F 1 D 0 -- 2002 01 02 In Praise of Idleness

Written in 1932 by Bertrand Russell


Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the
saying: 'Satan finds some mischief still for idle
hands to do.' Being a highly virtuous child, I
believed all that I was told, and acquired a
conscience which has kept me working hard down to the
present moment. But although my conscience has
controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a
revolution. I think that there is far too much work
done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the
belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to
be preached in modern industrial countries is quite
different from what always has been preached.
Everyone knows the story of the traveller in Naples
who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was
before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to
the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to
claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This
traveller was on the right lines. But in countries
which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is
more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be
required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading
the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will
start a campaign to induce good young men to do
nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Before advancing my own arguments for laziness, I
must dispose of one which I cannot accept. Whenever a
person who already has enough to live on proposes to
engage in some everyday kind of job, such as school
teaching or typing, he or she is told that such
conduct takes the bread out of other people's mouths,
and is therefore wicked. If this argument were valid,
it would only be necessary for us all to be idle in
order that we should all have our mouths full of
bread. What people who say such things forget is that
what a man earns he usually spends, and in spending
he gives employment. As long as a man spends his
income, he puts just as much bread into people's
mouths in spending as he takes out of other people's
mouths in earning. The real villain, ftom this point
of view, is the man who saves. If he merely puts his
savings in a stocking, like the proverbial French
peasant, it is obvious that they do not give
employment. If he invests his savings, the matter is
less obvious, and different cases arise.

One of the commonest things to do with savings is to
lend them to some Government. In view of the fact
that the bulk of the public expenditure of most
civilized Governments consists in payment for past
wars or preparation for future wars, the man who
lends his money to - a Government is in the same
position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire
murderers. The net result of the man's economical
habits is to increase the armed forces of the State
to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be
better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in
drink or gambling.

But, I shall be told, the case is quite different
when savings are invested in industrial enterprises.
When such enterprises succeed, and produce something
useful, this may be conceded. In these days, however,
no one will deny that most enterprises fail. That
means that a large amount of human labour, which
might have been devoted to producing something that
could be enjoyed, was expended on producing machines
which, when produced, lay idle and did no good to
anyone. The man who invests his savings in a concern
that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as
well as himself. If he spent his money, say, in
giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope)
would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom
he spent money, such as the butcher, the baker, and
the bootlegger. But if he spends it (let us say) upon
laying down rails for surface cars in some place
where surface cars turn out to be not wanted, he has
diverted a mass of labour into channels where it
gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless, when he
becomes poor through the failure of his investment he
will be regarded as a victim of undeserved
misfortune, whereas the gay spendthrift, who has
spent his money philanthropically, will be despised
as a fool and a frivolous person.

All this is only preliminary. 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.

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds:
first, altering the position of matter at or near the
earth's surface relatively to other such matter;
second, telling other people to do so. The first kind
is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant
and highly paid. The second kind is capable of
indefinite extension - there are not only those who
give orders, but those who give advice as to what
orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of
advice are given simultaneously by two organized
bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill
required for this kind of work is not knowledge of
the subjects as to which advice is given, but
knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and
writing, IE of advertising.

Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a
third class of men, more respected than either of the
classes of workers. There are men who, through
ownership of land, are able to make others pay for
the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.
These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be
expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their
idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of
others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness
is historically the source of the whole gospel of
work. The last thing they have ever wished is that
others should follow their example.

From the beginning of civilization until the
Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule,
produce by hard work little more than was required
for the subsistence of himself and his family,
although his wife worked at least as hard as he did,
and his children added their labour as soon as they
were old enough to do so. The small surplus above
bare necessaries was not left to those who produced
it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. In
times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors
and priests, however, still secured as much as at
other times, with the result that many of the workers
died of hunger. This system persisted in Russia until
1917*, and still persists in the East; in England, in
spite of the Industrial Revolution, it remained in
full force throughout the Napoleonic wars, and until 
a hundred years ago, when the new class of 
manufacturers acquired power. In America, the system came 
to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, 
where it persisted until the Civil War. A system which 
lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally 
left a profound impress upon men's thoughts and opinions. 
Much that we take for granted about the desirability of 
work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial,
is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique
has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to
be not the prerogative of small privileged classes,
but a right evenly distributed throughout the
community. The morality of work is the morality of
slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

*(Since then, members of the Commununist Party have
succeeded to this privilege of the warriors and
priests)

It is obvious that, in primitive communities,
peasants, left to themselves, would not have parted
with the slender surplus upon which the warriors and
priests subsisted, but would have either produced
less or consumed more. At first, sheer force
compelled them to produce and part with the surplus.
Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce
many of them to accept an ethic according to which it
was their duty to work hard, although part of their
work went to support others in idleness. By this
means the amount of compulsion required was lessened,
and the expenses of government were diminished. To
this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would
be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the
King should not have a larger income than a working
man. 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. Of course the
holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by
managing to believe that their interests are
identical with the larger interests of humanity.
Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for
instance, employed part of their leisure in making a
permanent contribution to civilization which would
have been impossible under a just economic system.
Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former
times leisure for the few was only rendered possible
by the labours of the many. But their labours were
valuable, not because work is good, but because
leisure is good. And with modern technique it would
be possible to distribute leisure justly without
injury to civilization.


Modern technique has made it possible to diminish
enormously the amount of labour required to secure
the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made
obvious during the war. At that time all the men in
the armed forces, all the men and women engaged in
the production of munitions, all the men and women
engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government
offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from
productive occupations. In spite of this, the general
level of physical well-being among unskilled wage-
earners on the side of the Allies was higher than
before or since. The significance of this fact was
concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if
the future was nourishing the present. But that, of
course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat
a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. 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. If, at the
end of the war, the scientific organization, which
had been created in order to liberate men for
fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and
the hours of work had been cut down to four, all
would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos
was restored, those whose work was demanded were made
to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve
as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man
should not receive wages in proportion to what he has
produced, but in proportion to his virtue as
exemplified by his industry.

This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in
circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose.
No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take
an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a
certain number of people are engaged in the
manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the
world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone
makes an invention by which the same number of men
can make twice as many pins as before. But the world
does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so
cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower
price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in
the manufacture of pins would take to working four
hours instead of eight, and everything else would go
on as before. But in the actual world this would be
thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours,
there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt,
and half the men previously concerned in making pins
are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as
much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men
are totally idle while half are still overworked. In
this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure
shall cause misery all round instead of being a
universal source of happiness. Can anything more
insane be imagined?

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always
been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early
19th 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. When I was a
child, shortly after urban working men had acquired
the vote, certain public holidays were established by
law, to the great indignation of the upper classes. I
remember hearing an old Duchess say. 'What do the
poor want with holidays? They ought to work.' People
nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists,
and is the source of much of our economic confusion.

Let us, for a moment, consider the ethics of work
frankly, without superstition. Every human being, of
necessity, consumes, in the course of his life, a
certain amount of the produce of human labour.
Assuming, as we may, that labour is on the whole
disagreeable, it is unjust that a man should consume
more than he produces. Of course he may provide
services rather than commodities, like a medical man,
for example; but he should provide something in
return for his board and lodging. To this extent, the
duty of work must be admitted, but to this extent
only.

I shall not dwell upon the fact that, in all modern
societies outside the USSR, many people escape even
this minimum amount of work, namely all those who
inherit money and all those who marry money. I do not
think the fact that these people are allowed to be
idle is nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-
earners are expected to overwork or starve.

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. In
America, men often work long hours even when they are
already well off; such men, naturally, are indignant
at the idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as
the grim punishment of unemployment; in fact, they
dislike leisure even for their sons. Oddly enough,
while they wish their sons to work so hard as to have
no time to be civilized, they do not mind their wives
and daughters having no work at all. The snobbish
admiration of uselessness, which, in an aristocratic
society, extends to both sexes, is, under a
plutocracy, confined to women; this, however, does
not make it any more in agreement with common sense.

The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a
product of civilization and education. A man who has
worked long hours all his life will be 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.

In the new creed which controls the government of
Russia, while there is much that is very different
from the traditional teaching of the West, there are
some things that are quite unchanged. The attitude of
the governing classes, and especially of those who
conduct educational propaganda, on the subject of the
dignity of labour, is almost exactly that which the
governing classes of the world have always preached
to what were called the 'honest poor'. Industry,
sobriety, willingness to work long hours for distant
advantages, even submissiveness to authority, all
these reappear; moreover authority still represents
the will of the Ruler of the Universe, Who, however,
is now called by a new name, Dialectical Materialism.

The victory of the proletariat in Russia has some
points in common with the victory of the feminists in
some other countries. For ages, men had conceded the
superior saintliness of women, and had consoled women
for their inferiority by maintaining that saintliness
is more desirable than power. At last the feminists
decided that they would have both, since the pioneers
among them believed all that the men had told them
about the desirability of virtue, but not what they
had told them about the worthlessness of political
power. A similar thing has happened in Russia as
regards manual work. For ages, the rich and their
sycophants have written in praise of 'honest toil',
have praised the simple life, have professed a
religion which teaches that the poor are much more
likely to go to heaven than the rich, and in general
have tried to make manual workers believe that there
is some special nobility about altering the position
of matter in space, just as men tried to make women
believe that they derived some special nobility from
their sexual enslavement. In Russia, all this
teaching about the excellence of manual work has been
taken seriously, with the result that the manual
worker is more honoured than anyone else. What are,
in essence, revivalist appeals are made, but not for
the old purposes: they are made to secure shock
workers for special tasks. Manual work is the ideal
which is held before the young, and is the basis of
all ethical teaching.

For the present, possibly, this is all to the good. A
large country, full of natural resources, awaits
development, and has to be developed with very little
use of credit. In these circumstances, hard work is
necessary, and is likely to bring a great reward. But
what will happen when the point has been reached
where everybody could be comfortable without working
long hours?

In the West, we have various ways of dealing with
this problem. We have no attempt at economic justice,
so that a large proportion of the total produce goes
to a small minority of the population, many of whom
do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any
central control over production, we produce hosts of
things that are not wanted. We keep a large
percentage of the working population idle, because we
can dispense with their labour by making the others
overwork. When all these methods prove inadequate, we
have a war: we cause a number of people to
manufacture high explosives, and a number of others
to explode them, as if we were children who had just
discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these
devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep
alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual
work must be the lot of the average man.

In Russia, owing to more economic justice and central
control over production, the problem will have to be
differently solved. The rational solution would be,
as soon as the necessaries and elementary comforts
can be provided for all, to reduce the hours of
labour gradually, allowing a popular vote to decide,
at each stage, whether more leisure or more goods
were to be preferred. But, having taught the supreme
virtue of hard work, it is difficult to see how the
authorities can aim at a paradise in which there will
be much leisure and little work. It seems more likely
that they will find continually fresh schemes, by
which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future
productivity. I read recently of an ingenious plan
put forward by Russian engineers, for making the
White Sea and the northern coasts of Siberia warm, by
putting a dam across the Kara Sea. An admirable
project, but liable to postpone proletarian comfort
for a generation, while the nobility of toil is being
displayed amid the ice-fields and snowstorms of the
Arctic Ocean. This sort of thing, if it happens, will
be the result of regarding the virtue of hard work as
an end in itself, rather than as a means to a state
of affairs in which it is no longer needed.

The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain
amount of it is necessary to our existence, is
emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it
were, we should have to consider every navvy superior
to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by
two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor
contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of
years, to preach the dignity of labour, while taking
care themselves to remain undignified in this
respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism,
which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever
changes that we can produce on the earth's surface.
Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to
the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the
best part of his life, he is not likely to say: 'I
enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am
fulfilling man's noblest task, and because I like to
think how much man can transform his planet. It is
true that my body demands periods of rest, which I
have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so
happy as when the morning comes and I can return to
the toil from which my contentment springs.' I have
never heard working men say this sort of thing. They
consider work, as it should be considered, a
necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their
leisure hours that they derive whatever happiness
they may enjoy.

It will be said that, while a little leisure is
pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days
if they had only four hours of work out of the
twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern
world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it
would not have been true at any earlier period. There
was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and
play which has been to some extent inhibited by the
cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that
everything ought to be done for the sake of something
else, and never for its own sake. 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 your 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.
Whatever merit there may be in the production of
goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage
to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in
our society, works for profit; but the social purpose
of his work lies in the consumption of what he
produces. It is this divorce between the individual
and the social purpose of production that makes it so
difficult for men to think clearly in a world in
which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We
think too much of production, and too little of
consumption. One result is that we attach too little
importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and
that we do not judge production by the pleasure that
it gives to the consumer.

When I suggest that working hours should be reduced
to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the
remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure
frivolity. I mean that four hours' work a day should
entitle a man to the necessities and elementary
comforts of life, and that the rest of his time
should be his to use as he might see fit. It is an
essential part of any such social system that
education should be carried further than it usually
is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing
tastes which would enable a man to use leisure
intelligently. I am not thinking mainly of the sort
of things that would be considered 'highbrow'.
Peasant dances may have died out except in remote
rural areas, but the impulses which cause them to be
cultivated must still exist in human nature. The
pleasures of urban populations have become mainly
passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches,
listening to the radio, and so on. This results from
the fact that their active energies are fully taken
up with work; if they had more leisure, they would
again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active
part.

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 by
which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly
diminished its excellence, but in spite of this
drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we
call civilization. It cultivated the arts and
discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented
the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even
the liberation of the oppressed has usually been
inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class,
mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

The method of a hereditary leisure class without
duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful. None
of the members of the class had been taught to be
industrious, and the class as a whole was not
exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce
one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of
thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of
anything more intelligent than foxhunting and
punishing poachers. At present, the universities are
supposed to provide, in a more systematic way, what
the leisure class provided accidentally and as a by-
product. This is a great improvement, but it has
certain drawbacks. University life is so different
from life in the world at large that men who live in
an academic milieu tend to be unaware of the
preoccupations and problems of ordinary men and
women; moreover their ways of expressing themselves
are usually such as to rob their opinions of the
influence that they ought to have upon the general
public. Another disadvantage is that in universities
studies are organized, and the man who thinks of some
original line of research is likely to be
discouraged. Academic institutions, therefore, useful
as they are, are not adequate guardians of the
interests of civilization in a world where everyone
outside their walls is too busy for un-utilitarian
pursuits.

In a world where no one is compelled to work more
than four hours a day, every person possessed of
scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and
every painter will be able to paint without starving,
however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers
will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves
by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring
the economic independence needed for monumental
works, for which, when the time at last comes, they
will have lost the taste and the capacity. Men who,
in their professional work, have become interested in
some phase of economics or government, will be able
to develop their ideas without the academic
detachment that makes the work of university
economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men
will have time to learn about the progress of
medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly
struggling to teach by routine methods things which
they learnt in their youth, which may, in the
interval, have been proved to be untrue.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life,
instead of frayed nerves, wariness, and dyspepsia.
The work exacted will be enough to make leisure
delightful, but not enough to product exhaustion.
Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they
will not demand only such amusements as are passive
and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote
the time not spent in professional work to pursuits
of some public importance, and, since they will not
depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood,
their originality will be unhampered, and there will
be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly
pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional
cases that the advantages of leisure will appear.
Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a
happy life, will become more kindly and less
persecuting and less inclined to view others with
suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for
this reason, and partly because it will involve long
and severe work for all. 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.