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In praise of idleness by bertrand russell essay

Hard-working people are perceived as making the world go round, while idle people or people engaged in ostensibly non-pragmatic affairs are considered lazy leeches on the system. Work is of two kinds: The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

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 second kind of work—a more enjoyable and higher paid variety—involves telling other people what matter to rearrange and how to do so.

The History of Work After this brief definition, Russell moves on to consider the history of work in Western civilization: The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. 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.

In Praise of Idleness

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.

They distill non-fiction books down to potent 15-minute insight-blasts. Throughout most of the history of civilization, Russell says, people had to work damn hard just to secure the basic necessities of life. They might produce a small surplus which would then be snatched from them by the upper classesbut for the most part, they busted their asses to cultivate the land and to produce the resources necessary for survival.

At first, this labor was simply an imperative for survival, but over time, the ruling classes conditioned the working classes to see their work as something desirable—an ethical and noble duty.

So, basically, an enormous workload for the average person is no longer necessary, but we still believe that it is, because of cultural momentum.

This was made obvious during the war. 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. But what happened post-WWI?

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. Why would this work? Because, as the war demonstrated, technological progress had made it possible for the same amount of resources to be produced with far less human effort.

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: 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?

At least not for the most part. Other examples could be listed, but I think this one is sufficient to demonstrate just how much manpower has been replaced by machines. No one should have to work as much! 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.

This is why so many people continue to work post-retirement—force of habit. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. 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.

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The modern man thinks that everything ought in praise of idleness by bertrand russell essay be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. 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.

In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the Virtues of Leisure

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. Leisure time creates the space necessary for imagination, inquiry, aesthetic contemplation, introspection, and the pursuit of that which one finds most exciting and reward.

On an individual level, we can prioritize space, idleness, and rest, recognizing that life can be more than a bustling, bustling, bustling from one item on a to-do list to the next. About Jordan Bates Jordan Bates is a creator, entrepreneur, and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything.

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