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16 April 2014

Heroism and other loaded words you should be careful of

John Locke, the philosopher of happiness
whose followers made the modern world,
in part by demystifying
the potentially nasty concept of noble heroism.
Reading further in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (see previous post for links) I came upon another quotation which seems to me to cast an informative light on events in Russia today. 
     Russell is discussing Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, which was taken up by idealists and transformed into something nasty—and eventually Nazi—and contrasting it with John Locke’s humdrum but more down-to-earth approach to happiness, which culminated in British utilitarianism and the United States Constitution.
     This is what Russell says about the impulse to noble heroism:
“The sort of ethic that is called ‘noble’ is less associated with attempts to improve the world than is the more mundane view that we should seek to make men happier. This is not surprising. Contempt for happiness is easier when the happiness is other people’s than when it is our own. Usually the substitute for happiness is some form of heroism. This affords unconscious outlets for the impulse to power, and abundant excuses for cruelty.”
     The language point is that non-native speakers of English should be very careful about how they use loaded words like “heroism”. They might seem impressive in a language whose speakers worship power, but can sound not very polite in another culture where suspicion of power and cynicism about those who exercise it is predominant. This is how it has been in the whole English-speaking world for centuries, especially the three that separate us from the time of John Locke.


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