In praise of idleness

A blog post, originally published in 2005, I enjoyed by Massimo Pigliucci (of Rationally Speaking and Machines Like Us):
I'm reading Bertrand Russell's collection of essays, "In Praise of Idleness," an intriguing idea (the praise, not the collection of essays) for modern Western society, especially the American one, where idleness -- as Russell remarks -- is frowned upon as a waste of "productive" time.

Among the radical ideas Russell puts forth is that we have the technology that would enable us to work about four hour a day, and employ the rest in relaxation and cultural activities, or in volunteer work. But, he quickly points out, we are raised in a society for which something like that would be unthinkable, because the people at the top of the economic ladder have never liked those below to have leisure time, and even less to improve their lot. You never know, educated people might start thinking critically, which may lead to dire consequences for the establishment.

Some of my favorite quotes from the British philosopher, from the first essay of the book (the one that gives it its title):

"I think that there is far too much work done in the world."

"The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work."

"[Work] is emphatically not one of the ends of human life."

"The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake."

"The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy."

Pretty revolutionary stuff, for being written in 1932, eh?

Bertrand Russell, in his collection of essays entitled "In Praise of Idleness," goes on to discuss the role of "useless" knowledge in our society. By this he means knowledge that is valued for its own sake, regardless of any particular practical application (in a way, similar to the way we value art for its own sake, regardless of how much money we may make by selling that Picasso we all have in our attic).

"Learning, in the renaissance, was part of the joie de vivre, just as much as drinking or love-making." Interesting comparisons there, no? Indeed, one can get -- in a metaphorical sense -- inebriated by intellectual pursuits (even drunk, perhaps?), and certainly the sudden joy of discovery can be compared to love-making (though usually the sensation of release isn't quite that overwhelming...).

Russell becomes very worried about the tendency of modern society (he was writing in the 1930s) to reduce the size of its vocabulary, to make language more "practical." One consequence of this, he argues, is the potential loss of literary flourishing and of a sense of style in writing and reading. But of course, as Orwell magisterially pointed out in "1984," a much more dangerous result is the inability of people to think about certain thoughts -- especially those that are dangerous to the establishment -- because of a lack of appropriate words. Words and concepts are closely related, one can hardly have the latter without mastering of the former.

Russell, of course, isn't saying that practical knowledge isn't, well, useful! On the contrary. But there is no need why that has somehow to be seen as opposite to theoretical knowledge: culture isn't a zero sum game, and the more the better.

Most importantly, Russell points out that too much focus on practical results often leads to nervous breakdowns, or at least to unpleasant levels of stress; moreover, lack of culture affects human behavior in a most decidedly negative manner, including that of children. As he puts it: "The bully in a school is seldom a boy whose proficiency in learning is up to the average. When a lynching takes place, the ring-leaders are almost invariably ignorant men."

In the chapter/essay on "The modern Midas," Russell discusses the differences and connections between finance and industry. As he puts it:

"Finance is more powerful than industry when both are independent, but the interests of industry more nearly coincide with those of the community than do the interests of finance."

This is exactly the sort of problem that brought us -- 70 years after Russell wrote -- Enron and the whole Wall Street mess. The idea is that capitalism, if it has to work, has to be based on certain rules ("managed capitalism," they call it in Europe). One of these rules is a tight coupling between investments (capital) and the products of the industry one is investing on. In turn, this means that things like day trading and other short-term "investments" are not investments at all (because there is no time for the industry to actually use that capital and deliver a product), they are speculation. And speculation is gambling pure and simple.

We now live in a society in which, for some bizarre reason, it has become normal to accept the idea that people can "make a kill" on the market and become millionaires overnight. Usually, of course, on the skin of thousands of others who either lose their money or their jobs. This is nonsense on stilts of the highest order.

The solution, of course, is pretty simple: regulate stock trading in a way similar to, say, government bonds: you can't sell before a certain minimum period of time, and if you do you incur a penalty. This sort of measures would reconnect, as Russell puts it, finance and industry, and would greatly benefit the welfare of the majority of people. Alas, the American public has been sold on the idea that anybody can become instantly rich, and this hope dazzles and blinds us into acquiescence to a system that makes most people's lives worse than they could be. Just think of the fact that the richest country in the world (and the self-professed best democracy on the planet) still has the shame of having tens of millions of its citizens and children without health care. But that's another story...


  1. I've thought about this a lot. My parents are always telling me to be "practical" in life. This comment pops up when I try to do something interesting like read up a book on philosophy or do a little bit of art or anything that's not directly related to my school studies (despite the fact that I get good grades anyway). My father seems to hold the belief that it is wrong for children to read books on philosophy by authors like Bertrand Russel. He wants me to "stop thinking too much about these things and get some real work done."

    I always try to make to make the point that there is plenty of time to do well in both but I rarely get a positive response.

    1. Well advice about being practical in this world, in which we don't yet have robots doing all the hard graft, isn't misguided. But telling you not to think at all is like telling you to be a robot.