Over Christmas I re-read Bertrand Russell’s wonderful essay, In Praise of Idleness. Its message is still incisive and revolutionary, if in slightly different ways.
In Russel’s day, elites jealously guarded leisure for themselves while proclaiming the dignity and virtue of work for others. Today, the leisure class has committed suicide, and both rich and poor are slaves to “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.” Often, it is no longer enough to simply perform the routines of work. Work must now reflect some core part of your identity; be passion in action. For those elites lucky enough to work in creative fields, the incongruity might be limited. For most, the demand that manual, menial, and repetitive tasks be described as anything other than means to ends is a cruel joke.
In other ways the essay is very familiar. It is still an implicit article of faith for many that poverty or stultifying labour are necessary parts of the social order. Many of the highly-paid members of the managerial class, who divide their weekends between the couch and the pub, do not hesitate to prescribe sobriety and discipline for others.
The most affirming and revolutionary part of the essay comes in its claim that there is no necessary relation between the positive moral qualities society needs and work:
Finally, passages like this alone make the essay worth reading:
One of my friends ran a session on Impressionism for a group of seven-year-olds (every child already seemed to know the term “pointillism”). Another was paid £200 a day to escort a nine-year-old around the British Museum. A company I work for runs online workshops for children as young as eight on topics that range from crime writing to geopolitics; the same firm recently called for a tutor to run a five-week series of sessions with a 12-year-old on “public speaking”, “news/debating” and “ethics and philosophy”
and the grim:
I recently came across a request for a tutor to assist with interview practice for a three-year-old boy who was applying to an exclusive kindergarten. The website for one top London tutoring agency, Bonas MacFarlane, carries a tagline, “From cradle to career”.
It reminds me of John Stuart Mill. The famous liberal philosopher was raised in a demanding intellectual environment by a father grooming him to be the preeminent philosopher and reformer of the Victorian era (his father succeeded). From Mill’s Stanford Encyclopedia entry:
Starting with Greek at age three and Latin at age eight, Mill had absorbed most of the classical canon by age twelve—along with algebra, Euclid, and the major Scottish and English historians.
But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.” In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
For those who have also woken to a world that feels suddenly hollow, take some comfort in Mill’s reflection on the experience:
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.
The other important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action.
Mill is both inspiration and warning. I wish I had been taken on more tours of the British Museum as a nine year old, but Cambridge seems a poor price for one’s youth.