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Bertrand Russell: In Praise of Idleness

Christina is an Egyptian writer and translator who teaches at Al-Alsun Faculty, Ain Shams University.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Philosophy of Idleness

In an environment inundated with economic competitions, as a result of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, English philosopher Bertrand Russell opted for championing idleness. Russell published his landmark essay In Praise of Idleness in 1935, in which he averred that all people should work less to attain happiness and welfare.

Some people may pronounce Russell as an idle man who only sought merely luxury. In truth, Russell was a prolific social activist who contributed to a plethora of essays on modern philosophy. Russell is also known for founding the school of Analytic Philosophy. Thus, he was far from being indolent, which should lead us to question why he urged people to live an idle life.

The Great Depression that took place due to the Wall Street crash wrecked havoc on millions of investors and lasted for 10 years, from 1929 to 1939. The depression led to unprecedented devastation as it made it difficult for multifarious people to eke out a living.

In the United States, the Great Depression triggered massive catastrophes as life became burdened with many financial worries, such as drastic unemployment and severe deflation in almost every country of the world.

For Russell, the Wall Street crash provided a patent example of the adverse consequences that repressive economic ideologies can render. Russell stated that people are required to revise their beliefs regarding work ethics and the ruling power system.

The belief system that pronounces work as a virtue by itself to keep people working day and night is, according to Russell, a superficial attitude that might lead to the acquisition of a large fortune but can also cause utter loss and poverty.

Russell begins his essay by explicating the true definition of work to showcase how people’s irrational concepts lead to misery and chaos. So, what is work in the first place? Russell tells us in his essay that there are two types of work—the labourer and the supervisor.

The labourer type is concerned with changing the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface. The supervisor type is about assigning the same task—changing the position of matter— to others. Russell elaborates that the first type is tiresome, boring, and badly paid, whereas the second type is much more paid although it is not of similar difficulty.

As we can se, the second type can be ever extended, for institutions employ people to supervise not only labourers but also to supervise the supervisors of those labourers. Although Russell was not an advocate of Marxism, he decided to champion the views of Marx regarding the unfair clash between the upper-class society and the lower-class one.

Russell wonders why people value intellectual work (the supervisor type) more than manual work (the labourer type), indicating that this hierarchy of esteem is irrational. Moreover, since the supervisor type is inherently valuable, labourers tend to despise what they do.

So imagine if you spend half of your day doing something that you subconsciously hate, and the disastrous results that occur. Moreover, the intrinsic value that work has acquired leads people to despise spare time as a deadly sin; many people nowadays loathe the idle hours of afternoon naps and games, preferring to get engaged in some arduous task.

Accordingly, people keep working day and night in a vicious circle, which becomes jarring to their nervous system. In return, overstimulation takes a great toll on the quality of the work produced.

Since half of the population is prospering in work at the expense of their social life and health while the other half is completely unemployed and miserable, Russell argues that the problem will be solved when working hours are reduced to four hours only per day.

Since society is saturated with overworked and unemployed, Russell indicates that by reducing working hours, every society member will have a job and at the same time enjoy other leisure activities. Therefore, in a time permeated with economic pressure, Russell urges his readers to take a no-guilt refreshing nap and even to play.

Yes, no matter how old you are, it is still your birthright to play. Russell’s essay has a good take on the significance of playing as it regards people who take pride in being workaholics as not fully alive. Russell even argues that by allowing work to prevail in every minute of our day, we tend to lose our creativity and intellectual skills over time.

But how can our creativity be depleted due to overwork? After all, acquiring a valuable intellectual position is unlikely to dissipate one's intellectual skills. Well, if you think about what you do, you will find that your specialty is just a drop in the ocean, compared to all things that you can do in life.

Russell sharply stresses that “it is a condemnation of our civilization” if people fail to find other pleasures of life away from their jobs. Besides, taking playfulness seriously contributes to a highly esteemed view of education and art: Art will be for pleasure’s sake, not for the sake of competition to cater for life’s economic stress and expectations. Even wars will be eliminated since it compromises idleness and pleasure.

We currently inhabit a world infused with work addiction. To exemplify, in India, employees tend to follow a 5-day, 8- to 9-hour per day working schedule. In Japan, a 2016 government survey found that over 25% of all Japanese companies demand 80 hours of overtime each month, which has negatively affected people’s well-being and increased mortality rate.

So in such a miserable world where livability is eclipsed by labour, it is recommended that we revise our work principles and views. We are all required to stop giving work free rein to encroach on our social and mental life. Russel’s essay is propaganda for the balanced, meaningful life we all aspire to live, despite being impeded by our irrational beliefs and societal standards.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Christina Aziz Hanna