In Praise of Idleness | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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Bertrand Russell | Biography


Bertrand Russell was born in Trelleck in Monmouthshire, Wales in the United Kingdom on May 18, 1872. Russell's expertise in logic and mathematics transformed the history of philosophy and helped give birth to the analytical trend in contemporary philosophy. Much of Russell's work in philosophy utilized the science of logic to investigate metaphysical questions regarding the nature of numbers. Russell's career as a writer also extended into the social and political arena. His work in politics centered on his opposition to war and the use of nuclear weapons.

Russell's early life was marked by the loss of his parents, sister, and grandfather. His grandmother enlisted the help of tutors to homeschool Russell after their family members had died. Russell spent most of his childhood years isolated, unlike his brother Frank (1865–1931) who attended school. It wasn't until his college years that Russell joined other students in pursuing his education. Russell enrolled in Trinity College at the University of Cambridge in England in 1890 to study mathematics. Russell shifted his course of study in 1893 and began pursuing a career in philosophy. By 1897 Russell's first philosophical book An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry was published. His second book A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz appeared in 1900, followed by The Principles of Mathematics in 1903. Russell traces the nature of numbers in these texts and argues that the entire mathematical system can be derived from logical principles. In 1908 Russell discussed his now famous paradox in "Mathematical Logic as Based on the Theory of Types." Russell's paradox involves a contradiction that lies at the ground of the discussion of the logical category known as "the class of all classes." Russell's interest in uncovering the logical foundations of mathematics led to a collaboration with the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). The result was the mammoth work Principia Mathematica published in three volumes between 1910–13. Russell's best-selling book The Problems of Philosophy (1911) continues to be one of the most approachable introductory texts about the history of philosophy.

Russell's interests extended beyond philosophy into politics. His first book on politics German Social Democracy (1896) contains a critique of Marxist ideas. Marxism is a movement in political theory that was developed in the mid-19th century by the German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). After World War I broke out in 1914, Russell wrote and distributed pamphlets opposing the war. He was fined and dismissed from his position at Trinity College in 1916 as a result. In 1918 his outspoken opinions regarding war strategies landed him in a Brixton prison for five months. After leaving prison Russell became increasingly interested in engaging in politics and ran for parliament twice. He lost the election both times. He nevertheless continued to express his views on politics in Justice in Wartime (1916), Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), Roads to Freedom (1918), The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920), and The Prospects of Industrial Civilization (1923). Russell's critiques of political and social norms reached a broader audience with the publication of the popular On Education (1926), Marriage and Morals (1929), and The Conquest of Happiness (1930). He delivered his "Why I am not a Christian" lecture in 1927 and it was printed and distributed widely. It consists of a series of logical arguments aimed at demonstrating that atheism is the only rational position to hold about religion.

"In Praise of Idleness" was published by Harper's Magazine in 1932. Russell's motivation for writing it came from his interest in calling into question the basic assumptions people had about the ethics of work. Russell advances a series of arguments that demonstrate the absurdity of believing that hard work makes a person morally praiseworthy. Instead, Russell encourages people to look at idleness as beneficial to promoting the common good of happiness and human flourishing. The majority of people see idleness as a vice, and this motivates Russell to defend idleness. Russell argues that the small elite leisure class harnessed idleness in the past to advance the arts and sciences. This is proof that leisure is a worthwhile pursuit. A shift in the common thinking surrounding the ethics of work is needed. No longer should the working classes accept the slave morality that those in power have promoted to motivate the poor to work hard. The slave morality fosters the view that work for its own sake is virtuous, and Russell demonstrates the logical errors in this view. Work must be seen not as its own end, but as a means of producing the necessities of life. It is leisure time that makes life worth living.

Russell lived in the United States and taught at various institutions from 1938–44 before returning to his position at Trinity College in England. He compiled his lectures into A History of Western Philosophy (1945) and Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948). Russell spent the remainder of his life actively opposing the war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He died on February 2, 1970, in North Wales at Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth. He remains one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century.

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