I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Bertrand Russell on Work
The opposite of idleness is work and one of the 20th century’s most prominent philosophers had a lot to say about that.
In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay, "In Praise of Idleness", in which he laid out the case for inactivity.
He wrote about the rewards of idleness:
“Every one knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth.” These idle people obviously subscribed to the Italian saying “dolce far niente”—“it is sweet to do nothing.”
Clearly, the tourist was on the right track. Hard work confers most of its benefits to the factory owner or the hedge fund manager, not to the person who toils.
“I want to say, in all seriousness,” wrote Russell, “that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
He continues by examining the unfairness of labour by pointing out that there are two kinds of work. The first kind is the labour of assembling cars, driving the garbage truck, or dispensing coffee. The second type is “telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”
“It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.
— Jerome K. Jerome
So, we have arrived at a place in which those who merely organize work, chief executive officers, are typically paid 350 times more than those who actually do the work.
These head honchos are largely redundant anyway. Britain’s 19th-century Prime Minister Lord Melbourne said that the best form of leadership is “masterful inactivity.”
So, Russell’s thesis boils down to: why work when doing so clearly benefits someone else? That is a sentiment shared by author Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, who writes that “The stupefying modern obsession with productivity denies the whimsy and the freedom that living fully demands.”
The Tyranny of Time
Time is the enemy of idleness. The dedicated idler does not ask “What time is it?” He knows it is now and in a few moments, it will still be now. So, all timepieces have to go, including the cuckoo clock; especially, the cuckoo clock.
Those wretched iThings are a menace in the lives of idlers. They buzz, vibrate, and play jingles simply to interrupt a spell of dynamic pondering. They demand attention to the point that the McKinsey Global Institute suggests office workers spend 25 percent of their working days either writing or answering e-mails. Idling is quite definitely an off-line lack of activity. So, goodbye devices.
Long before these electronic abominations destroyed the peace of quiet reverie and time was measured by a sundial, the Roman playwright Plautus complained that “The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish the hours . . . [that] cut and hack my days so wretchedly.”
Robert Louis Stevenson yearned for an age when watches and clocks could be thrown “over the housetop.” In 1876, he wrote about the pleasure of idleness: “You have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer’s day that you measure out only by hunger, and bring to an end only when you are drowsy.”
We cannot hope to be the master of time by obeying its dictates.
Time to Think
There’s a phrase not heard much these days—“I need to gather my thoughts.”
Donald Trump pulls one of his outrageous stunts and within seconds the punditocracy is clogging the airwaves with instant “analysis.” There is no time for thoughtful consideration that a spell of idleness provides.
Study after study proves humans are not much good at multitasking. We need downtime from outside stimuli to put our thoughts in order and let information to gel into ideas. That means being what appears to be idle but is, in fact, the mind in neutral sorting out and organizing thoughts.
“Sometimes, I sits and thinks. Sometimes, I just sits."
— Attributed to Winnie the Pooh
It’s a lifelong habit of one of the world’s richest people, Warren Buffett. He has written that “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.” He estimates he spends 80 percent of his time reading and thinking.
Thomas Edison was another highly successful person who understood the value of quiet time: “The best thinking has been done in solitude.”
Over at Linkedin, former CEO Jeff Weiner sets aside two hours each day during which time he thinks. Bill Gates of Microsoft and philanthropy fame takes a week away from everything twice a year for deep contemplation.
Fishing and Idleness
On the surface, fishing would appear to be the perfect pastime for the dedicated idler. You sit on the shore of a placid lake and wait. But, there’s a snag lurking here for the unwary.
Fishing requires the acquisition and maintenance of poles, lines, hooks, and bait. It’s best to set all that paraphernalia aside and focus entirely on idling without the possible distraction of perhaps catching something and then having to deal with it.
So, having disposed of all the tackle, a prime requirement for idleness is a Muskoka chair, what our American cousins incorrectly call an Adirondack chair.
The Muskoka chair is suitably low enough and has a well-inclined back that getting out of it is difficult for people of a certain age and, therefore, is discouraged. An added benefit is the wide armrest that is suitable for the accommodation of a favourite beverage. So equipped, one is perfectly set up for a bout of profound idleness.
However, there is a problem associated with this approach to lassitude; where can a person find a placid lake surface anymore? All too often the peace and tranquility needed for idleness to succeed are shattered by some yahoo riding one of those deplorable jet-ski contraptions.
- Asteroid 9620 whizzes around in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. It was discovered in 1993 and is now named Ericidle, after the Monty Python comedian.
- Early in the 19th century, the flâneurs strolled around France. Their occupation was to wander idly and, in English parlance, we might call them tramps. Some were poets that composed verses as they walked. Members of the Beat generation in the 1950s followed their example.
- The Christian church comes down hard on idleness. The Bible is chock-a-block full of admonitions about inactivity. Preacher John Northbrooke warned in the 16th century that idleness was “the fountayne and well spring whereout is drawne a thousand mischiefs, [including] whoredome, theft, murder, breaking of wedlock, perjurie, idolatrie, poerie, &c. vaine playes, filthy pastimes, and drunkenness.”
- Allegedly, the World Tramps Congress was held in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. Some say this happened in 1966 and others date it as 1996. It was at this perhaps gathering that May 2nd was declared the International Day of Idleness.
“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”
— Oscar Wilde
- “In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays.” Bertrand Russell, Psychology Press, 2004.
- “In Praise of Laziness.” Schumpeter, The Economist, August 17, 2013.
- “International Day of Idleness: Top 10 Facts about Being Idle.” The Express, May 2, 2018.
- “Why Successful People Spend 10 Hours a Week Just Thinking.” Brian Scudamore, Inc., April 7, 2016.
- “Homage to the Idols of Idleness.” Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, New York Times, November 29, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor