last month when he received the Sonning Prize; reprinted from The London Observer), Quote Page G-3, Column 4, Lansing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)