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John Updike vs. Bertrand Russell; Nietzsche advances

In yesterday‘s bout, another founder of religion falls, thanks to this comment by Zbicyclist:

Do we want an audience full of would-be Ubermensches, or an audience of the proletariat?

Considering Columbia is an Ivy League school, I guess we have to go with the Ubermensches.

And today’s contest features the eminently sane conservative vs. the madman who went to jail to protest a war.

Updike was the most logical, reasonable man around, but his favorite topics were infidelity and religion, two loci of irrationality. Russell was a master of logic and reason, yet personally he was anything but reasonable.

So this is an excellent, excellent matchup.

P.S. As always, here’s the background, and here are the rules.


  1. Rick G says:

    Is the set of all seminar speakers who are not full of themselves a member of itself? Only Russell would be able to tell us.

    • anon says:

      Only Russell would have an audience unanimously wanting him to speak about all speakers, and only those speakers, who do not speak about themselves.

      And only Russell, being an egotist so extreme that he is understood to be talking about himself even when he is not, can pull it off.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Anyone who lived through WWI and WWII can be forgiven for being anti-war. On the other hand, Russell has to be the most overrated philosopher in a profession (philosophy) which seems to pride itself on producing overrated “intellectuals”. Have you ever looked at Russell’s and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica? Good luck finding any theorem in it that requires more than 3 minutes of effort to prove once the premise is understood. Useful in a way, but hardly the stuff of legend.

    On the original hand, he did call out the Communist Revolution early on for the mass murder that it was while crack investigators like the New York Times continued writing fawning love letters to Stalin and his communist miracle for several more decades. That’s better most university professors and professional journalists seemed able to do.

    • anon says:

      “Anyone who lived through WWI and WWII can be forgiven for being anti-war.”

      Right. Because being anti-war is inherently a Bad Thing, though arguably excusable under those particular circumstances.

      • Anonymous says:

        If everyone were anti-war then being anti-war is a good thing. But some like Hitler are pro war. In that case advocating disarmament while the Wehrmacht builds up strength, which Russell apparently did, merely increased the chance of war and almost certainly got a bunch of allied troops killed at the beginning due to lack of preparation.

        I consider that bad. Russell having lived through WWI had a good excuse. What’s yours Dr. Robert and anon?

        • Xi'an says:

          I do not have an excuse, are you going to shoot me?!

          • Anonymous says:

            It’s ISIS you need to worry about not me. Hey, maybe if you tell them how anti-war you are they’ll spare you.

            • Anonymous says:

              Opps, I spoke to soon. It turns out Charlie Hebdo had an anti-war, anti-french military, and anti-European military spending (even though it’s already quite low). So it looks like being anti-war wont get you spared.


              • Dalton says:

                Sigmund Fraud is already out of the contest. We’ve got to keep Russell in so that the trolls don’t starve before we get to the end.

              • Anonymous says:

                Oh please, I wasn’t trolling. Look at my original comment.

                (1) Lots of people fault Russell for his knee-jerk anti-war stance. I said that’s easily forgivable.

                (2) His most famous work, which bore fruit in for example Godel’s work, is surprisingly boring, almost entirely uninspired, and could have been done by just about anyone. Important and useful, but tedious. It’s to mathematical logic what computing tables for the standard normal by hand was to early statistics.

                (3) He took one early chaperoned trip to the Soviet Union and from that discerned it’s true nature long before most of the western intelligentsia did. That’s not to shabby for a philosopher. I’m actually impressed.

                That’s not trolling, it’s an honest take.

              • Xi'an says:

                Very deep remark! Charlie Hebdo did not take its anti-military stance to get spared. Just as idiotic as defending the anti-military stance only in the absence of military policies…

        • anon says:

          Hmm, activism in favour of activists opposing their own causes. This can only be respected if you’re consistent about it – do you oppose all activists, and only those activists, who do not oppose their own causes?

  3. zbicyclist says:

    My wife would prefer I not go to a talk by someone who wrote so extensively about adultery.

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      So that eliminates them both?

      “The psychology of adultery has been falsified by conventional morals, which assume, in monogamous countries, that attraction to one person cannot coexist with a serious affection for another. Everybody knows that this is untrue.” – Russell in “Marriage and Morals” (1929)

      “The first breath of adultery is the freest; after it, constraints aping marriage develop.” – Updike in “Couples” (1968)

      I suspect your wife would prefer the second quote to the first.

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Bertrand Russell had an enormous impact on me in my teens. Of course, I’m messed up today, so that’s a strike against him. Indeed, I was introduced to Bertrand Russell and Mr. Spock at about the same time (late ’60s), and the mutual reinforcement was not good for my development. In retrospect, it’s not the hyper-rationality that offends me; it’s the smugness and condescension that went with it.

    So I vote for the nuance of the novelist over the ruminations of the rationalist.

  5. Chip Lynch says:

    I’ve always really just liked the name “Updike”.

  6. Conor says:

    I vote for Russell, so long as his talk is on Numberwang (Russell section begins at ~1:24 for the impatient):

  7. brianG says:

    my life dream – to corner updike to pose the question, ‘does he envy flick webb [from ex-basketball player] as much as i do?’

    also, if updike brought even a tenth of the genius to writing his lecture as he brought to the line ‘his hands were like wild birds’ we’d be in for a real treat.

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