01 January 2013

Bertrand Russell: “In Praise of Idleness”

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. […]
The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery. […]
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. Bertrand Russell

Unfortunately I see the kind of attitude described here all the time: people valuing work for the sake of work instead of focusing on their leisure time – I’m sure many parents would enjoy spending more time with the children, for example – clinging to past procedures and ways despite better methods and technologies available. The kind of society proposed in the article is a popular science-fiction utopia, from Asimov’s Robots to Star Trek and even David Brin. And while technology has mostly caught up with this vision, our work ethics still have a long way to go.

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.

By the way, this essay dates back to 1932, so you can see how little things have changed since…

via Martin Weigert


  1. Hey George,
    First of all, I'd like to appreciate your blogging style. You seem to be very meticulous about your expressions. I'm really impressed by the layout and scheme of your blog.
    I arrived here quite accidentally, google data about Blogger's "labels." But I must admit you've impressed, nay, inspired me a lot.
    As for the quote by Russell, I think we can safely maintain that the only universal values are the ones found in human nature, or somehow related to it. The man inside us has never changed, nor will he ever change. All he said belongs to human nature, and therefore it will always hold true.
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the appreciation, Raheel! I'm glad that you found what you were looking for here and then took the time to explore the blog further. You are quite right about the quote, the human nature rarely changes - for better or worse.