"It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly."
- Bertrand Russell in "Principles of Social Reconstruction" (1917)
My own ideas on the quote:
The word "preoccupation" is the keyword here. It is the lack of moderation that is the core problem, and not the ideas of possession and ownership as such. Bertrand Russell was not against the idea of private property. He just saw how totally the quest for wealth can preoccupy the minds of men and women. It can reach a degree where creating a just society is much, much more difficult.
This is of course an extremely Epicurean thought. In the very heart of Epicurean thinking, there are ideas about achieving a balanced life by controlling ones urges and needs. These ideas are do apply also to our needs concerning the urge to possess new things.
Bertrand Russell does not say that private ownership is a bad thing. He simply says that total preoccupation with collecting more and more possessions can heavily burden a person. Most of all it can burden one's mind quite unnecessarily.
This idea certainly touches a central and also acutely painful nerve in our society. This discussion is not going to die out anytime soon. On the other hand, it will quite probably never lead to any kind of final conclusion either.
This kind of discussion is, however, sorely needed, as no single central area of our society should not be taken as granted. In the end, who can truly say what is the right level of consumption that is needed to keep modern society up and running? Who can say what level of consumption is needed so that this society is able to support those of its members who need support?
(This piece was completely refurbished on 2nd of September, 2012)
"Bertrand Russell, in full Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, Viscount Amberley of Amberley and of Ardsalla (born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales—died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth), British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world."