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In Praise of Idleness Summary (8/10)

Bertrand Russell was part of a generation that was brought up on the saying: ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’ In Praise of Idleness challenges this piece of common wisdom.

Since he was a virtuous child, he believed what he was told, and acquired a conscience that made him industrious, even when he was older. But even though his conscience has controlled his actions, it has failed to control his thoughts.

Russell thought that there is too much work done in the world, and that immense harm results from the idea that work is virtuous. It is not that he thinks that work is bad, but that the industrial world needed to hear a different kind of advice than past societies.

There is the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to make their case for why they were the laziest, so he gave it to the twelfth. But countries that don’t enjoy Mediterranean sunshine require a great public propaganda to preach idleness.

As long as man spends his income, he puts as much bread into people’s mouths as he takes away if he takes the job of another person. But if he saves his money, then he does not give employment. If he invests, the matter is less obvious.

Russell is told that investing savings in industrial businesses is good for society. But he makes the point that it is only good if the business is successful. If it fails, then the money invested would have been a waste, and could have gone to feed more mouths.

While Russell makes a good point, the mechanism is more important here. That is, it is not the success or failure of an individual business that matters, but the opportunities that exist for all businesses to be created. The few that do succeed more than make up for the savings that were wasted on failed businesses.

But Russell takes issue with this idea, at least from a social perspective. He makes the point that someone who creates a product that no one demands is commended for his risk taking, while the spendthrift who actually feeds many mouths is seen as wasteful and frivolous.

Russell divides work into two kinds. One requires you to move things around, the other requires you to tell other people what to do. The first pays little and is dreadful. The second pays well and is enjoyable.

The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given
simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics.
The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects
as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive
speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

In Europe, but not in America, there is a third class of men. They are the landowners. And by virtue of owning land, they can make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, but Russell does not praise them. Their idleness is only made possible by the industry of others – indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the entire gospel of work. The last thing they want is for others to follow their example.

From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could produce, through hard work, little more than what he needed to feed himself and his family. The small surplus was given to warriors and priests. So that in times of famine, the workers died of hunger. The system continued in Russia until 1917 (although the Communist party eventually took the place of warriors and priests).

In America, the system came to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, where it continued until the Civil War.


A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being preindustrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

Russell gives us a simple example of the morality of the Slave State. Suppose that a certain number of people are in the business of producing pins.  They make as many pins the world needs, working eight hours a day. Then an invention is made that allows the same number of men to make twice as many pins – pins are already so cheap that they cannot be sold for a cheaper price.

In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing.

The men still work eight hours. There are too many pins. Some employers go bankrupt and half the men who used to create pins are now unemployed. In the end, there is just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are completely idle while half are still overworked.

In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

The idea that the poor should have idle was considered taboo.

Many people escape the minimum amount of work required by inheriting money or marrying money. But the fact that these people are allowed to be idle is not nearly as harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork and starve.

In America, men often work long hours even when they are well off. These men are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage earners – except as the grim punishment of unemployment. They dislike leisure, even for their sons. Strangely, while they want their sons to work so hard as to have no time to be civilized, they do not mind if their wives or daughters have no work at all.

The snobbish admiration of uselessness, which, in an aristocratic society, extends to both sexes, is, under a plutocracy, confined to women; this, however, does not make it any more in agreement with common sense.

The wise use of leisure is a product of civilization and education – this much, Russell concedes. It is not as if any person, when given leisure, will know how to use it. A man who has always worked long hours all his life will be bored if he suddenly had nothing to do. But without leisure, man is cut off from the best things.

There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.

Russell is saying that we are plagued with the habits of the past. That, instead of developing a more balanced and healthier attitude towards work, we are prey to the anxieties that once sanctified the work ethic out of necessity or conspiracy.

There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

Serious-minded people warn others about going to the cinema. The idea that desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything confused. The producer is praised while consumer is scorned for being frivolous. But there are two sides to each transactions. The producer cannot exist without the consumer. And yet, we fail to see the consumer as adding any value.

We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.

A criticism of Russell’s idea is that the natural tendency that people have is not towards industry but towards idleness. Thus, to offset the momentum that would make people lazy and result in a society of scarcity, it is necessary to instill a work ethic that overvalues production at the expense of consumption, so that in the end, a healthy balance is struck.

Russell’s key argument, however, is that leisure is important for innovation. In fact, civilization depends on it. He reminds us that in the past there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages that were not socially just, and this made it oppressive. But this diminished its excellence. But in spite of this drawback, it contributed almost completely what we now know as civilization.

It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

But the activities of a leisure class without duties was extraordinarily wasteful. None of its members were taught to be industrious, and the class, as a whole, was not exceptionally intelligent. For each Darwin, there was tens of thousands of country gentlemen who only thought about fox hunting and punishing poachers.

At present, the universities are supposed to provide, in a more systematic way, what the leisure class provided accidentally and as a by-product. This is a great improvement, but it has certain drawbacks. University life is so different from life in the world at large that men who live in academic milieu tend to be unaware of the preoccupations and problems of ordinary men and women; moreover their ways of expressing themselves are usually such as to rob their opinions of the influence that they ought to have upon the general public.

Another problem with universities is that original thinking is often discouraged.

Academic institutions, therefore, useful as they are, are not adequate guardians of the interests of civilization in a world where everyone outside their walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits.

If no one was compelled to work more than four hours a day, each person who has scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it. Painters can paint without starving. Writers will not need to draw attention through sensationalism, so that they may gain economic independence, that will allow them to create monumental works – for which, when the time comes, they will have lost the ability and the taste. Medical men will know more about the progress of medicine, and teachers will be able to teach new things, instead of develop a routine to teach what they have learned in their youth, which may no longer be true.

Most importantly, there will be a joy of life, instead of weariness and frayed nerves.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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