In Praise of Idleness: The Classic Essay with a New Introduction by Bradley Trevor Greive
June 27, 2017
Bradley Trevor Greive reintroduces Bertrand Russell's classic essay to the world with humor and wisdom, and at just the right moment.
Having one of the world's leading humorists introduce an essay from one of the greatest and most serious minds in the history of humanity might seem like an odd fit, but I can assure you that it is a perfect one.
That is true, first, because Bradley Trevor Greive obviously loves and appreciates the mind and work of Bertrand Russell, and has felt his own thinking about life changed by encountering Russell's "original thinking, his exquisite writing," and his "simple yet incredibly effective creative process." It is also true that the seriousness of Russell sprung from an understanding of the underlying absurdity of life—that he "a funny little gesticulating animal on two legs, should stand beneath the stars and declaim in a passion about my rights—it seems so laughable, so out of all proportion." So, yeah, comedy...
But why In Praise of Idleness? Greive presents it to readers (with the blessing of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation) hoping it will find new readers, and afford them "a similar epiphany" to the one he experienced after his first reading, which changed his life:
I tried to cut back on passive entertainment and move toward active interests. Over the next ten years I travelled the world, founded a national poetry prize, participated in wildlife conservation programs on every continent, qualified to be a Russian cosmonaut in Moscow, competed in Polynesian strongman contests in Moorea and took up cooking, gardening and adventure sports. Suffice to say, I ended up in the hospital—following a dramatic high-speed desert racing accident—during which my all my sponge-bath fantasies were proved horribly misguided. Later I contracted chlamydia in my right eye when a koala urinated in my face. But I digress.
It was while recovering from the accident that he expanded his reading of Russell's work, and his appreciation of it. In addition to being a humor author, he lectures on creativity, and he references Russell and this essay when doing so. This book, in addition to reprinting the essay, offers an afterword that is a brief biographical sketch of Russell's intellectual development and an illustration of his creative process. More on that later…
But what about the essay? Penned in 1932, "The essay," Greive tells us, "can be divided into four basic sections: the illusion of wealth, the nature and history of work, the ethics of work and the importance of leisure." I'll skip ahead here to the ethics of work, or of production and consumption, which are, according to Russell, topsy-turvy:
Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad.
While we toil for profit, and "profit-making is the incentive to industry," Russell reminds us that the social purpose of work lies in the consumption of what is produced. It is something we too often ignore, and the "result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure it gives to the consumer." That is to say, we exalt work and demonize leisure, even as we work in order to afford some leisure. He paints this as largely effective propaganda of those in power, who have historically benefitted from the labor of others. Though of an aristocratic background himself, he pulls no punches when discussing class.
In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive, limited its sympathies, and caused it to invent theories to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminish its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed to nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would have never emerged from barbarism.
You could, I suppose, argue whether we have in fact emerged from it, but the rest of that reasoning seems sound to me. As is his conclusion that we work entirely too much, and leave too little time for active idleness and leisure. The fact that so many are overworked, while some want for work entirely, isn't a moral failure on the part of individuals, but of the system we live in. Russell's answer to that failure is a four-hour workday. I'm not sure I buy the solution any more than I buy John Maynard Keynes's 15-hour work week and new era of leisure predicted in his essay on the Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, but I fully agree with the importance of idleness, and the idea that it is an essential ingredient in engaging us fully in creativity and culture. That point may be best made for our era in Greive's introduction:
As Russell foretold, the modern mind is constantly revving but rarely engaged in gear. Our jobs keep us busier and the technology is getting smarter while our brains are shriveling and our imagination is fading. If we cannot find the time to think deeply—to plunge below the ripples of reactive thinking that flit across the surface of our conscious mind and create some genuine cerebral turbulence, from which we might generate original ideas and conceive the manner in which they can be brought to fruition, then our dreams will be lost in the incandescent spume of the digital age.
Greive's Afterword to the book, entitled "In Praise of Doubt," is about Russell's creative process, which all begins with how he "embraced life as an intellectual adventure." He was constantly questioning others' assumptions and his own—upending assumptions along the way while searching for love and knowledge and alleviation of human suffering. It was with that good nature and Socratic method of questioning everything that he made such intellectual progress in his life. As Greive writes in the Afterword:
Doubt and uncertainty were central elements to Russell's genius and thus are worthy of consideration for all of us. There is great progress to be made in every aspect of life and work, especially in regards to creativity and innovation, if we can put into practice Russell's advice that, "In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted."
It's time we re-engage in protecting our leisure time from work, not because they're necessarily separate, but because engaging in more "active idleness" makes us more creative and truly productive. To simply to do less and think more, and question more, is a noble pursuit. As Henry David Thoreau said, "It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" You can begin to answer that for yourself while leisurely reading In Praise of Idleness.
We have 20 copies available.