The Shepherd Boy – Lenbach

In an essay called ‘In Praise of Idleness’, Bertrand Russell says that he thinks ‘…there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous…’ He hopes that ‘the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing… The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work…’

Russell’s supremely sensible point of view which would be derided by all those who don’t have to work for a living, relying on inherited wealth and an old boy network, is based on the key principle that ‘…the morality of work is the morality of slaves – modern man has no need of slavery…’ The focus on those who still make the lives of some a misery by submitting them to actual slavery blinds us to the fact that anybody who works for the well-being of shareholders is a slave, producing an unnecessary excess for the sake of somebody else.

In fact, Russell continues, under modern conditions, if somebody asked the right questions, it would be possible ‘…to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilisation. Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessities of life for everyone…’

This was written before the advent of the universal computer. One of the questions that desperately needs asking is: Why, with all these ‘labour-saving devices’, has a three day working week with full employment not yet been instituted for all? The answer is: Because the Power Possessors have appropriated the money representing ‘time saved’ for their own amusement, pretending that we ordinary slaves & plebs must continue to keep our noses to the grindstone.

It would come as a considerable upset to the rich & powerful to discover one morning that the headline in the Daily Tibligrop advocated THE DAWN OF THE AGE OF LEISURE FOR ALL!

Russell: ‘…The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief…’

Another question which ought to be asked is something like: What do we need to produce in order to ensure a Good Life for All? Russell says that ‘…if the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody, and no unemployment – assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure…’

I know people who say they would not know what to do with themselves if they were ‘retired’ – so they go back to being wage slaves after retirement age or they volunteer to work for nothing but the feeling that they are somehow benefiting society. The idea of ‘being bored’ with so much time on your hands is entirely foreign to me; at ten o’clock the day I commenced wage slavery in 1955 I wondered what it would be like when I had the freedom of retirement. I do remember that for two weeks after I achieved early retirement in 1992 I wondered how to plan ‘my time’ – the feeling that I should be running around after people and have people running around after me lasted just two weeks before the blinding revelation of a huge expanse of freedom struck me thunderbolt-wise. I haven’t recovered from it!

Some education into how to manage leisure time might be needed for those whose minds have been dulled into the existing system, those who have what is to me a very alien idea that life is for ‘working’. Some suggestions about the endless vistas, the endless possibilities for grabbing new ventures or reclaiming forgotten (or lost) endeavours, the brave stepping into new ‘I’s and shuffling off old outworn ones.

‘The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. Somebody who has worked long hours all life-long will be bored with sudden idleness. But without a considerable amount of leisure you are 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…’

What might be the consequences of the wild embrace of idleness? Saving untold quantities of money currently wasted on unnecessary things and ventures. Most of all a relaxation into life and living, ease and security.

More questions that ought to be asked: What do we need to live a comfortable and satisfactory life? What effect would idleness have on society as a whole?

‘…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. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever…’


Reading Russell’s essay (first published NB in 1935) caused me to wonder about the meaning of the word ‘idleness’ and to consider what amount of idleness my life had consisted of. I did an inventory of the times I consider myself to have been ‘idle’ according to my own definition of idleness. The result was very surprising to me and led me to conclude that, as compared with what young people have to put up with nowadays, I’ve led a charmed life, never really having put myself out, never having had a damned CV; there’s always been a kind of calculated absence, being in the world but not of it. How on earth have I done it? What existential (virtual) choices did I make that led me to this NOW? Early morning in late October 2016 with streams of Canada geese hurling their way across the flatlands.

Here’s my definition of ‘idleness’ – it’s doing what you want to do when you want to do it. According to this definition, I am very aware that there were times when I felt that demands were being made on my relish for idleness so that I had to choose to live up to what others expected of me and to make ends meet for self and family – what was the balance between idleness and responding to alien demands?

So here I am after 78 years! How have things divided up?

1937-1954 – Early years and schooling. 17 years of idleness, centred on self, accumulating I-tags, looking at newts, experiencing the effects of World War, writing essays that pleased me, wandering on Wimbledon Common, cycling to Worthing & back in a day (100+ miles), acquiring education by osmosis from the dedicated eccentric heroes of Kingston Grammar School just post-war, beginning to collect books & records, adolescent misplaced passion for Maureen…
1955-1956 – first experience of wage slavery in the Inland Revenue. In Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington (recounting events in 1954 just before I was setting out on my career as a Civil Servant, Martin York offers this advice as to how to throw a spanner in the works of tax inspecting: ‘…send them, out of the blue, a cheque for eight pounds seventeen and three. Something like that. They can never tally up a sum of that kind with any of their figures; your file will go from hand to hand for months and years and eventually get lost…’ I can vouch for the accuracy of such advice though nowadays I suppose a computer would smell a rat and I bet dusty old files have given way to e-filing… One year of wage slavery which contributed to ‘Income Tax Dreams’ for the next fifty years…
1956-1958 – so-called ‘National Service’. For some young men of my age this period was Total Slavery & Misery; for me it was undiluted idleness: the first eighteen weeks was such a frantic & bizarre basic training out of which I emerged as a Sergeant Instructor in the Education Corps, teaching absurdities, free to play hockey midweek, make trips to Farnham & Guildford when I felt like it and cycle the Hampshire countryside. I can still feel the May morning when I suddenly realised with a jolt that all this was coming to an end. Then the embrace of pacifism… Two years of idleness…
1958-1964 – six years: return to the Civil Service, then The British Metal Corporation which I tried to disguise as idleness by attending regular lunchtime organ recitals in St Lawrence Jewry, followed by three years in the Westminster Bank which I tried to disguise as idleness by dashing to hear Donald Soper on Tower Hill Wednesday lunchtimes… Described as a ‘rolling stone’ at my departure interview!
1964-1968 – Teacher Training. The utter idle bliss of four years rolling stones in an academic setting.
1968-1992 – teaching: school, Teacher Training, Further Education. 24 years of a different kind of wage slavery. Let’s call it that anyway… You could subtract a total of 4 years to take account of the academic holidays. Say, 20 years of wage slavery.
1992-2016 – early retirement @ 55 – since 1992 it all seems like some kind of crazy dream, gardens dug, newts observed, extraordinary teaching episodes for Big Money – the Intellectual Life conquering it all somehow. Listening to all my old vinyl records in alphabetical order on headphones at 4am. Music composed, books written, paintings painted… 24 years!

And the totals of all the months & years…? I make it 51 years of ‘idleness’ as against 27 years of wage slavery, 20 of those being tolerably ‘idle’ by my definition. Let’s say 65% of my life devoted to idleness as against 35% spent in an often not too arduous slavery.

How did this charmed life come about? I suppose I’ve always stuck to my pacifist guns. No wonder Bertrand Russell’s essay appealed to me! Around 1960 I wrote an essay in which I described how I had drifted from one thing to another up till then little realising how this would become the pattern of my life for the next fifty years; I didn’t even set about organising ‘a diminution of work’ – it just happened.

Paradoxically, I do more things during the course of a day now than I ever did before – I just don’t call it ‘work’.

4 thoughts on “IN PRAISE OF IDLENESS (R10)

  1. And in your idleness Colin, you are a huge inspiration. Your attitude towards the things you do …. maybe that is where the peace comes from??? The choice to do rather than the ‘need’ or the ‘have to’ because of another!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Funnily enough when I was out for a walk yesterday with a friend she asked if I’d do any teaching now if I was offered the chance. (I’m 70 and retired). I answered a resounding NO! My career (wage slavery) was checkered but mostly in education of one kind or another, I had a year working for NACRO which was a disaster and plently of periods of unemployment. I’ve been retired for 5 yrs and am more creative now than I’ve ever been. I’ve written a book I hope will be published in the next year or so, I do voluntary work, yoga and singing and belong to a writers’ group. I walk regularly and practice Soto Zen. How could I do all this if I was a wage slave. As I said to my friend about not wanting to work again, I value my freedom too much.

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  3. Nice to have a new post from you, Colin! I’m now three years into my “retirement”, and paradoxically I’m busier now than I ever was before. Like you, “I just don’t call it ‘work'”, and like Erik, I wouldn’t accept a paying job again even if one were offered (not likely!!), because I too “value my freedom too much”.


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