About idleness

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in praise of idleness, betrand russell, 1932

… like most of my generation, i was brought up on the saying: …

… 'satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.' …

… being a highly virtuous child, i believed all that i was told …

… and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment …

… but although my conscience has controlled my actions …

… my opinions have undergone a revolution …

… i think that there is far too much work done in the world …

… that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous …

… and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached …

… everyone knows the story of the traveler in naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun …

… (it was before the days of mussolini) …

… and offered a lira to the laziest of them …

… eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth …

… this traveler was on the right lines …

… but in countries which do not enjoy mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult …

… and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it …

… i hope that, after reading the following pages …

… the leaders of the ymca will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing …

… if so, i shall not have lived in vain…

… before advancing my own arguments for laziness, i must dispose of one which i cannot accept …

… whenever a person who already has enough to live on …

… proposes to engage in some everyday kind of job …

… such as school-teaching or typing …

… he or she is told that such conduct takes the bread out of other people's mouths …

… and is therefore wicked …

… if this argument were valid …

… it would only be necessary for us all to be idle in order that we should all have our mouths full of bread …

… what people who say such things forget is that what a man earns he usually spends …

… and in spending he gives employment …

… as long as a man spends his income …

… he puts just as much bread into people's mouths in spending …

… as he takes out of other people's mouths in earning …

… the real villain, from this point of view …

… is the man who saves …

… if he merely puts his savings in a stocking …

… like the proverbial french peasant …

… it is obvious that they do not give employment …

… if he invests his savings, the matter is less obvious, and different cases arise …



… one of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some government …

… in view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized governments …

… consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars …

… the man who lends his money to a government …

… is in the same position as the bad men in shakespeare who hire murderers …

… the net result of the man's economical habits …

… is to increase the armed forces of the state to which he lends his savings …

… obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling …



… but, i shall be told, the case is quite different when savings are invested in industrial enterprises …

… when such enterprises succeed, and produce something useful, this may be conceded …

… in these days, however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail …

… that means that a large amount of human labor …

… which might have been devoted to producing something that could be enjoyed …

… was expended on producing machines which, when produced, …

… lay idle and did no good to anyone …

… the man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as well as himself …

… if he spent his money, say, in giving parties for his friends …

… they (we may hope) would get pleasure …

… and so would all those upon whom he spent money …

… such as the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger …

… but if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down rails for surface cars in some place …

… where surface cars turn out not to be wanted …

… he has diverted a mass of labor into channels where it gives pleasure to no one …

… nevertheless, when he becomes poor through failure of his investment …

… he will be regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune …

… whereas the gay spendthrift …

… who has spent his money philanthropically, will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person …



… all this is only preliminary …

… i want to say, in all seriousness …

… that 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 …



… 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 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 …



… throughout europe, though not in america, there is a third class of men …

… more respected than either of the classes of workers …

… there are men who, through ownership of land …

… are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work …

… these landowners are idle, and i might therefore be expected to praise them …

… unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others …

… indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work …

… the last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example …



… from the beginning of civilization until the industrial revolution …

… a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family …

… although his wife worked at least as hard as he did …

… and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so …

… the small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it …

… but was appropriated by warriors and priests …

… in times of famine there was no surplus …

… the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times …

… with the result that many of the workers died of hunger …

… this system persisted in russia until 1917 …

… and still persists in the east; in england …

… in spite of the industrial revolution, it remained in full force throughout the napoleonic wars, …

… and until a hundred years ago, when the new class of manufacturers acquired power …

… in america, the system came to an end with the revolution …

… except in the south, where it persisted 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 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 …



… it is obvious that, in primitive communities, peasants, left to themselves, would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which the warriors and priests subsisted …

… but would have either produced less or consumed more …

… at first, sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus …

… gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic …

… according to which it was their duty to work hard …

… although part of their work went to support others in idleness …

… by this means the amount of compulsion required was lessened …

… and the expenses of government were diminished …

… to this day, 99 per cent of british wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the king should not have a larger income than a working man …

… 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 labors of the many …

… but their labors 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 …



… modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone …

… this was made obvious during the war …

… at that time all the men in the armed forces …

… and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions …

… all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda …

… or government offices connected with the war …

… were withdrawn from productive occupations …

… in spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the allies was higher than before or since …

… the significance of this fact was concealed by finance …

… borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present …

… but that, of course, would have been impossible …

… a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist …

… the 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 the week 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 …



… this is the morality of the slave state …

… applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose …

… no wonder the result has been disastrous …

… let us take an illustration …

… suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins …

… they make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day …

… someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins …

… pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower 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 previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work …

… there is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan …

… but half the men are totally 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 leisure has always been shocking to the rich …

… in england, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day's work for a man …

… children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day …

… when meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long …

… they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief …

… when i was a child, shortly after urban working men had acquired the vote …

… certain public holidays were established by law, to the great indignation of the upper classes …

… 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 …



… let us, for a moment, consider the ethics of work frankly, without superstition …

… every human being, of necessity, consumes, in the course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of human labor …

… assuming, as we may, that labor is on the whole disagreeable …

… it is unjust that a man should consume more than he produces …

… of course he may provide services rather than commodities …

… like a medical man, for example …

… but he should provide something in return for his board and lodging …

… to this extent, the duty of work must be admitted, but to this extent only …



… i shall not dwell upon the fact that, in all modern societies outside the ussr …

… many people escape even this minimum amount of work …

… namely all those who inherit money and all those who marry money …

… i do not think the fact that these people are allowed to be idle …

… is nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork or starve …



… if the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day …

… there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment …

… assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization …

… this idea shocks the well-to-do …

… because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure …

… in america men often work long hours …

… even when they are well off …

… such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage-earners …

… except as the grim punishment of unemployment …

… in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons …

… oddly enough, while they wish their sons to work so hard as to have no time to be civilized …

… they do not mind their wives and daughters having 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, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education …

… a man who has worked long hours all his life will become 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 …



… in the new creed which controls the government of russia …

… while there is much that is very different from the traditional teaching of the west, there are some things that are quite unchanged …

… the attitude of the governing classes …

… and especially of those who conduct educational propaganda …

… on the subject of the dignity of labor …

… is almost exactly that which the governing classes of the world have always preached to what were called the 'honest poor' …

… industry, sobriety, willingness to work long hours for distant advantages …

… even submissiveness to authority …

… all these reappear; moreover authority still represents the will of the ruler of the universe, who, however, is now called by a new name, dialectical materialism …



… the victory of the proletariat in russia has some points in common with the victory of the feminists in some other countries …

… for ages, men had conceded the superior saintliness of women …

… and had consoled women for their inferiority by maintaining that saintliness is more desirable than power …

… at last the feminists decided that they would have both …

… since the pioneers among them believed all that the men had told them about the desirability of virtue …

… but not what they had told them about the worthlessness of political power …

… a similar thing has happened in russia as regards manual work …

… for ages, the rich and their sycophants have written in praise of 'honest toil' …

… have praised the simple life …

… have professed a religion which teaches that the poor are much more likely to go to heaven than the rich …

… and in general have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space …

… just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement …

… in russia, all this teaching about the excellence of manual work has been taken seriously …

… with the result that the manual worker is more honored than anyone else …

… what are, in essence, revivalist appeals are made, but not for the old purposes …

… they are made to secure shock workers for special tasks …

… manual work is the ideal which is held before the young, and is the basis of all ethical teaching …



… for the present, possibly, this is all to the good …

… a large country, full of natural resources, awaits development …

… and has has to be developed with very little use of credit …

… in these circumstances, hard work is necessary, and is likely to bring a great reward …

… but what will happen when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours? …



… 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 labor 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 …



… in russia, owing to more economic justice and central control over production, the problem will have to be differently solved …

… the rational solution would be, as soon as the necessaries and elementary comforts can be provided for all …

… to reduce the hours of labor gradually …

… allowing a popular vote to decide, at each stage, whether more leisure or more goods were to be preferred …

… but, having taught the supreme virtue of hard work …

… it is difficult to see how the authorities can aim at a paradise in which there will be much leisure and little work …

… it seems more likely that they will find continually fresh schemes …

… by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity …

… i read recently of an ingenious plan put forward by russian engineers …

… for making the white sea and the northern coasts of siberia warm, by putting a dam across the kara sea …

… an admirable project, but liable to postpone proletarian comfort for a generation …

… while the nobility of toil is being displayed amid the ice-fields and snowstorms of the arctic ocean …

… this sort of thing, if it happens, will be the result of regarding the virtue of hard work as an end in itself …

… rather than as a means to a state of affairs in which it is no longer needed …



… 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 labor …

… while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect …

… 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 working men 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 that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy …



… it will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four …

… in so far as this is true in the modern world …

… it is a condemnation of our civilization …

… it would not have been true at any earlier period …

… 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 persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema …

… and telling us that it leads the young into crime …

… but all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work …

… and because it brings a money profit …

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

… the butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy …

… because they are making money …

… but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous …

… unless you eat only to get strength for your work …

… 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 …



… when i suggest that working hours should be reduced to four …

… i am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity …

… i mean that four hours' work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life …

… and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit …

… it is an essential part of any such social system that education should be carried further than it usually is at present …

… and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently …

… i am not thinking mainly of the sort of things that would be considered 'highbrow' …

… peasant dances have died out except in remote rural areas …

… but the impulses which caused them to be cultivated must still exist in human nature …

… 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 …



… in the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class …

… the leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice …

… this necessarily made it oppressive, limited its sympathies …

… and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges …

… these facts greatly diminished its excellence …

… but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call 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 …



… the method of a leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful …

… none of the members of the class had to be 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 …

… 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 disadvantage is that in universities studies are organized …

… and the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be 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 …



… 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 pot-boilers …

… 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 capacity …

… men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government …

… will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality …

… medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine …

… teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth …

… which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue …



… 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 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 forever …