Jeff Roquen is a PhD student in the Department of History at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, USA. In the latest contribution to our Academic Inspiration series, Jeff talks us through how he first encountered the work of Gandhi, how a book on the politics of Abraham Lincoln exposed a far more complex figure than other portraits have acknowledged, and how Bertrand Russell’s speeches on religion and peace continue to be inspiring.

Class finally ended. At a brisk and stealthy pace, I walked across the campus surrounded by endless miles of cornfields. Four doors down from the town diner, a small independent bookstore stood open. This is where the revolution began. There was no coffee shop inside. The Internet did not exist, and no one carried a cell phone. As a pastiche of classical music played in the background, the names and titles on the books rose from their spines. It was autumn, and the leaves were changing.

I picked up one of the books, selected a page at random, and read the following line to myself, “Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.” Moved and inspired, I turned a few pages and read another one, “To me God is Truth and Love, God is ethics and morality, God is fearlessness.” I immediately placed the book on the check-out counter, paid the cashier, and spent the evening devouring The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas (1962) edited by Louis Fischer. Upon reading “This mad rush for wealth must cease, and the laborer must be assured not only of a living wage but a daily task that is not mere drudgery,” I had become a disciple of the social ideas of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948). Although his satyagraha or “truth force” campaign of non-violent civil disobedience dislodged the British from India through moral suasion, it was Gandhi’s insistence on the dignity and oneness of all races, all religions, and all peoples that gave a voice to the most powerful actor in the world – humanity – a term Gandhi used time and time again.

Around the same time, I was assigned to read selections from The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (1967) edited by Richard N. Current. As an American who grew up in the “Land of Lincoln” – the state of Illinois – Lincoln’s name and image were ubiquitous. In saving “the last best hope of earth” (Lincoln’s poignant turn of phrase for the American democratic experiment) and freeing four million slaves, Lincoln (1809-1865) has been enshrined as America’s finest president. From the speeches and writings contained in Current’s collection, however, a far more complex figure than the historical icon emerges.

In one of his famous senatorial debates with incumbent Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln refuted his charge of attempting to raise the status of blacks declaring, “I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” To a person brought up to revere Lincoln, this was a surprise. What motivated him to make such a statement? First, few (if any) candidates seeking office in the 1850s could have been elected on a platform of racial equality. Regardless of geography (North or South), Americans largely viewed blacks as inferior. As such, Lincoln had to align his politics with mainstream opinion in order to win office. Yet, there was another reason beyond political expediency.

Although Lincoln never looked down on African-Americans (or anyone for that matter) and even became friends with black leader Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), he did harbour some notions of racial difference. This was likely inherited from his rural, early nineteenth century childhood. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s righteous stand against slavery, issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863), and values of “malice toward none” and “charity for all” won the admiration of both white and black Americans – an admiration that rightly exists today.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the most internationally well-known public intellectuals and social activists of the early and mid-twentieth century. Although largely forgotten today, his voluminous scholarly and vernacular writings await discovery by the post-9/11 (2001) generation. At Cambridge University, Russell became both a brilliant mathematician and a profound philosopher.

On 6 March 1927, Russell gave a lecture entitled “Why I am Not A Christian” in South London. Due to its clear prose and rigorous logic, the address became popular and was subsequently published in a book thirty years later entitled Why I am Not A Christian And Other Essays On Religion And Related Subjects (1957). For anyone who values free thought and seeks to investigate (or re-investigate) the great questions of life, this work, which remains in print, is a perfect starting-point.

In the title essay, Russell first attacks the logic commonly employed to prove the existence of God. According to proponents of the First-cause argument, the universe must have a cosmic origin. How could something come from nothing? Therefore, God must exist as the first-cause of life. In response, Russell references the Autobiography of British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and posits that the First-cause question of “Who made me?” must be paired with “Who made God?” As the idea that God created himself is a logical fallacy (begging the question or circular reasoning), the First-cause argument is simply untenable. Throughout the remainder of the essay, Russell lucidly challenges the rationales for religious belief and even criticizes the character of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether one agrees, partly agrees, or wholly disagrees, Russell’s essay is a model exposition of rigorous thought, and it should be required reading for university students.

While many of the other essays in the volume are just as insightful and relate to questions of our time (especially “Freedom and the Colleges”), the signature essay “What I Believe” is most remarkable for Russell’s memorable definition of a life well-lived,

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Despite having vastly different backgrounds, cultures and ideologies, Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Bertrand Russell were each inspired by love, guided by knowledge, and devoted to the universal aspirations of peace and security for all humanity. By their deeds, they shook the world, and their words can shake our world today.

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Jeff Roquen is a PhD student in the Department of History at Lehigh University (Pennsylvania, USA). Read more reviews by Jeff.

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