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In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Published 1935

My copy Routledge Classics 2006 (given to Max for his birthday however)

Introduction copyright 1996 Howard Woodhouse

This book of essays could be called In Praise of Intelligence, or Knowledge, or Common Sense, or maybe even Compassion. Russell’s theory is that you need some free time to cultivate these. Conservatively foregoing a theoretical estimate that post-World War I humans could all live comfortablly if everyone worked just one hour per day, Russell settles on a 4-hour workday per person as sufficient. This is due to improvements in equipment and technology, and was made evident during the War when people managed to survive comfortably enough in spite of a large proportion of the workforce being at war. (Note: comfort does not mean luxury.)

According to Russell, knowledge has intrinsic value, but not everyone has the free time needed to acquire it, and the main benefit of knowledge is therefore efficiency and production. This utilitarian view of knowledge values the results rather than the reasons for knowledge, so even people who could afford to not work all the time prefer being as active as possible in order to feel and appear useful. This leads to a society where, as Howard Woodhouse states in the Introduction, « Wealth and power are considered of the highest value, whereas idleness and contemplative knowledge are seen as so much loafing around. » xiii

Russell praises practical knowledge, acknowledging that without it the modern world would not exist (trains, airplanes, machinery, etc.). However, he laments the small importance placed on cultural knowledge, stating that « some of the worst features of the modern world could be improved by a greater encouragement of such knowledge and a less ruthless pursuit of mere professional competence. » He continues, « When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder. » We all need time for engaging in enjoyable (and ideally active rather than passive) activities not related to our work.

I’ve been going on long enough. Here is a list of the essays in the book, with some quotes.

1. In Praise of Idleness

« A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of WORK, …the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work. »

« 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 forever. »

2. « Useless » Knowledge

See third paragraph above, beginning "Russell praises practical knowledge..."

3. Architecture and Social Questions

Russell advocates more communal living spaces which would fight against isolation and allow women to work outside the home (instead of for free inside the home).

4. The Modern Midas

Points out the absurdity of digging up gold in South Africa, then shipping it across the world to be again buried in bank vaults in Paris, London or New York City.

Adds a tip about the danger of loaning money to Governments. (Bond holders beware…)

«… money is only useful because it can be exchanged for goods, and yet … in almost every transaction, the seller is more pleased than the buyer…the ultimate psychological source of our preference for selling over buying is that we prefer power to pleasure…It is the psychology of the producer that makes men more anxious to sell than to buy, and that causes Governments to engage in the laughable attempt to create a world in which every nation sells and no nation buys. »

Bertrand Russell portrait by Man Ray

5. The Ancestry of Fascism

Regarding what Russell considered as the unfair treaty of Versailles :

« …the Hitlerite madness of our time is a mantle of myth in which the German ego keeps itself warm against the cold blasts of Versailles. No man thinks sanely when his self-esteem has suffered a mortal wound, and those who deliberatly humiliate a nation have only themselves to thank if it becomes a nation of lunatics. »

I need to look into this quote further :

« The philosophy of the movement which culminuates in the Nazis is, in a sense, a logical development of Protestantism » (due to belief in the individual).

USA beware : « Inspired by Judaism, Christianity adopted the notion of Truth…But gradually the influence of scepticism and advertising made it seem hopeless to discover truth, but very profitable to assert falsehood. Intellectual probity was thus destroyed…The Inquisition rejected Galileo’s doctrine because it considered it untrue ; but Hitler accepts or rejects doctrines on political grounds, without bringing in the notion of truth or falsehood… States whose policy is based upon the revolt against reason must therefore find themselves in conflict, not only with learning, but also with the Churches wherever any genuine Christianity survives. »

« The two things the world needs most are Socialism and peace, but both are contrary to the interests of the most powerful men of our time. »

paraphrase: Instead of one universal truth there are many truths (English, French, German, etc.) That’s why rationality and a universal, impersonal standard of truth is so important to the well-being of humans.

6. Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism

Russell disagrees that one must choose either Communism or Fascism (as was being said at the time).

« The purpose of the Communists is one with which, on the whole, I am in agreement ; my disagreement is as to means rather than ends. But in the case of the Fascists I dislike the end as much as the means. »

7. The Case for Socialism

« So long as Socialism is preached in Marxist terms, it rouses such powerful antagonism that its success, in developed Western countries, becomes daily more improbable. It would, of course, have aroused opposition from the rich in any case, but the opposition would have been less fierce and less widespread. »

Socialism for Russell is : « an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race. »

(The tiny minority meaning the very richest whose happiness may decrease a bit, I assume, because they will have to share some of their riches.)

You must read Russell’s Case for Socialism yourself as if I start I will end up quoting the entire essay! The essay includes a further definition of Socialism, and subheadings : 1. The Breakdown of the Profit Motive 2. The Possibility of Leisure

3. Economic Insecurity 4. The Unemployed Rich 5. Education 6. The Emancipation of Women and the Welfare of Young Children 7. Art 8. Unprofitable Public Services

9. War

« …every appeal to unconstitutional violence helps on the growth of Fascism. Whatever may be the weaknesses of democracy, it is only by means of it and by the help of the popular belief in it that Socialism can hope to succeed in Great Britain or America. Whoever weakens the respect for democratic government, is intentionally or unintentionally, increasing the likelihood, not of Socialism or Communism, but of Fascism. »

8. Western Civilisation

To understand your civilisation in perspective to others, Russell recommends travel, history and anthropology.

« The rate of change in ways of life has become very much more rapid than in any previous period: the world has changed more in the last one hundred and fifty years than in the previous four thousand. »

9. On Youthful Cynicism

« The main cause (of widespread scepticism) is comfort without power. »

10. Modern Homogeneity

Whereas American communities are homogeneous, they want to appear unique. Russell surveys the tendecy towards standardization in modern life, without saying it’s all bad.

11. Men versus Insects

On the possibility of pest warfare.

12. Education and Discipline

« I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession : it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children. » (young people can make one irritable in spite of good intentions which leads to irritability and other less than desired behaviors).

« No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact. »

13. Stoicism and Mental Health

How to stoically deal with some of life’s main dilemmas (fear of : death, poverty, pain, childbirth)

14. On Comets

15. What is the Soul ?

I’ll leave you the surprise of discovering the last two very short essays.

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