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Bertrand Russell's Idleness

Bertrand Russell's Idleness

There are some popular photographic images of Bertrand Russell that come to mind when we hear his name. In them Russell smiles directly at us, primarily through his eyes. A pipe, of course, is in view. The pipe conveys a certain leisurely way of thinking. He is calm and kindly. Gone is the young genius of that philosophical revolution we associate with quick brilliance and abstraction. The assurance remains but now in the form of wisdom about the human condition. It is that wiser Russell who turned in 1932 (aged 60, though not yet two-thirds way through his life) to write his famous essay, “In Praise of Idleness.” It is hard not to imagine that Russell’s contemporaries would have been startled at the essay’s theme, at least if their knowledge of the man was limited to the sheer volume his literary output, rather than the languid demeanour. After all, Russell was a ferocious worker himself, managing to write a book or two virtually every year over the preceding two decades. He was civically active too. The interest in “idleness” was, though, perfectly sincere.

Photo of Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

Russell’s essay has endured as a contribution to the question of how we might turn from a work ethic driven labour and towards more meaningful pursuits. One might speculate that it has a persuasive force that more developed notions of leisure or idleness tend to lack. Russell describes productive human activities with a kind of dry irony that brings their apparent absurdity into focus. And he speaks from the point of view of humanity, yet with a kind of inside knowledge of those who believe that it is a good and noble thing that some, though not necessarily themselves, should be tasked with honest toil.

Russell’s essay offers its readers a powerful set of criticisms of “the belief that work is virtuous” (1). Those criticisms prove effective on their own terms. But they are find their way smoothly to their end through their author’s aristocratically benevolent persona, one which speaks on behalf of a more equal world where class will have no advantage. The essay is aimed at the widest readership possible. It is chatty and effortless, and its objectives are not always precise or aligned. A number of tensions come into view. Unpicking them helps us to determine what we think Russell means. That is also an opportunity for us to find where we stand on idleness and see whether we too would like to speak in praise of it.

Like most other champion of idleness or laziness Russell is very clear that his vision of things does not wish to defend exploitative idlers. These latter include land-owners who take in rents whilst doing nothing themselves. There is therefore an implied egalitarianism in the position. No moral case for idleness can succeed if it permits an unfair share of the burden of work. Indeed, the essay rings with a humane concern for the exploited, for the enslavement of workers. The case for idleness can take two main forms. There is, what we might call, the reformist version. That version asks us to think about reducing the demands made by work on our time and energy in order to free us for the benefits of leisure. A contrasting purist version is not reformist, but abolitionist. This one welcomes idleness as the possible destruction of the greatest obstacle to human happiness. That obstacle is the obsession we have with making something of ourselves, of “tending the self,” of egoism in all its forms. Another dimension of the idleness question is whether it is prompted by a worry about excessive work, and less about the positive virtues of idleness. But equally there may be positive even utopian temptations which give priority to idleness in discussions. And finally, there is the question of what the good of idleness supposedly is: in what sense is it better than the regime it corrects? Each of these considerations can intersect. They cannot all be held with equal strength, given the various ways they may effectively deny each other. In Russell’s essay all are given some expression. A dominant perspective, however, eventually emerges from the melee of claims.

Near the beginning of the essay Russell expresses the wry hope that his essay should lead “to a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing” (2). The time has arrived for fundamental change. The advent of mechanization has made possible a dramatic new freedom from work. (John Maynard Keynes had, just a few years earlier, set out a similar proposition in his “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”) What, though, is that freedom? Perhaps it is his gift for rhetoric that sees Russell begin with the option most likely to hold his audience captive. He initially connects the freedom of doing nothing with “laziness” (2). That seems to point in the direction of the giddying abolitionist version of idleness. Truly lazy individuals would not care what the world makes of them, or if they did their preference for their own ease would always be the winning motivation. But Russell is not actually quite so radical. He tends in the main to push things in the reformist direction. Overall we find little enough talk of laziness and idleness, and more about the practices of leisure.

Ancient Greece vase symposium scene
Symposium scene

The reformist position is naturally more aligned with a socially productive case for leisure. Once a luxury confined to the exploiting classes, our new world can hope to see an equitable distribution of leisure. And this is a good thing since leisure, Russell notes, “is essential to civilization” (5). In this respect the good of leisure is indexed to the basic good of civilization (one which is not itself placed in question). Russell’s “idleness” lies unsurprisingly near to the classical Greek notion of leisure or “scholé.” Scholé is the opportunity for contemplation dedicated to improving one’s life and community. The Roman authors spoke in similar ways of “otium,” the negation of which – negotium – is the tawdry world of business. Both “scholé” and “otium” refer to a space of freedom where we can be most truly human. That is gained when we situate ourselves outside the demands of everyday busyness.

The question of what we truly are is addressed in terms of what things are best for us. Russell gives some outline to his view of the matter with the declaration that our leisure time should not “necessarily be spent in pure frivolity” (12). For this, it turns out, some education will be required. Scholé finds its way – as it does in language – towards the concept “school.” Notably, Russell was himself a committed educationalist. With Dora Black, and just a few years prior to “In Praise of Idleness,” he founded a quite anti-traditional school. The usual hierarchies and structures – still prevalent in university studies, Russell believes – formed no part of the class-room experience.

Education helps us to be the best version of ourselves by equipping us with “tastes which would enable” (12) the intelligent use of leisure. Russell occasionally nods favourably towards light-hearted pursuits, but he is more fundamentally drawn to the example of those innovators who in a certain kind of idleness – in otium, we might say – “cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations” (13). Without this “leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism” (13). Greater leisure opens up a space where there can be none of “the frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia” (14) that go with over-work. And with more energy at our disposal we will regain the capacity for civilizing activities and turn away from the “passive and vapid” (14) amusements that are designed for exhausted people. Russell, then, we find is no abolitionist. His programme for idleness is, rather, one geared towards a kind of enlightened leisure. The essay is not pure classicism, though. It reverberates with feeling for the toiling and beleaguered masses. Equality is never subordinate to economic progress. Leisure is to be arranged for and enjoyed by all. In hope, more than anything else, he maintains that an egalitarian leisure can be at least as intellectually productive as its earlier socially stratified variety. Civilization, in the end, must be protected. It is for this reason that Russell, ultimately, writes not in praise of idleness but of its domesticated relative, leisure.

Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. His latest book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay was published last year by Princeton University Press.

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