Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century SEEING THEMSELVES as fiercely independent thinkers, bien-pensants are remarkable chiefly for the fervor with which they propagate the prevailing beliefs of their time. Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill's godson and a scion of one of England's great political dynasties, exemplified this contradiction throughout most of his life. British philosopher A. C. Grayling can now be counted amongst his number.
Though Russell, born in 1872, may seem a faintly archaic figure today, the type of thinking he embodied has not disappeared, and there are many who follow him in promoting a militant version of liberal conventional wisdom as the all-purpose solution for human ills. George Santayana, a thinker of insight and subtlety (these days much neglected), summed up Russell's predilections perfectly: "His radical solutions were rendered vain by the conventionality of his problems. His outlook was universal, but his presuppositions were insular."
Along with countless others, Russell fell victim to the belief that the solution to the world's problems would be found in increasing internationalism, socialism, the withering away of religion and the continuing advancement of science.
This is, in effect, a version of his godfather's "religion of humanity"-the secular humanist creed imbibed by Mill from the French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, which aimed to replace the traditional faiths of the West with a belief in human progress.
At times Russell was seized by despair, doubting the capacity of human beings to realize the glorious prospect ahead of them. What he never doubted was the faith he had in common with the rest of the progressive intelligentsia: if only humankind could bring itself to be reasonable, the future would be so much better than the past.