“In Praise of Idleness” revisited

July 15, 2018

Last week a new acquaintance displayed mild astonishment at the volume of my writing. He asked me how I come up with ideas for my pieces. I had to pause to think about that since my process has become more of a reflex that anything else.

My answer was that I have the luxury of time. Despite the heightened pace of my life since moving to Washington, D.C., I continue to leave many hours unscheduled so that I can read, think and write.

I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay entitled “In Praise of Idleness”  which critiqued the modern obsession with labor in the age of the machine and with production as an end in itself.

Much of the work in wealthy countries now, however, is in the service industries. Service jobs have always been around, but not as much as they are today. Yet strangely, in an age where a smaller and smaller proportion of the population produces the actual physical objects of life—work that in the past has been associated with long hours of physical labor and repetitive drudgery—many of those engaged in the professions, managerial work, and other white-collar jobs have seen their workday expand almost without limit. We receive emails from workplace colleagues and clients at all hours, sometimes with tasks that must be performed immediately. A dinner with a lawyer friend last week was interrupted by an email from a client who needed a memo that evening for the next morning.

Let’s return to Russell for a moment who seems to have a bit of a smirk when defining work for his readers, but hits the mark quite well in my view:

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. 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 different 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.

The fact that Russell advocated the four-hour workday in 1932 because of the productivity of machines and the importance of free time to the development of the individual tells us just how far we have NOT come. In wealthy countries we still seek to maximize output and consumption as if these two results were the exclusive paths to happiness.

In addition, most of what passes for the so-called information economy today is merely designed to speed up and make more efficient “altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter.” As such it is merely aiding and abetting exceedingly risky alterations to the biosphere which include the warming of the climate.

Russell uses the word “idleness” in his title, I believe, in order to be more provocative when he might have used “leisure.” (Josef Pieper’s later essay entitled “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” then becomes an excellent expansion of Russell’s theme.)

The word “leisure,” of course, has now been appropriated by the so-called leisure industry described by The New York Times business section as including “tour operations, travel agencies, amusement parks, golf courses, gaming and fishing preserves, sport stadiums, sports teams, movie theaters, dance and theatrical companies, recreational goods rentals and other leisure services.” Very little of this seems related to leisure in the classical sense. The Latin term “otium” provides a better formulation of what Russell and Pieper mean since it includes not only rest and recreation, but also contemplation and study, especially as these relate to the arts and philosophy.

The myriad distractions which we call leisure today are mostly made possible by the relentless consumption of energy and resources. If people substituted true “otium” for the leisure most engage in now, we would surely use a lot fewer resources. To make more room for “otium,” however, we might need to shorten the workday. This would have to be done without allowing the reduction of basic protections such as health coverage and pensions since doing so would simply send people chasing after the extra hours needed to have these protections. We might produce less and consume less, but we would have more time for true leisure. More people might find themselves with the luxury of time—something that has evolved into a true luxury for the few in our age who value it.

(There is a certain vague sense of this possibility arising from the movement for a universal basic income which could very well finance a reduced workday or workweek while making sure that basic needs are still met.)

Russell points out that reducing the workday might in part resolve the forced idleness of the unemployed by causing more hires at many establishments. That idleness is almost never true leisure for it is filled with constant anxiety borne of insecurity about the well-being of oneself and one’s family.

But in order to have true leisure, we must be free of those distractions that prevent it. A friend of mine who teaches college undergraduates informed me not long ago that cellphones had become such a distraction that their use was banned in classrooms at his institution. He discovered through some research that cellphones are actually impeding learning because frequent alerts prevent people from having the downtime that is necessary to consolidate what they learn and store it in long-term memory. Without such storage their can be no actual learning. Sometimes we just need to stare at a wall, he explained.

So much of modern culture insists that constant stimulation is the essence of living. In truth, constant stimulation is merely a tactic of advertisers, app makers, websites and myriad media outlets to hook you on their messages and their products. Leisure requires withdrawal from all that and—this is the key point—learning to derive pleasure from solitude, quiet observation of the world around us and introspection.

Learning to do that takes time and practice. The rewards are subtle, but can be profound. And, because advertisers, app makers, websites and media outlets can’t make much money off your solitude and contemplation, they will never encourage you make time for them. In fact, the thing they fear most is that you will discover during your contemplative hours just how little you actually need the help of those who are vying for your attention on your various electronic devices.

Image: “Two Men Contemplating the Moon.” Artist: Caspar David Friedrich circa 1825–30. “These two figures are seen from behind so that the viewer may participate in their communion with nature. They have been identified as Friedrich, at right, and his friend and disciple August Heinrich (1794–1822). Fascination with the moon ran high among the German Romantics, who regarded the motif as an object of pious contemplation.” Via Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Consumerism, free time, leisure