Updated: Jul 24, 2022
Leisure is not the same as the absence of activity … or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.
— Josef Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture
There aren’t many topics in which I’d consider myself more of an authority than the great Bertrand Russell, but idleness is one.
I’d be wrong, of course, but it doesn’t seem fair.
Russell, born into the English Whig aristocracy 150 years ago, published more than 60 books, including a score of the most influential philosophical tracts of the 20th century. Principia Mathematica, a three-volume work that he co-wrote with Alfred North Whitehead more than a century ago, was a highly influential attempt to derive all of mathematics from purely logical axioms.
A grandson of three-time British prime minister Lord John Russell, the phenom his friends called Bertie became the third Earl Russell on the death of his cruel and sadistic elder brother, Frank, in 1931.
It would take a modern Boswell to summarize the life and accomplishments of the peace activist and Nobel laureate, who died in 1970, two months short of his 98th birthday. Russell’s far-from-complete autobiography, which I’m rereading and re-enjoying for the first time in half a century, is 750 pages long.
But here’s a quick summary from Philosophy in the Twentieth Century by A.J. Ayer, the English logical positivist who was himself a titan of philosophy and humanism in the last century. Ayer’s book was originally conceived as a successor to Russell’s bestselling tome, A History of Western Philosophy, which has remained in print since 1945 and was one of the books for which Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950:
In the tradition of his family, (Russell) maintained a lifelong interest in politics, and his first published work, which appeared in 1896, was a book on German Social Democracy. Before he became a peer he stood three times unsuccessfully for Parliament, twice in the Labour interest and once in 1907 as a candidate of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
He was four times married and thrice divorced. His politics cost him two prison sentences, one of six months in 1918 for libelling the American army, and in 1961, when he was eighty-nine years old, a week in prison for incitement to civil disobedience, in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
It was his active campaigning against England’s participation in the First World War that prevented the renewal of his lectureship at Trinity in 1916. He was not, however, always a pacifist. He was in favour of armed resistance to Hitler, and for a short period after the Second World War believed that Russia should at least be threatened with the employment against her of the atom bomb.
Though he was always radical in his political views, he was consistently hostile to Communism after he visited the Soviet Union and met its leaders in 1919. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life he came to think that the triumph of Communism would be a lesser evil than the effects of all-out nuclear war.
Another of Russell’s abiding interests was in education, on which he also wrote extensively; and principally for the benefit of his two elder children by his second wife, Dora Black, he joined her in founding and running a primary school in the 1930s.
It was his progressive views on education and on morals, as expressed in his more popular works, that led in 1940 to his being judicially pronounced unfit to hold a Chair of Philosophy at the City College of New York. The action was brought against the city by a parent at the instigation of some of the local clergy, and Russell himself was not allowed to be a party to it.
Ayer is being delicately discreet here. (No sex please, we’re British.)
Russell, who once said he didn’t believe he really knew a woman until he had made love to her, had multiple affairs. He addressed the many splendoured aspects of free love — which he ardently promoted and practised — throughout his voluminous writings. In his autobiography, he acknowledges that he wasn’t personally content with conventional monogamy until extreme old age.
As a Wikipedia entry notes:
His most famous work on the subject was Marriage and Morals, published in 1929. The book heavily criticizes the Victorian notions of morality regarding sex and marriage. Russell argued that the laws and ideas about sex of his time were a potpourri from various sources, which were no longer valid with the advent of contraception, as the sexual acts are now separated from the conception. He argued that family is most important for the welfare of children, and as such, a man and a woman should be considered bound only after her first pregnancy.
We now return you to the circumspect Ayer, who had no space for such aspects of Russell’s incredibly full life as his chairmanship throughout the 1930s of the India League, the foremost lobby in the U.K. promoting Indian self-rule, and his bitter opposition to both the Vietnam War and Israeli occupation of land seized in the Six Day War:
From his adolescence onwards he was opposed to any form of theism and especially to Christianity, as is shown in his book Why I am not a Christian. He was a most effective polemicist, a lucid popularizer of both physical and social science, and a powerful advocate of causes in which he believed.
In short, though he had both the means and the pedigree to be a charter member of Britain’s elite horse-and-hound-and-horse-again set, Bertrand Russell was anything but a laggard, though he does admit that the devil found things for his idle hands to do with a dangling part of his anatomy between his adolescence and the age of 20, when he first fell in love.
After the deaths of both parents early in his childhood, Russell was raised by his paternal grandmother — widow to the former prime minister and an enthusiast when it came to Victorian sentiments concerning morality and the sinfulness of sex, though hardly in the thrall of the sententious queen herself.
John Stuart Mill, no less, was his lay godfather. Among the crème-de-la-crème visitors to stately Pembroke Lodge, where Russell grew up, were Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and Robert Browning, who complied when Bertie, then two, impertinently expressed a wish that the celebrated poet “would stop talking.”
I’m about to get to the idleness business, which is what this is ostensibly about, but while I’m procrastinating — lolling about at the starting gate, as is my wont — here’s a typical anecdote from his autobiography concerning Russell’s grandmother, who was 80 before she ever sat in a comfortable chair after tea:
She was completely unworldly, and despised those who thought anything of worldly honours. I regret to say that her attitude to Queen Victoria was far from respectful. She used to relate with much amusement how one time when she was at Windsor and feeling rather ill, the Queen had been graciously pleased to say: “Lady Russell may sit down. Lady So-and-So shall stand in front of her.”
It’s not particularly virtuous to affect unworldliness, mind you, when one lives in a mansion with a cast of servants and one sits after tea on a money bag.
Not sure what the Countess Russell would have made of the many awards and honours that came his way after her death in 1898 — including the De Morgan Medal for outstanding contributions to mathematics, the Sylvester Medal for mathematical research, the Kalinga Prize from UNESCO for exceptional skill in presenting scientific ideas to lay people, and the Jerusalem Prize for writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society — but that she helped shape her grandson’s lifelong refusal to retreat from his convictions, there is no doubt:
She gave me a Bible with her favourite texts written on the fly leaf. Among these was “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” Her emphasis upon this text led me in later life to not be afraid of belonging to small minorities.
I myself was once a member of a small minority, though not one that put me in jeopardy of a job loss, a jail sentence, or some fool’s fiery denunciations from a pulpit. I spent a couple of semesters as a philosophy grad student charged with correcting undergrads’ symbolic logic papers of the sort pioneered in Principia Mathematica and the work of such luminaries as Gottlob Frege, whom Russell rescued from obscurity, George Boole, Willard Van Orman Quine, David Hilbert, Kurt Gödel and Gerhard Gentzen.
That was a long time ago and amounts to so many syllogisms under the bridge. What interests me now — and here I am confident that I speak for the majority — is finding a rationale for avoiding the job jar while indulging a pleasing propensity for doing the square root of diddly squat, twice removed.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Q.E.D.
Which brings us at last to In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell’s 1932 meditation on leisure, social justice and simply doing less harm by being less busy.
His thesis is simple:
A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.
And his words still resonate, perhaps more than ever:
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 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.
Born into a privileged landlord class whose leisure had been the fruit of the labour of others for centuries, dating back to well before the Industrial Revolution, Russell examines how that iniquitous legacy was continuing to distort the values and social fabric of his time:
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 pre-industrial, 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.
Ever the logician, Russell argues that a corollary of the conflation of work (though only for the working class, of course) with virtue is the scandalized disdain for leisure (except among the wealthy, of course) as weakness, as folly, as indolence.
The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity.
Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many.
But their labours were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.
An equitable distribution of leisure still hasn’t happened, of course.
The rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, the union movement that was gearing up during the Great Depression has been dispersed by the forces of capitalism, and more and more of the middle class is tenuously tethered to a gig economy 24/7/365. (When Russell penned his essay, the Nazis were busy distorting Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch to develop their ideal of a biologically superior master race. Now it’s Uber Eats calling the shots for its legion of poorly paid couriers across 6,000 cities in 45 countries.)
Russell argues that a glorious opportunity was squandered in the wake of the First World War, fought to end all wars and make amoral rich men even richer, for finally dismantling hidebound notions about how the world works (and who doesn’t):
The (First World War) showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of work had been cut down to four, all would have been well.
Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.
Readers of Russell’s nostalgic recollections in his autobiography of the servants at his beck and call at Pemberton Lodge — the kind housekeeper who had been his grandmother’s nursery-maid, the butler who read to him about newspaper accounts of railway accidents, the French cook from whom he pilfered lumps of salt, the gardener who believed the English comprise the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, the lodge-keeper’s wife who gave the child forbidden tastes of beer and slices of baked apples, the German nurse who gave him his baths, the nursery maid who slept in the same room as him (“Freudians may make what they like of this”), the governess who felt eating blackberries was a wicked sin, the series of middling tutors, the servant girl he kissed as a teen and failed to seduce — are transported to scenes straight out of Upstairs, Downstairs or Bridgerton or, especially, Downton Abbey.
In What I Believe, a book published in 1925 describing “what I think of man’s place in the universe, and of his possibilities in the way of achieving the good life,” Russell, ever a traitor to his class, pinpoints “the fundamental defect of the aristocratic ideal”:
Certain good things, such as art and science and friendship, can flourish very well in aristocratic society. They existed in Greece on the basis of slavery; they exist among ourselves on a basis of exploitation. But love, in the form of sympathy, or benevolence, cannot exist freely in an aristocratic society.
The aristocrat has to persuade himself that the slave or proletarian or coloured man is of inferior clay, and that his sufferings don’t matter. At the present moment, polished English gentlemen flog Africans so severely that they die after hours of unspeakable anguish. Even if these gentlemen are well-educated, artistic, and admirable conversationalists, I cannot admit that they are living the good life.
Elaborating on this idea in In Praise of Idleness, Russell recalls:
I remember hearing an old Duchess say: “What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.” People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists, and is the source of much of our economic confusion.
Not that they didn’t embrace their measly two weeks of vacation a year — by far the best part of their lives, along with weekends — but my own working class parents, I am sorry to say, absorbed that work ethic into the marrow of their bones. It is the milk, to mix calcium metaphors, on which I was raised. And unless your parents were among the Beautiful People of their time, I’ll bet you grew up lunching on similarly thin gruel.
Please, sir, I want some more.
I remember my father explaining with mounting exasperation to an aspiring hippie friend of mine that work was never meant to be enjoyable. That was the whole point! Like the one-room Prairie village school he had detested, a job was just something you had to endure, to get through, a regrettable but necessary means of earning just enough money to support your family and scrape by. There would be a little time on days off — if you weren’t too exhausted from the week’s physical labour, as Dad usually was — to follow your bliss, whatever Joseph Campbell may have meant by that dreamy exhortation.
Talk about mythology.
In the end, upon reaching retirement, Dad was really at a loss as to what his bliss might be. He couldn’t play sports any more, there was no need for more than minor house repairs, and he had no wish to travel or golf or play music or do crossword puzzles or play checkers or read novels or watch television. My mom got sick; he cared for her, grieved, got sick himself and died.
My father’s retirement was an embodiment of Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard’s haunting apothegm that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Me, I sacrificed too many holidays and what should have been family outings to the gods of Mammon and creed of Babbitt, all the while being painfully aware — intellectually — of American author Annie Dillard’s incisive warning in The Writing Life (1989) that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”
English self-styled “philosophical entertainer” Alan Watts might also have had it right. I mean, of course he did: “This is the real secret to life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
But that’s easy to pontificate about when draped in robes and grooving on acid. It’s harder to go placidly amid the noise and haste when the deadline is approaching and you’re up to your ass in alligators and rising interest rates. In the real world our parents taught us to believe in, you work all day and then you cry.
But even a century ago, Russell attests, advances in science and technology could have rendered the outrageously long working hours once endured by 19th-century labourers obsolete if only societal priorities had evolved:
Every human being, of necessity, consumes, in the course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of human labor. …
The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of 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.
Foolish asceticism. Competitive acquisitiveness. They’re the real plagues dragging us down. Moreover, we’re kept off balance, Russell argues, with “continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.”
In the West, we have various ways of dealing with this problem. We have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all.
Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.
When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war; we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man.
That pernicious notion persists, but makes even less sense at a time when so many of the goods we buy are the products of a slave economy in China:
The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare.
We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labour, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.
Love that sentence.
The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the Earth’s surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker.
If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: “I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.”
I have never heard workingmen say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure hours that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.
Brace yourself for another unrelenting critique of impure reason:
Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad.
Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry.
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.
Commercial television was a couple of decades beyond the horizon and personal computers unthinkable when Russell made the following observation, but neither the dial nor the couch potato have budged:
The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.
Again, his foremost point is that unlike in previous eras, there was no longer any rational reason by the dawn of the 20th century for obedience to the high priests of self-abnegation and mass worship at the altar of hustle. And what was true then is truer now:
Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism. The method of a hereditary leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful.
None of the members of the class had been taught to be industrious, and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.
Impossible to read that last sentence without Queen Victoria’s inbred heirs hieing merrily into and out of view, their Wellington boots making prolonged and provocative sucking noises in the mud of their taxpayer-funded country estates.
Russell’s confidence in the sustainability of a four-hour workday might not be as scientifically airtight as he seems to think — it is evidently based on an English practice on the home front during the Great War, when the soldiers were away on the Continent — but he’s pointing the way to a work-life balance far superior to the Zoom call zoo that currently obtains in most North American workplaces. And just think of the possibilities for human ingenuity:
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be.
Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and the capacity.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and hazard a guess that most of the 47 million workers who quit their jobs in the U.S. alone last year in an unprecedented occurrence dubbed the Great Resignation — you read that right, 47 million — have never heard of the third Earl Russell, who lived long enough to see men walk on the moon and bore a remarkable resemblance most of his life to John Tenniel’s 1865 engravings of the Mad Hatter for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I’m also going to guess that a lot of the people who have decided, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic, they don’t want their lives primarily defined by the work they do are millennials and Gen Z-ers, a stance that occasioned much grumbling among baby boomers and Gen X-ers about lazy, mollycoddled youth.
As my father said to my hippie friend (though in less blunt terms): Quit yer griping and get a job, you bum. Of course, in those days, that bum — once reformed — could reasonably have been expected to eventually own a house by dint of hard work and retired with a pension. Those were the days.
But if there has been a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that the taste of freedom engendered by working from home has become a thing — a permanent thing — and the current dearth of workers in practically every field has at least temporarily altered the balance of power between employer and employee. Long may it last.
However displeasing it may be to venal shareholders and Old School executives, many companies have had no choice but to recognize that mental health is a part of health, that quality of life matters, and that walking away from a toxic culture is an intoxicating option for the underpaid and the overworked.
In the words of a popular First World War song Russell surely knew, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?”
Happy 150th, Bertie, you old peacenik, even as your successors here on Spaceship Strangelove once again toe the edge of nuclear annihilation.
As an exceptional member of a simian species that remains as implacably tribal as clans of our chimpanzee brethren still squabbling on the African savanna, your faith in reason, the Enlightenment and the ascent of man was ultimately unreasonable.
But in spite of ourselves, we might also be stumbling toward something approximating your vision of the supreme utility of idleness.
Not too shabby for a privileged, dead, white, male, cisgender, avidly practising heterosexual:
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.
At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear.
Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.