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Bertrand Russell On Education: 4 Characteristics To Form The Basis Of An Ideal Character

Character is what makes all the difference. In making of our character, influence of our experience and education is untold. We can’t, in fact, conceive its credence. To build an ideal character is critical for us to become successful and to generate good citizens. And identifying few characteristics that form the basis of an ideal character can be the starting point of the journey.

In his 1926 poignant, brilliant and timeless work, ‘On Education’, Bertrand Russell gives us an outline of 4 characteristics to meditate as a basis of an ideal character. In the chapter titled ‘The Aims of Education’ Russell proposed four characteristics to form basis of an ideal character. As Russell said:

I’ll take four characteristics which seem to me jointly to form the basis of an ideal character; vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence. I don’t suggest that this list is complete, but I think it carries us a good way. Moreover, I firmly believe that, by proper physical, emotional and intellectual care of young, these qualities could all be made very common.

In response to a question what were his equipment for success Marshal Field replied ‘health and ambition’ in a 1901 interview, in 1926 Russell almost equally emphasize on vitality-a physical trait according to Russell- as a basis for his idea of ideal character. According to Russell although vitality is a physical trait but it largely shapes our mental state and stamina.

Vitality is rather a physical than a mental characteristic; it is presumably always present where there is perfect health, but it tends to ebb with advancing years, and gradually dwindles to nothing in old age. In vigorous children it quickly rises to a maximum before they reach school age, and then tends to be diminished by education. Where it exists, there is pleasure in feeling alive, quite apart from any specific pleasant circumstances. It heightens pleasures and diminishes pains. It makes it easy to take an interest in whatever occurs, and promotes objectivity, which is an essential of sanity. Human beings are prone to become absorbed in themselves, unable to be interested in what they see and hear or in anything outside their own skins.


Vitality promotes interest in the outside world; it also promotes the power of hard work.

The second characteristic of our ideal character ingredients list is courage-a must have for entrepreneurs and risk takers and for whoever wants to live a life at its fullest. In a discussion of courage Russell gives us a clear view about nature and forms of courage:

Courage- the second quality on our list-has several forms, and all of them are complex. Absence of fear is one thing and the power of controlling fear is another. And absence of fear, in turn, is one thing when the fear is rational another when it is irrational. Absence of irrational fear is clearly good; so is the power of controlling fear. But absence of rational fear is a matter as to which debate is possible.
The test of courage has been crudely behaviouristic: a man must not run away in battle; he must be proficient in ‘manly’ sports; he must retain self-command in fires, shipwrecks, earthquakes, etc. he must not merely do the right thing, but he must avoid turning pale, or trembling, or gasping for breath, or giving any other easily observed sign of fear.

The take between fear versus courage is universal. To be fully courageous we must instill courage in our heart not in action only.

Fear should be overcome not only in action but in feeling; and only in conscious feeling, but in the unconscious as well.


To being courageous you have to source your fuel from within. External validation always cripples the process. If your courage depends on someone else’s admiration and petting it would be useless at the face of crisis:

What is wanted is a combination of self respect with an impersonal outlook on life. To begin self respect: some men live from within, while others are mere mirrors of what is felt and said by their neighbours. The later can never true courage: they must have admiration, and are haunted by the fear of losing it.
Thus the perfection of courage is found in the man of many interests, who feels his ego to be but a small part of the world, not through despising himself, but valuing much that is not himself. This can hardly happen except when instinct is free and intelligence is active.

Then Russell talked about sensitiveness as an antidote to mere courage. Sensitiveness helps us to avoid irrational courage that is foolish. Mere courageousness without understanding the situation is dangerous:

Sensitiveness, the third quality in our list, is in a sense a corrective of mere courage. Courageous behavior is easier for a man who fails to apprehend dangers, but such courage may often be foolish. We cannot regard as satisfactory any way of acting which is dependent upon ignorance or forgetfulness: the fullest possible knowledge and realization are an essential part what is desirable.

The he comes up with a more sensible definition of sensitiveness and how it works:

A purely theoretical definition would be that a person is emotionally sensitive when many stimuli produce emotion in him; but taken thus broadly the quality is not necessarily a good one. If sensitiveness is to be good, the emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate: mere intensity is not what is needed. The quality I have in mind is that of being affected pleasurably or the reverse by many things, and by right things.

Throughout his work Russell put an undue amount of importance on intelligence.

I will therefore pass on to the last of the four qualities we enumerated, namely, intelligence.

In this part he begins with a poignant elaboration of intelligence and what knowledge can do for a man:

When I speak of intelligence, I include both actual knowledge and receptivity of knowledge. The two are, in fact, closely connected. Ignorant adults are unteachable; on such matters as hygiene or diet, for example, they are totally incapable of believing what science has to say. The more a man has learnt, the easier it is for him to learn still more-always assuming that he has not been taught in a spirit of dogmatism.

The he comes to the point of importance of intelligence and aim of education as a means to cultivate intelligence in order to tackle our daunting problems in world:

And without intelligence our complex modern world cannot subsist; still less can it make progress. I regard the cultivation of intelligence, therefore, as one of the major purpose of education.

In a discussion of intelligence it is required to create a framework to understand it better, Russell says:

To make this clear, it is necessary to define intelligence a little more closely, so as to discover the mental habits which it requires. For this purpose I shall consider only the aptitude for acquiring knowledge, not the store of knowledge which might legitimately be included in the definition of intelligence. Then he comes to our aid to give us a way ahead to lead an intellectual life regardless of situation. The instinctive foundation of the intellectual life is curiosity, which is found among animals in its elementary forms. Intelligence demands an alert curiosity, but it must be of a certain kind.

[…] Curiosity properly so called, on the other hand, is inspired by a genuine love of knowledge.

[..] And with the death of curiosity we may reckon that active intelligence, also, has died.

As intelligence demands an alert curiosity then question comes what it takes to become curious? Russell famously proclaimed that it’s associated with passion for knowledge and ability to use certain technique to acquire knowledge. At time it takes an ever alert mind, love for knowledge, patience and hard work. Russell claimed that an education that creates an ecosystem for intelligence will develop all these ingredients within:

If curiosity is to be fruitful, it must be associated with a certain technique for the acquisition of knowledge. There must be habits of observation, belief in the possibility of knowledge, patience and industry. These things will develop themselves, given the original fund of curiosity and the proper intellectual education.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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