In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
View all my reviews
To some, or perhaps to many, it may seem a radical idea: idleness. But for the great British logician, mathematician, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, idleness is seen as a historically rooted concept which ties intimately together the bonds of labour, leisure, and the prospect of human rationality. Or, at least that is my reading of his famously titled composition, ‘In Praise of Idleness’.
So, what does Russell mean by ‘idleness’? In some sense, it infers a socially organised definition of time that is economically independent of professional labour, in which one may instead expend their energy to fulfil personally meaningful pursuits. This could be, for example, a time for a person to explore painting or to explore a scientific pursuit or any number of interests. In some bodies of literature, such projects are called ‘existential projects’ to convey the personalisation of their meaning in one’s life. One may also call them ‘special interests’. In this sense, one can think of idleness simply as being the economically independent pursuit of a subject, activity, or quality for no other reason than it evokes the state of personal interest. Study for study sake, or a painter to paint without the pressure of starving – these are the sorts of examples that Russell evokes.
Idleness should thus not infer or be confused with one’s being disinclined to work or with simplistic views pertaining to individual laziness. Idleness should also not be seen as ‘the root of all evil’, as the idiom would have it. If we are to follow Russell’s arguments, idleness has substantial roots in positive human traits, such as curiosity, exploration, and invention. We also read how the notion of idleness is based on ethical, moral and empirical economic arguments. For Russell, social consumption can mean something very different, both existentially and socially, and thus humanistically. He also speaks of economic production and the way in which work and leisure cycles could generally mean something altogether more philosophically transformed in conception, particularly in terms of the meaning of leisure and its tradition and practical cultural configuration.
It is interesting to consider, on that note, how for thousands of years human beings have established traditions of celebrating different sorts of festivals – Judeo-Christian, Pagan, and so on. Think, for instance, of midwinter festivals based on the solstice or on religious themes. With these traditions follows also a deep historical relation between festivity and work. The festival represents, to frame it in terms of economic history, an interruption of daily labour cycles, with its concept rooted primarily in principles of free time for enjoyment . Thinking of this, it is also interesting to recall that, using Christmas as an example, it was during the Victorian era that a formal socioeconomic relation developed between festivity, worker rights, and the commercial profit motive, particularly as middle-class families were afforded time off work with the financial means for surplus consumption. But if festivity and leisure – or idleness – are intricately related with labour by their very definition, and thus with economics, Russell’s account would seem to carry a certain diametric opposition to work patterns that exhaust the possibility of what he describes as energetic leisure.
In this sense, I read Russell’s essay as having some classical enlightenment motivation. Thoughtfulness – indeed, the time to practice thought and to explore intellectually – this seems a theme to Russell’s social philosophical view of which an advanced and aspiring rational society should strive to achieve. In other words, if idleness is a positive human experience, one which supports or fosters the individual subject to flourish rationally and, perhaps, self-actualise existentially, Russell ties this concept with the possibility of continued self-education and self-betterment, among other things. At the same time, while he celebrates the concept and experience of idleness, he also laments the loss of its broader social-economic and cultural realisation. It is argued that leisure time is expunged of idleness much as in the present-day example of Christmas, which is hyper-commercialised and seemingly increasingly filled with passive entertainments, as active energies are instead exhausted by work, intensely driven consumer cycles, and various other contemporary social behavioural patterns rigidified in such a way to maintain systemic mores. Russell’s arguments are based on traditional views of social-economic class structures, and he seems to suggest that the logic of social economy has been skewed; contemporary societies have in some ways lost sight of the meaningful idea of social production and the social purpose of consumption that may foster a more enlightened and rational society.
For these reasons, we read how with more energetic and thoughtful leisure one would then be better able to enjoy pleasures in which it was possible to take an active part. The central thrust of Russell’s argument in this regard is not so different than in present-day concepts of economic democracy and automation, in which in advanced technological society it is argued individuals should be increasingly afforded the freedom from necessary labour in order to pursue the many positive possibilities that life has to offer, including education and learning.
Reading his essay, I was reminded of a few historical examples. Think, for instance, about the development and evolution of writing and of our early mathematical ideas – a history that is intimately entwined with the genesis of civilisation. A good example comes from the ancient Babylonians. To Russell’s larger point, the early development of mathematics, much like writing, can be seen to be owed to the economic development of agriculture; because with agriculture one result was increased freedom from the precariousness of sustenance living in which people were then allowed more free time, with greater access to resources. As new technologies were conceived, and human pursuit was increasingly freed from the limits of basic survival to expand beyond that which was unavailable to hunter-gathers, the time available to explore, experiment with, and create things like writing became possible. The study of mathematics could also be pursued and formalised.
Indeed, to offer another example, the entire history of physics is riddled with such stories, like Michael Faraday playing with his magnets on a park bench in London or Issac Newton watching apples fall from trees, contemplating the nature of gravity. To the point of anthropologists and biologists who study human play, as another example that we may interpret in the frame of idleness, there is an argument to be made that what Russell is describing is in fact a fundamental biological and cognitive feature of universal human experience that is very much tied to inventiveness.
At this point, we may enter into various complex social, economic, and political arguments. Instead, as there are already many terrific reviews of Russell’s essay, both positive and critical, to close this discussion I instead want to focus on two things that struck me when recently rereading ‘In Praise of Idleness’. One playful thought was the potentially interesting applications in relation to a physics of society and of human beings, particularly regarding energetics. This has to do with the study of energy under transformation, and one may think of such transformation particularly between the individual and their labour under the fairly universal economic notion of the work-leisure trade-off. For the author, he argues that there is a sort of fetishisation of labour, especially manual labour, and he seems to want to argue that how we use labour energy is not efficient or optimised in the best ways. From the standpoint of a physics of humans and of society, it would be fascinating to see if some of his ideas are quantitatively grounded.
There are also many interesting economic points of consideration. First, it is worth noting that the contents of ‘In Praise of Idleness’ remain quite relevant today, given the resurgence of the idea of a shortened work week, especially in the UK and Europe. Some would argue that there is empirical evidence and many qualitative arguments about why the current configuration of work hours is not optimised for the benefit of both productivity and well-being [3, 4], supporting his view. Take a quantitative and qualitative view: work hours, commuting time, modern pressures of digital communication in which it is well studied that people also now routinely answer work emails in their leisure time – all of this and more matches data that substantiates the claim of an emerging culture of longer working hours . Are the effects, psychological or otherwise, just as Russell observed or predicted?
On the other hand, inasmuch that the philosophical idea of idleness is tied with the economic argument of a shortened work week, how economically substantiated and viable is his argument? Some examples are as follows. If as a general rule of labour economics working more hours correlates with higher hourly rates of pay, and if as a general rule from a behavioural perspective higher rates of pay are one motivation for people in their social and economic life, then one may ask whether an economic conception of idleness is realistic. For instance, if the introduction of a shortened work week were to correspond to a cut in pay, would people be dissuaded to pursue the possibility of increased free time for the benefit of obtaining greater earnings? As this is a question about human behaviour and behavioural regulators, and hence agency, it is not so easy to model. Having said that, we observed major strikes by German steel workers in 2018 that saw them secure the right to work less at the cost of a drop in weekly earnings – although this also came with flexibility where workers may work longer hours if they choose. Perhaps agency and choice matter in this discussion.
Another point one may consider is that some economists argue that a shortened work week will likely result in an increase in earnings differentials and inequality. If, in general, those who work longer hours have higher hourly earnings than those who work shorter hours, then one would expect increased disparity in the earnings structure. Additionally, in a UK study of the public sector, a shortened work week was approximated to cost upwards of £45 billion, depending on some modelling assumptions including no increase in productivity .
For these reasons, when it comes to recent debates in the UK, should a shortened work week be considered some studies have shown that this reduction in time would need to be matched with an increase in productivity during work hours. There are some empirical examples where businesses that trialled shortened work hours saw productivity remain as it was or effectively increase. Although the sample is small, the argument here is that work hours – maximal output of energy during those hours – is better optimised and maintained when shortened and focused. This ties into arguments about the inefficiency of work hours within the current model – that, in the sense of Russell’s energy economics, maximum productivity and the maximum time of energetic labour – i.e., maximum labour hours – do not contradict an increase in leisure. This is partly why I think a physical theory would be interesting, if we could even construct the appropriate Hamiltonian. In empirical sociology, observations of phenomena like ’empty labour’ may also serve as an illustration of what some interpret as the outdated nature of present economic values and of modern conceptions of work . Do these types of studies offer clues or evidence as to how and why economy may be reconfigured in ways in which Russell seems to indicate? It would furthermore be interesting to learn, in using separation theorem or something similar in the study of labour economics , whether energetic leisure serves as a positive argument in the utility function of the individual.
The problem when it comes to these sorts of economic ideas and debates is that, in many cases, we require much more accurate modelling. Current mainstream economics is quite inept at understanding the reality of human behaviour. If one considers the likes of Paul Romer’s contentions on macroeconomics (as well as notable research by many other contemporary economists), it is not controversial to say that the current economic model and its established ideas may be challenged quantitatively and qualitatively . From what I can see at the present time, some arguments are emerging about the need for an interdisciplinary theory. Much like a physics of society, in which it has been suggested that a physical theory of society will not achieve systematic and objective clarity without an interdisciplinary form of research , in economics agent-based models are issuing similar demands. If the challenge of an objective economics is to look for the cause of instabilities inside the system, some argue that this means that what one inevitably comes up against are the details of human decision making, which, in principle, drives one toward the randomisation of decisions based on both rational and irrational processes. But it also seems more than that: it’s about thinking systemically – not just about economic models in the abstract sense but also the incentive structure and the problem that economics faces in terms of an orientation of ethics. A trivial example is as follows: if a model fosters the pathology of a simplified self-preservation worldview, and if I am one of the only two bakers in town, am I not incentivised in some way to run the other baker out of town by whatever means justified by that very principle of my own preservation? The point to be drilled into is that in social-economic modelling, simplified arguments and narratives about agents engaging in free or purely voluntary trade can, and often do, end up moralising what are otherwise deeply systemic issues. I think, in certain respects, this takes us some way toward the message in Russell’s essay about realistic economic models.
Given the transformation of the incentive structure, perhaps energetic and thoughtful leisure would be realised as an important feature of a healthy system. In terms of Russell’s arguments, framed in a systems way, the benefits would be in reducing the social deficit of reason by maximising the subject’s energetic capabilities to reason, in which education may then be ‘carried farther than it usually is at present’, fostering the provision of ‘tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently’. As I read it, his argument implies the enlightenment ideal that the individual would be better scientifically informed (eg., against myths); they would potentially be better politically informed about policies and more engaged when fulfilling their democratic duties; they would make thoughtful economic decisions; and, perhaps ideally, they would approach social debates with greater consideration and in greater awareness of their own biases.
 Josef Pieper, 1999, ‘In tune with the world‘. St. Augustines Press.
 Guido Caldarelli, Sarah Wolf, Yamir Moreno, ‘Physics of humans, physics for society’. Nature Physics Volume 14, p. 870. DOI:10.1038/s41567-018-0266-x.
 Will Stronge and Aidan Harper (ed.), ‘Report: The Shorter Work Week’ [http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Shorter-working-week-final.pdf]
 Lord Skidelsky, ‘Report: How to achieve shorter working hours’ [https://progressiveeconomyforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/PEF_Skidelsky_How_to_achieve_shorter_working_hours.pdf]
 Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, ‘The Expanding Workweek? Understanding Trends in Long Work Hours among U.S. Men, 1979-2006’. Journal of Labor Economics, 26 (2) April 2008: 311-43.
 Centre for Policy Studies, ‘The Costs of a Four-Day Week to the Public Sector’ [https://www.cps.org.uk/research/the-costs-of-a-four-day-week-to-the-public-sector]
 Roland Paulsen, 2014, ‘E
 Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, ‘Lectures in Labour Economics’ [https://economics.mit.edu/files/4689]
 Paul Romer, 2016, ‘The Trouble with Macroeconomics’. [paulromer.net/the-trouble-with-macro/].
**Cover image: ‘Woman Reading in a Landscape’ by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.