Bertrand Russell is considered one of the finest academic minds of the 20th century. He was a true polymath who excelled in philosophy, mathematics, and logic. Born an aristocrat (an actual Earl, for heaven’s sake) and educated at Cambridge, Russell nevertheless championed social causes such as pacifism and rights for homosexuals. In 1935, he published In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, in which he argues for, among other things, a four-hour workday.
The essay “In Praise of Idleness” is barely 5000 words long. However, Australian author and humorist Bradley Trevor Grieve has taken it, provided some historical context in an introduction and afterword, added notes and additional reading suggestions, and adorned with amusing animal drawings, turning this magnificent philosophical essay into something of a novelty book. I’m not knocking Greive; if I’m honest, would I have picked this book up and thus have been introduced to Russel’s brand of philosophy but for the adorable sloth smoking a pipe on the cover? Perhaps not.
The essay addresses several topics related to work, including the history and ethics of work and the importance of idleness to foster creativity. His thoughts are so relevant today that I’d like to see the essay printed and posted on every break-room bulletin board next to the OSHA regulations. Russell’s writing is at times ironic and amusing. In the first third of his essay, he describes two kinds of work: “. . .[F]irst, 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.” Damn if Bertrand Russell didn’t just call out bullshit jobs 80 years before David Graeber.
His writing gets more caustic, though, as he describes the way the rich have manipulated the poor into thinking that working themselves to death is an honorable pursuit: “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.” It’s worth repeating that Russell was aristocracy: this system of subjugating the common worker benefited him, but that didn’t stop him from calling it out as nonsense. He even quotes a relative who, when the British government started adding national holidays for workers, wondered, “Whatever for? They should be working.”
Russell argues that if everyone worked just four hours per day, there would still be enough labor for all the necessary work to get done while allowing all workers with meaningful leisure time. He uses the hypothetical example of factories that make pins (this example is from 1935). Say, at the current time, factories make enough pins to meet supply with all employees working eight hours per day. Someone then comes along and creates a machine that allows factories to produce twice as many pins as before. The world doesn’t need twice as many pins but, rather than cutting everyone’s work in half and giving back time for leisure, factories continue to produce at the same rate, until half of them go bankrupt, throwing half of the pin-making employees out of work. So now we have an entire population of unemployed factory workers, and a population that continues to be overworked.
“Come on,” you might ask, “is eight hours a day really too much? I worked 16-hour shifts for four months straight last year!” Yeah, Russell and I are here to tell you that that is the problem. How busy someone is at work has become a badge of honor in our society. The length of a work day has become the worst sort of humble brag. So many people fear that if they aren’t complaining about how late they stayed at work, their job will be in jeopardy. As a society, we’ve lost sight of the joy and yes, the nobility, of leisure time.
To be clear, when we (Russell and I) talk about leisure time, we’re not talking about sprawling on a couch for twelve hours straight streaming Sopranos reruns. While I can respect that life choice, it doesn’t do anything to benefit society. True leisure time–meditating, trying something new, walking through the woods and wondering what’s making that weird whirring noise–opens up our minds creatively. How are we to make new scientific discoveries if we toil in mind-numbing labor to the edge of exhaustion? How many times have I promised myself I would no longer waste time online after work but would, rather, pull out my sketch book, or research a topic that interests me, or write my CBR reviews, only to find myself without any mental reserves left at 5 p.m.?
I am a self-proclaimed To-Do list lover. But reading Russell has made me realize that, sometimes, it can be more productive to toss the list aside and do nothing, or do something that’s not important enough to have made the list. So go ahead, as we kick into 2022, make a promise to yourself to do nothing sometimes: lie on the grass and look at clouds; pick up some colored markers and draw a bird, even if you’ve never tried it before; turn off your TV and listen to the sounds of traffic or airplanes overhead. See where your mind, when released from the obligation to work, can take you.