In praise of idleness

Homayoun Zarghani

Bertrand Russell wrote an article in 1935 titled “In Praise of Idleness,” arguing that if everyone worked four hours a day and spent the rest of their time in joy with family and pets, the unemployment rate would decrease, and people would live happier lives.

He begins his article with an interesting statement: “Since childhood, we were taught that work is a virtue, and the devil always finds work for idle hands.”

The story of the Neapolitan traveler from the pre-Mussolini era is also noteworthy. On the shores of the Mediterranean, 12 beggars, lying in the sun, ask the Neapolitan traveler to give a coin to the laziest among them. The traveler puts his hand in his pocket, and eleven beggars scramble to prove they are lazier than the others. The traveler gives a one-lira coin to the twelfth beggar, who had remained motionless under the sun.

The praise of idleness from the perspective of this idealistic philosopher contains a subtle point: that the virtue of working has its limits. He looks critically at the numerous activities taking place in the world during his time, arguing that significant harm has been done to human society by these activities. Increased work benefits only the owners and capitalists, leaving the masses with little. Without questioning the virtue of work, he passionately advocates for avoiding excessive work, providing examples in this article.

With the industrial machines of that time, the expectation was to reduce the quantity of work each individual had to do and, in return, increase the quality of work, allowing more leisure time for people to pursue their personal, mental, and spiritual interests during their free time and unemployment.

The essence of this idealistic philosopher’s argument found a visual form in the age of COVID-19. The toxic rays of the coronavirus challenged the logic of mass production, and supporters of neoliberalism faced the nightmare of a return to a time with no way back.

Employers couldn’t afford full-time work, let alone overtime. The freed time for people during the COVID-19 era had no precedent. However, due to material and social constraints, this ownerless time did not translate into significant leisure.

The idleness that Bertrand Russell praised is now being contested by digital media and virtual spaces.

Yet, the fundamental issue remains the same. Humanity falls prey to the cyclical inadequacies of online businesses. Time wasters in the ocean of online events leave humans trapped in shallow and foundationless idleness. The minds of those ensnared in the traps of social networks are like a spring that loses its resilience under excessive bombardment and pressure, surrendering. An analytical mind and first-hand content are rarer than one can imagine. The more the chaos of the virtual space aligns with such a style and context, the more sustainable benefits flow into the pockets of dominant and authoritarian groups.

The online space, inevitably tied to idleness in the present century, is a powerful tool for penetrating the masses. Reassessment and special care are required.

Read more of Zarghani’s notes: Link to Telegram

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