In Praise of Idleness | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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In Praise of Idleness | Summary



Part 1

Bertrand Russell discusses the revolution in thinking that he has undergone over the course of his lifetime. As a child Russell learned that idle hands make "mischief" and he recognizes the pervasiveness of this belief. He no longer endorses this view and wishes instead to persuade people that idleness is valuable for society. Russell claims that the belief that idleness is a vice arises because productivity is valued as an end in itself. The popular view is that work is intrinsically good and that everyone should aim for productivity.

Russell describes two different types of work. The first type of work is "altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface." This type of work involves manual labor. The second type of work Russell describes is ordering others to complete necessary tasks. The poor accept the first kind while the wealthy prefer the second. The only group of people exempt from the need to work at all are the elite group of landowners. This landed elite can afford to pay other people to complete their daily tasks. Doing so provides time to engage in hobbies and other interests.

The invention of machines during the 18th-century Industrial Revolution in Britain changed the nature of work. Without machines it was impossible for workers to produce a large surplus of goods. Any surplus that existed went to the group that held power. The improvements in industry that occurred with the invention of machines made surpluses increasingly common. This should have freed laborers to enjoy more leisure time. The popular idea that work is virtuous nevertheless persisted, and laborers continued to desire to spend all of their time at work. Russell says the idea that work is virtuous reflects a "slave morality" promoted by the powerful to keep the poor busy.

Part 2

Leisure time can be utilized wisely but doing so requires a proper "civilization and education." A lack of education leads people to feel lost when they have too much free time. Russell writes, "A man who has worked all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle." The governing classes continue to exalt the virtues of hard work, and the poor are indoctrinated into the belief that only productivity makes life valuable. Russell notes, "The victory of the proletariat in Russia has some points in common with the victory of the feminists." The aristocratic class in Russia praises the peasants for the supposed "nobility" of their toiling. This is similar to the way that men praise women for their alleged "inferiority." The slave morality is far too pervasive, and as a result, "present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity." Leisure time still escapes the peasants' reach.

Part 3

Russell points out that working people most enjoy their leisure time on their days off. Work is required to survive, but seldom do laborers actually enjoy the experience of manually manipulating matter. Workers are taught to feel that they are virtuous because they are industrious, but their joy is not derived from work. Russell writes that "They consider work ... as a necessary means to a livelihood." Modern people believe that all industry should produce a profit, and that any activity that does not produce a profit is worthless. Yet, consumption and production are two sides of one coin; without consumption, production would be useless. Russell encourages people to "judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer," rather than to view production as an end in itself.

Russell is adamant that a four-hour workday will suffice but cautions that he is by no means encouraging "pure frivolity." Education should train the mind so that leisure can be utilized wisely. This not only includes the "high-brow" intellectual activities, but also more rural activities such as dancing. City dwellers have developed a preference for passively "seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on." Russell mentions that they would surely take more interest in active pleasures if they were less worn down by the long hours they spend working.

The small group of landed elites with leisure time have produced the bulk of the work in the arts and sciences. Today universities are set up with the intent to provide leisure time for academics to pursue the arts and sciences, but "university life is so different from life in the world at large." Moreover, universities require conformity to specific lines of research. This means that any unique research interests are discouraged. So, universities are not the ideal space in which to pursue one's creative impulses. The best way to continue to advance the arts and sciences is to encourage people to use leisure time to cultivate their talents. Russell says that this will produce "happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia." The time has arrived for the working class to move away from enslavement and toward the just enjoyment of leisure time. Russell contends that idle time well spent produces contentment, ease, creativity, and freedom.


The Relativity of Virtue

Bertrand Russell uses the language of "virtue" and "vice" throughout his essay. He writes that early in his life he felt that hard work was a virtue, and that idle time would lead to misfortune. However, over the course of his life, he recognized that this way of viewing ethics only made sense in a world in which there was a lot of work that needed to be done. He writes that his "opinions have undergone a revolution." Russell's discussion of ethics emphasizes the importance of developing character traits, which might be vicious, virtuous, or neutral. In pre-industrial societies without machines, there was a lot of work to do. Russell suggests, "... a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family." Any surplus was "appropriated by priests and warriors." So, it made sense for those in power, the priests and warriors, to insist that working long hours made people virtuous. Now that industry has produced machines that can create large surpluses, it no longer makes sense for people to derive their sense of being virtuous from their ability to work long hours. If what people desire is to cultivate their characters, leisure is precisely what they need to do that.

Russell's discussion of the nature of virtue reveals a description of virtue as permeable rather than static. His frustration with the love of work comes from his recognition that this love does no good for anyone living in the age of technology. The fact that people cling to this antiquated view of right and wrong is due to their ignorance about the way that they have been indoctrinated into a "slave morality." By applying logic Russell demonstrates that this "slave morality" is illogical. He writes, "... the modern world has no need of slavery." Moreover, the notion that the concept of virtue should never change is a mistake. Implied in what Russell writes is his view that the label "virtuous" must be applied differently in history; what was "virtuous" in the days before machines were invented is no longer "virtuous" in the age of machines. His understanding of virtue borders on relativism, a philosophical position that emphasizes the importance of context in the determination of truth.

Relativism can be contrasted with moral objectivism. Moral objectivism is the view that there are truths about right and wrong that apply to all people in every time and place. Russell's discussion of a "slave morality" reflects his opposition to moral objectivism. He advocates for an evolution of the working class view about the virtue of hard work. His critique of the popular view is a critique of the notion that work is intrinsically good and thus worth aiming for in and of itself. Russell explains that "In America men often work long hours even when they are already well-off." They do so because they believe work is inherently good. It doesn't occur to them to entertain the notion that morality should evolve along with changing technologies. They have a fixed view of morality derived from the days when hard work was the only means of surviving. With machines this is no longer the case. Russell issues a call to revolutionize popular beliefs about the timelessness of moral truths.

Conscience and Reason

Russell describes his early views of morality by saying he believed everything he was told "and acquired a conscience" that motivated him to work as hard as he could. He nevertheless experienced a "revolution" in his thinking about the issues surrounding the perceived value of hard work and the unequal distribution of leisure time that he observed. In doing so Russell brings to light a distinction between the concept of a moral conscience and the concept of thinking. The distinction is nuanced. It is based on Russell's implicit evaluation of conscience as inherited via popular opinion. This explains how it is that he acquired a conscience by believing what others told him. Later in life he developed the capacity for independent thought and was able to apply critical thinking to his own beliefs to identify illogical ones.

Russell's work in logic informs his thinking about all aspects of ethics. Russell relies upon logical argument as a way of separating mere beliefs from beliefs that constitute knowledge. Beliefs that have reliable justification can be considered knowledge. This definition of knowledge dates back to the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato's (427 B.C.E.–347 B.C.E.) Meno (380 B.C.E.). In Meno Plato describes three conditions that are required for any statement to be called "knowledge." The three conditions are truth, justification, and belief. Russell's concern regarding the status of the beliefs he discovered in his "conscience" reflect the ancient philosophical debates regarding knowledge. Historically only beliefs that can be justified logically are considered "knowledge" in the proper sense of the term.

Russell's view of ethics entails a rejection of the commonly accepted supposition that moral beliefs are foundational and thus obvious. Generally, systems of ethics that are based in religion adopt this type of supposition and believers assume that moral beliefs are given by God via conscience. This view was popularized in the medieval world of philosophy by the philosopher and monk St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). Russell's willingness to call into question the legitimacy of his "conscience" reveals his rejection of the view that conscience ought to be accepted wholesale. Russell instead approaches the moral conscience as a logician and seeks to discover whether or not its contents have justification. By examining the beliefs that he has adopted throughout his life, Russell is able to uncover the origin of his tendency to equate hard work with moral superiority and investigates the connections between the two ideas. His inquiry into the relationship between his ideas leads him to the discovery that the link between work and the ideal of a good person originated before machines were invented. From there Russell launches an argument against equating hard work with being morally superior to prove that it is an outdated belief.

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