Quotes from In Praise of Idleness

in-praise-of-nothing-bertrand-russellIn 1932, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell penned a poignant and paradigm-challenging essay titled “In Praise of Idleness.” In it, Russell critiqued an idea that has always been, like, fundamental to the organization of Western civilization—namely, the idea that work is inherently virtuous and an end in itself.

Following are some of my favorite quotes from this essay:

  • 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.
  • Nah, wage labor is pretty cool sometimes, but leisure is awesome too and produces great things. We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 world war 1.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • How pleasant a world would be in which no man was allowed to operate on the Stock Exchange unless he could pass and examination in economics and Greek poetry, and in which politicians were obliged to have a competent knowledge of history and modern novels.
  • 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.
  • We should increase leisure — and make life more worthwhile — by producing only what makes for better lives. In turn, workers would have the satisfaction of producing things of real value.

If this was fascinating, I encourage you to read Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in full. It’s available online here.


Doing nothing on weekends

waiting-for-the-weekend-by-withold-rybczynskiThere have always been breaks from the routine of work–taboo days, market days, public festivals, holy days–we couldn’t survive without them. In Waiting for the Weekend, Witold Rybczynski unfolds the history and evolution of leisure time in Western civilization, from Aristotle, through the Middle Ages, to the present. Along the way, he explores how the psychological needs that leisure time seeks to fulfill have changed as the nature of work has changed.

A history of how the weekend came to be and an exploration of what it means to take a weekly break from work. To get an idea of whether you’d like the book (which is sadly out-of-print), read The Atlantic essay of the same name.

Withold Rybczynski ends Waiting For the Weekend with a warning: The weekend has imposed a rigid schedule on our free time, which can result in a sense of urgency (“soon it will be Monday”) that is at odds with relaxation. The weekly rush to the cottage is hardly leisurely, nor is the compression of various recreational activities into the two-day break. The freedom to do something has become the obligation to so something….”

The weekend has become the chief temporal institution of modern age, it was invested as a retreat and refuge from labor. Think about it, few of us regularly ask each other, “How was your(work) week?”. But the salutation and interrogative, “How was your weekend?” is common.

Weekends, Rybczynski suggests, are in danger of becoming their own antithesis. We try too hard to make up for the “pain and emptiness” of the week by doing things and staying busy all weekend long.

For too many of us, concludes Rybczynski, weekend represents a different and sometimes a more pleasant way of staying busy and consuming time. But he says, genuine free time, real leisure, must remain just that” “Free of the encumbrance of convention, free of the need of busyness, free for the ‘noble habit of doing nothing.'” And clearly, “doing nothing” does not describe the modern weekend.


Aristotle wrote, “We work, in order to have leisure.” Today, this is still true. But is the leisure that Aristotle spoke of, “the freedom to do nothing”, the same as the leisure we look forward to each weekend?