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In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness (original 1935; edition 1963)

by Bertrand Russell

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Title:In Praise of Idleness
Authors:Bertrand Russell
Info:Allen & Unwin (1963), Mass Market Paperback
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:nf, VR

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In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (1935)



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Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness
and other essays

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2004.

8vo. xxiii+171 pp. Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition by Anthony Gottlieb, 2004 [vii-x]. Introduction by Howard Woodhouse, 1996 [xi-xxiii]. Preface by Russell, 1935 [xxv-xxvi].

First published, 1935.
First published in Routledge Classics, 2004.


Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition

1. In Praise of Idleness [1932]
2. 'Useless' Knowledge
3. Architecture and Social Questions [1933]
4. The Modern Midas [1932]
5. The Ancestry of Fascism [1933?]
6. Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism
7. The Case of Socialism [1935]
8. Western Civilisation [1935]
9. On Youthful Cynicism [1930]
10. Modern Homogeneity [1930]
11. Men versus Insects [1933]
12. Education and Discipline [1930?]
13. Stoicism and Mental Health [1928]
14. On Comets [1934]
15. What is the Soul? [1928]


*In square brackets: year of writing and (presumably) first publication.


It is amazing to read some of the reviews of this book. There are people so blinded by their prejudices that they are completely unable to appreciate the charm and common sense, not to mention the sheer wisdom, between these pages. Simply because Russell was born into privileged circumstances, such reviewers assume that he was an elitist who disdained work and wrote for insiders of his own class. This is complete nonsense. It has been well said (I don’t know by whom) that a book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out.

The title essay is enough to disprove all silly accusations against Russell. He is an elitist insofar as every revolutionary thought was elitist in the beginning. Working four hours a day instead of eight was revolutionary then. It is still revolutionary today, even though we are in a much better position to realise Russell’s dream than we were in 1935. He does not disdain work[1]. He does disdain that half of the working people are overworked while the other half are unemployed. “Can anything more insane be imagined?” Russell’s rhetorical question needs no answer. If anything, it has become more relevant in the 80-odd years since the essay was written. As for the “leisure class”, Russell’s analysis is a model of balanced assessment:

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.

Russell is perceptive enough to recognise that too much leisure would be just as harmful as too much work, especially to ex-hard-working people who are not used to it and have been drilled into their heads for generations that work is virtuous. Nevertheless, he remains convinced the ultimate effect of increased leisure will be more “happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia”. Personally, I believe this to be true. It’s one thing to have free time when your work is done. It’s quite another story to be idle and jobless. But the point is that there is only one way to see. Sadly, we seem to be getting further and further from Russell. It’s not he who becomes dated, however. It’s we who lag behind his visionary ideas.

By the way, Bertrand Russell is in the very good company of Somerset Maugham and Arthur Clarke who have expressed very similar views on the enormous amount of useless work, the ridiculous idea that there is anything noble in it, and the art of idleness. Compare:

Work is lauded because it takes men out of themselves. Stupid persons are bored when they have nothing to do. Work with the majority is their only refuge from ennui; but it is comic to call it noble for that reason. It requires many talents and much cultivation to be idle, or a peculiarly constituted mind.[2]

...but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stock-brokers, and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another.[3]

There is a lot more in this rich little book than the title piece. As every great collection of essays, this one contains a great variety of subjects. Some pieces come from the columns Russell wrote for The New York American in the early 1930s and which were first collected by Harry Ruja in 1975 (2 vols.), but even these short and decidedly tongue-in-cheek trifles manage to poke some serious fun at human credulity (“On Comets”) or conceit (“Man versus Insects”). On the other hand, essays like “The Ancestry of Fascism” and “The Case for Socialism” are rather serious, considerably longer and more substantial pieces. From the other pieces that fall between these extremes, very few did I find unremarkable, partly because Russell has discussed some of the subjects (“What is the Soul?”, “Education and Discipline”) with greater acumen elsewhere, and partly because sometimes he is simply pedestrian (“On Youthful Cynicism”, “Stoicism and Mental Health”).

Russell’s critics are fond of accusing him of social and political naivety, sweeping generalisations and half-baked arguments. He has done all these things occasionally, including in this collection, but to single them out and harping on them is a classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees. For the most part, I am surprised how thoughtful, balanced and still relevant Russell’s writing is. When he defends “useless” knowledge (note the original quotation marks), he doesn’t go out of his way to degrade the useful knowledge (i.e. with obvious practical importance): he merely points out that we owe to this knowledge both the good and the bad sides of our civilisation. Russell neatly sums up the subject:

Utility and culture, when both are conceived broadly, are found to be less incompatible than they appear to the fanatical advocates of either.

One could hardly accuse Russell of being dated because he didn’t predict the glorious times of Internet and reality TV when useless knowledge (no quotation marks) is rampant. It hardly deserves the name “information”, let alone “knowledge”. It is just a drug that keeps the junkies perpetually entertained and quite unable to contemplate anything more complex than trivial gossip. This is not the type of “useless” knowledge, much less culture, Russell talks about. He gives a telling example. Apricots taste much sweeter, he says, since he learnt that they were first cultivated in China but later spread to India, Persia and the Roman Empire, and that the word “apricot” comes from the Latin for “precocious” because it ripens early but the “a” stems from false etymology. If this kind of “useless” knowledge can improve one’s palate, then another one (say, philosophy) may indeed stimulate the development of a “contemplative habit of mind”.

“The Case for Socialism” is the longest essay in the book and the one, I suspect, most likely to provoke anti-Russellian sentiments. Since I know nothing of politics and economics, I have no idea whether the Socialism proposed by Russell is feasible at all. What I do know is that his conclusions sound convincing and desirable. He defines Socialism as “State ownership of ultimate economic power” and politically democratic. He is emphatic that the change must come in a peaceful way by persuasion, never through revolution and violence which are likely to produce unstable results. He gives nine arguments in favour of Socialism, the chief ones being the elimination of economic insecurity (a man for whom no job can be found at the moment would be paid for his willingness to work when the opportunity arises), the increase of leisure (explained elsewhere in greater detail) and the prevention, or least the greatly diminished probability, of war. Russell knows only too well that these are fundamental changes that will be difficult to carry out in practice. Also, he seems to be aware that increased State control can easily degenerate into totalitarian oligarchy, which is precisely what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe for most of the twentieth century. He gives an example about writing and publishing which, though it seems too utopian to me, would certainly diminish the amount of bad books if accepted:

It must be admitted that Socialism might make matters even worse. Since publishing will be a State monopoly, it will be easy for the State to exercise an illiberal censorship. So long as there is a violent opposition to the new régime, this will be almost unavoidable. But when the transition period is passed it may be hoped that books which the State is not willing to accept on their merits may be published if the author thinks it worth while to defray the expense by working overtime. Since the hours will be short, this will not be any excessive hardship, but it will suffice to deter authors who are not seriously convinced that their books contain something of value. It is important that it should be possible to get a book published, but not that it should be very easy. Books at present exceed in quantity as much as they fall short in quality.

If only Russell could see the world of books today! But there is a clear contradiction here, and I’m surprised Russell didn’t spot it. If Socialism comes to be accepted via peaceful persuasion, on which he does insist, there should be no great, much less violent, opposition to the “new régime”. On the whole, Russell’s Socialism seems to me logically consistent, but built on shaky grounds. It is more plausible than Communism, which demands an utterly unrealistic abolition of personal property, but it still remains in the realms of utopian fiction. Like I said at another place, we need a fundamental change in human nature before any political and economic system like Socialism can take hold of the popular imagination.

One true mark of the great essayist is the ability to make even the dullest and most abstruse subject lucid and fascinating. “The Modern Midas” is an essay about economics and finance. Russell certainly convinced me that these subjects should be part of the general education of everybody. He makes plenty of perceptive points that go deep into the psychology of the human animal. For example, he argues that the extent to which economic transactions depend on armed forces is greater than generally recognised and that the seller is generally more pleased than the buyer; the latter is especially startling, since it is well-known that shopping is one of the great anti-depressants in the modern world, but Russell, as usual, makes a compelling case. More specifically, he dismisses the gold standard as a fallacious superstition (I don’t know if Bertie liked movies, but I think he would have loved Die Hard 3) and he condemns the stupidity of governments who proved unable to learn from Midas’ bitter experience when they decided to punish Germany after WWI. The latter example is a case of such ludicrous economic ignorance that it passes belief it really happened. It gives Russell the opportunity to exercise his inimitable wit at the expense of the Allies:

They were so puzzled that they started scratching their heads, but that did no good, even when they all did it together and called it an International Conference. The plain fact is that the governing classes of the world are too ignorant and stupid to be able to think through such a problem, and too conceited to ask advice of those who might help them.

Though politics and economics are by far the most prominent subjects in this book, they are not the only ones. You might think an essay titled “The Ancestry of Fascism” is mostly about politics. You’d be wrong. It’s mostly about philosophy, more specifically how the ideas of Fichte and Nietzsche set the stage for National Socialism. Russell has little patience with either of his “colleagues”. Fichte “started as an abstract metaphysician, but showed even then a certain arbitrary and self-centred disposition.” In 1807 he was the first to expound German nationalism and superiority in their most odious form – until the Nazis came around, that is. One important point Russell mentions, but does not develop in sufficient detail, is the introduction of racial hate. Fichte cannot be blamed here because his nationalism was based on linguistic superiority. Enter Nietzsche with his delusions of the superman “by means of the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched” and no wonder that irrational cults like Nazism/Fascism sprang and flourished, especially in the Dark Ages of the 1920s.

Other essays take a broad survey of history that leads to some optimistic or pessimistic revelations, as the case may be. “Western Civilisation” is a rather depressing piece; Russell’s customary optimism seems to have been on holiday when he wrote it. He defines civilisation as “a manner of life due to the combination of knowledge and forethought.” This is a decent definition Kenneth Clark and I would agree with. But it leads to the horrible conclusion that the one thing that makes Western Civilisation special is the unusually high degree of persecution, notably fostered by “the most fiercely persecuting religion that the world has ever known.” This may seem like a convenient confirmation of Russell’s notorious Why-I-Am-Not-A-Christian attitude, but it is well-argued all the same. “With those who dislike the intolerance of Fascism and Communism I have no disagreement,” Russell says, “unless they regard it as a departure from European tradition.”

“Modern Homogeneity” is a kind of sequel. It looks into some basic differences between the two major parts of Western Civilisation, namely Europe and America. The difference between an orange grove in Sicily and an orange grove in California is two thousand years, Russell wittily observes. He then leaves Europe alone and concentrates on American homogeneity (excluding the Old South). He weighs the pros and cons with his beautiful and much underrated sense of balance. Standardisation of production and physical environment may well increase comfort and happiness, but uniformity of thought is much more dangerous and may even be a potential threat of democracy. Though in the end Russell remains optimistic about American and, in the future, European homogeneity, sometimes he is frighteningly prescient, as when he remarks that “perhaps the greatest of all forces for uniformity in the modern world is the cinema” because it could easily penetrate the whole world except closed systems like the Soviet Union (another negative example of uniformity). He continues with more than a touch of dystopia:

Our emotions in regard to love and marriage, birth and death are becoming standardised according to this recipe. To the young of all lands Hollywood represents the last word in modernity, displaying both the pleasures of the rich and the methods to be adopted for acquiring riches. I suppose the talkies will lead before long to the adoption of a universal language, which will be that of Hollywood.

This was written in 1930! The talkies had barely been born.

Last and least, Bertie passes the hardest test as well: the test of disagreement. In “Architecture and Social Questions”, for instance, he makes some rather fanciful suggestions that changes in the urban architecture would bring emancipation of women. This is contrary to the historical overview in the beginning of this essay where Russell argues that social conditions have shaped architecture, not vice versa. Kings and churches may have built castles and cathedrals, respectively, to impress their reluctant fans, but they had first to become rich and powerful to do that. And yet, working women and nurseries are common today. In the early 1930s, when Russell advocated them, they were not.

I have read the Preface by Anthony Gottlieb and the Introduction by Howard Woodhouse after the book. They supplied a few bits of relevant modern perspective or historical background, but nothing terribly important. Mr Gottlieb rather charmingly argues that Russell’s scandalous propositions of diminished working hours and increased leisure have actually been realised, at least to some extent, in the last century or so. I don’t know where he gets his statistics from, but he sounds convincing. When he says that Russell’s generalisations, on which he comments with commendable understanding, are harking back to Russell’s “Hegelian apprenticeship”, I haven’t the faintest idea what he means. Mr Woodhouse’s essay is longer but less noteworthy. He chooses to explain and dissect opinions, which is always a mistake when dealing with prose as beautifully lucid as Russell’s.

With the exception of Philosophical Essays (1910) and Mysticism and Logic (1917), In Praise of Idleness is Russell’s densest collection of essays. It requires a fresh head and intense concentration. Yet it is worth the effort. “There is not a page which does not provoke argument or thought.” For once, I agree with a review quoted on the back cover.[4] Even when he sounds naïve and superficial, for altogether four or five pages in the whole book as far as I’m concerned, Russell still makes valuable observations and is not to be dismissed entirely. He also makes economics and politics, subjects I normally find tedious in the extreme, sound important, interesting and, above all, comprehensible and entertaining. Moreover, he uses them to advocate his favourite rational outlook. What does that mean? Well, it means several things simple in theory but almost impossible in practice. It means calm reflection rather than angry action, looking at a problem from several different angles, weighing evidence for and against. If these qualities are considered elitist, well – so much the worse for the world.
[1] Imagine the man behind one of most staggering bibliographies in literary history disdaining work. Bertrand Russell produced no fewer than 56 books in the course of 73 years (1896–1969). One of them was in collaboration with Whitehead, another with his second wife, Dora, but for the rest he was solely responsible. Even if we exaggerate the role of his third wife as a research assistant in the 1930s and the early 1940s, it still boggles the mind when Russell found time to eat, sleep, travel, lecture and broadcast. Apart from all this, after his death several mammoth selections of previously uncollected letters and journalism were published as well. Let Russell’s industrious critics produce one tenth of all this, whatever the quality, and then talk again.
[2] W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (1949), “1896”.
[3] Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953), Chapter 10.
[4] On the back cover this quote is sourced from the Sunday Times. On the first page of the book it is attributed to The Times. ( )
  Waldstein | Mar 12, 2016 |
I stumbled across this book quite by accident at the public library, and I now wish I had just ignored it. The title is highly provocative, but that's the only thing Russel seems to have put any thought into. His arguments are driven by emotion rather than reason, and he makes challenging statements which sound interesting but doesn't bother to explain his reasoning. Without explanation, his readers have no way of testing his theories, and so can't contradict or agree with him. He doesn't have the courage to open himself to criticism, and so as a work of philosophy, this book is a complete failure.
  Gayle_C._Bull | Jun 21, 2012 |
An invaluable collection of articles by the renowned british philosopher. Reflections abour social and political issues written in the 1920s and 1930s but still relevant today since their main import is a fierce defence of free enquire, calm reflection, and a call to reason (all of them very much in need in this era of global "war on terror"!) The wit and clarity of Russell's writing shine troughout. Definitely a worthwhile reading. ( )
2 vote FPdC | May 25, 2010 |
I like reading the works of Bertrand Russell. He is a crisp and thoughtful writer, and a penetrating and skilled philosopher. But we can't be great at everything and unfortunately, "In Praise of Idleness" highlights Dr. Russell's naivete when it comes to social and political commentary.

And more unfortunate still, the most naive essay of all is the title essay. In it, Dr. Russell outlines a vision whereby all able-bodied individuals would need only to work for four hours a day. Russell abhors work, and true to his upper-cust raisings, cannot see why it is really all that necessary. What he does not realize is that the beauty of the capitalism he so detests is that it allows the individual - rather than a majority vote or a dictator - choose how much work they will do based on how much "reward" they want. Should they want high reward, they can choose to work more and harder. Should they want less financial reward, they can choose a less stressful job. (Russell also misses the fact that, while many of us do detest work, they would detest it more if they did not own the fruits of their labor via wages in a capitalistic system. After all, many people work only because there is a financial motivator.)

His essay extolling the usefulness of useless knowledge is actually quite good. Rather than arguing - as its title might suggest - against a pragmatic view of knowledge (that only "useful" knowledge is worth anything), Russell argues to expand the definition of "useful." Knowledge that contributes to an individuals mental well-being, knowledge that is interesting, and knowledge that is just plain fun to think about, is every bit as useful to individuals as knowlege that helps us dig ditches, structure economies, etc. (To be useful, knowledge need not always be SOCIALLY useful.)

Much of the rest of Russell's naivete comes from offering good criticisms of fascism and communism only to forget that these criticisms may be applied to the socialism that Russell champions. The fact that centralizing power, for instance, in a dictator is a reason to jettison fascism and Marxism is every bit a reason to be wary of any attempts at political centralization - even socialist ones! To put it bluntly, Russell is so interested in his utopian vision of socialism in the abstract that he forgets to think about what socialism actually looks like in practice. (In Russell's mind, for instance, socialism somehow avoids consolidating power in an omnipotent central government. But doesn't planning need planners and delegators? And how do they differ from dictators?)

To be honest, I think Bertrand Russell shows evidence in this book of a huge blindspot. As an upper-cruster, he is appalled that people have to do such dastardly things as work and contract their labor. As an upper-cruster, he thinks that a decent way of life is possible without the type of industry that requires people to work more than four hours per day. And as an upper-cruster, he believes that everyone should be guaranteed a certain level of income regardless of what they accomplish.

In other words, Russell is simply not as penetrating as a social theorist as he is as a philosopher. This book is as clearly written and entertaining as other books by Russell, but he is clearly out of his element. ( )
4 vote KevinCK | Jul 13, 2009 |
A collection of essays written between around 1928 and 1932. Title essay is all about how a 4 hour working day for all is the path to a better society. Other ports of call include a praise of "useless" knowledge (exemplified by the eptymology of "apricot"); bettering architecture for social puposes; fascism (cross) vs. communism (cross) vs. socialism (tick); the historical cause of cynicism in the educated English speaking youth; a call for the conquest of hopeless, self-dementing man by the insects; and irrelevance/ill-definition of the "soul".

Although I agree with pretty much each and every argument in all the essays and love the polemic styling, I struggle with the cocksure armchair philostophizing. Posturing about how people "should" conduct their home life and how educators "should" deal with adolescents tend to come off as stinky academic arrogance. Although, having said that, this stuff was written 70+ years ago and all of it is relevant relevant relevant spot on spot on spot on for the beginning of the 21st century (+ 7).

I meant to include this quote in the above comments, but forgot or was too busy to do it. None of these essays are about physics, and there was plenty of quotable moments but I just liked this little rant one so much that the page number stuck in my head. Here it comes...

Bertrand Russell, What is the Soul? wrote:

This is all very well, but the physicist comes along and shows that you never bump into anything: even when you run your head against a stone wall, you do not really touch it. When you think you touch a thing, there are certain electrons and protons, forming part of your body, which are attracted and repelled by certain electrons and protons in the thing you think you are touching, but there is no actual contact. The electrons and protons in you body, becoming agitated by nearness to the other electrons and protons are distrubed, and transmit a distrubance along you nerves to the brain; the effect in the brain is what is necessary to your sensation of contact, and by suitable experiments this sensation can be made quite deeptive. The elecetrons and protons themselves, however, are only a crude first approximation, a way of collecting into a bundle either trains of waves or the statistical probabilites of various different kinds of events. Thus matter has become althogether too ghostly to be used as an adquate stick with which to beat the mind. Matter in motion, which used to seem so unquestionable, turns out to be a concept quite inadequate for the needs of physics.
1 vote jezzaboogie | Oct 17, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Russell, Bertrandprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gottlieb, AnthonyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Woodhouse, HowardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0415325064, Paperback)

Intolerance and bigotry lie at the heart of all human suffering. So claims Bertrand Russell at the outset of In Praise of Idleness, a collection of essays in which he espouses the virtues of cool reflection and free enquiry; a voice of calm in a world of maddening unreason. From a devastating critique of the ancestry of fascism to a vehement defence of 'useless' knowledge, with consideration given to everything from insect pests to the human soul, this is a tour de force that only Bertrand Russell could perform.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:38 -0400)

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"Intolerance and bigotry lie at the heart of all human suffering. So claims Bertrand Russell at the outset of In Praise of Idleness, a collection of essays in which he espouses the virtues of cool reflection and free enquiry, a voice of calm in a world of maddening unreason. With characteristic clarity and humour, Russell surveys the social and political consequences of his beliefs. From a devastating critique of the ancestry of fascism to a vehement defence of "useless" knowledge, with consideration given to everything from insect pests to the human soul, In Praise of Idleness is a tour de force that only Bertrand Russell could perform."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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