25 September 2018


Brian O'Connor. Idleness - A Philosophical Essay. Princeton University Press 2018.

This book appealed to me instantly when I saw its synopsis in the Princeton University Press catalogue. At our monthly Magonian meetings (in the cheerily social setting of a pub, as announced on the home page of the website) we occasionally have the pleasure of browsing new publication catalogues to choose one, or more, books for review. Princeton is one of the more interesting in my experience, and they always have an amazingly broad and exciting range of subjects.

Reading a book of choice is naturally a pleasure, but it often seems that the commitment to writing a review adds a sense of duty that can press the procrastination button. Apart from reading the book thoroughly, in fairness to the author, one also has to ponder the subject, take time to do peripheral research, and then consider how best to introduce the review, with what balance of personal comment and textual references to use. All of this is most of all in pursuit of excellence, but may also be perceived as an excuse for idleness, and shows what a complex subject it is on analysis. I expect most of us would agree that it is possible, and very human, to be idle and active at the same time, by indulging in other interests and tasks that divert us from the main project in hand.

Our dear Editor uses the well-known motivational techniques of carrot and stick (respectively, the prospect of a Magonian iced bun with a cherry on top for the first monthly review - or the headmasterly frown of disapproval with the inevitable query as to the status of our homework when it has not been forthcoming in the expected time frame). It is interesting how external stimuli interact with internal self-motivation to accomplish an assignment. But even self-starters get a payback from achieving their commitments promptly and efficiently, and that is a sense of worth or worthiness.

These musings arose as I read the observations of Brian O'Connor on the question of idleness from a philosophical viewpoint, with ample reference to the main extant writings on the subject by great philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer. O'Connor is Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin, and works primarily in the areas of social and political theory. Against the grain of prevailing philosophical reasoning that idleness and laziness are vices, he argues that idle aimlessness may instead allow for the highest form of freedom. The publishers claim that this is the first book to challenge modern philosophy's portrayal of idleness as always negative in a moral sense.

Now one must ask, what exactly is meant by 'idleness'? As I said in my own example, it is not necessarily equivalent to inactivity. O'Connor puts it this way, in a most interesting interview that appears in transcript on the Princeton website:

"The sense of idleness at the center of the book is that of doing little or nothing that’s considered productive, of feeling free of the pressures of caring about what one is supposed to make of oneself. An idle person is not pinned down by any plan that shapes their future. It’s a kind of way of being that, in the context of life today, amounts to a disavowal of those inclinations that make us into effective social agents, like being useful, busy, or competitive." Another telling comment appears further on, where he says that he wanted to "show that some of the most ingenious arguments against idleness developed by some exceptionally influential philosophers turn out to be justifications of our anxious world".

Some people of a spiritual inclination may view idleness as an expression of enlightenment, realising themselves as already perfect in essence and having no anxiety about the day-to-day cares of this world. However, the human condition demands some form of participation in societal affairs and gainful employment. To what extent that is obligatory, rather than voluntary or contingent on personal circumstances, is discussed in several key texts that O'Connor fillets down to the bone like a master butcher. Of all the moralising philosophers, Kant's highly reasoned denouncement of idleness comes in for the O'Connor treatment with great finesse, as shown in the following quoted paragraph from the book:

"Kant sees the human being as a contradictory creature, as a kind who prefers easy comfort but who is at the same time also driven by a rational nature to 'abandon idleness [Lassigkeit] and inactive self-sufficiency and plunge instead into labour and hardships, so that he may by his own adroitness find means of liberating himself from them in turn’. We saw Kant's worry that nature would be 'indulging in childish play' were our rational deeds not ultimately a contribution to the development of rationality in the species. But the view he expresses here would surely make the urge for rational action into another kind of tormentor: we would continually abandon idleness in order to give ourselves burdens that we sought to overcome. It is, however, precisely this torment that accompanies the worthiness myth: the importance of the endeavour to make ourselves independent of natural or settled circumstances, regardless of the attractions of idleness and other pleasures."

Hegel more or less agrees with Kant, arguing that we gain a sense of freedom by work, providing goods and services for others, thereby allowing us to become respected communal beings. Hegel's 'master and slave' discussion gives an insight into modern society. It is paradoxical that the freedom that seems to be gained by becoming ones own master is tied to the opinions of others about how well we have used our powers. Marx, of course, promoted this same outlook, that work brings respect and is a pleasurable moral enterprise, yet he admitted that idleness is an understandable attraction.

The great novelist Tolstoy is quoted for a wise insight into the tension between work and idleness: "An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. The exception: to feel you are doing your duty while being idle. And such a state of obligatory idleness is the lot of a whole class - the military." I am sure we can all think of this principle being true in many other contexts of life.

O'Connor observes that separation from work can itself be a cause of nagging anxiety. For some, reaching retirement may remove ones main purpose in life. For others it provides freedom to explore ones interests and gain new pleasurable experiences. While acknowledging that in some cases idle time may be uncomfortable, he asks: "Why care, though? Every thoughtful person knows that nothing we achieve really matters in the end." It is true, of course, that no one on their deathbed is going to entertain regretful thoughts about a missed promotion in their career. The prospect of eventual death does concentrate the mind on what really matters in life.

Many of the philosophers featured in O'Connor's book seem to be lacking the fundamental joy of being alive and surrounded by miracles of nature. Schopenhauer, for example, speaks of the "miserable emptiness of existence". O'Connor comments that "considerations of lasting pleasures are strangely absent from Schopenhauer's study." Obviously so, but one wonders why so many philosophers take such a pessimistic view of life. Could it be from an overly-developed intellect, at the expense of feeling?

I thought that O'Connor might have drawn a little more from Bertrand Russell, who receives only a couple of brief references. His essay "In Praise of Idleness" is a tour de force of reason on the subject. He argued that an advanced society would require less work from its citizens in general, providing more leisure time for participation in culture, arts and sciences. In other words, he was advocating that careworn adults could and should re-learn to play, just as they did as children. Russell is in fact describing an ideal society, free of war and its costs, while advanced technology would liberate the masses from abject drudgery. "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 a life of arduous struggle." The essay was written in 1932 when Russell was 60 years of age, and it has to be said, was remarkably optimistic yet all the more welcome for that outlook in a time of depression.

William Morris, the noted designer and social activist, speculated on the right balance between work and leisure. The purpose and value of leisure was actually to renew and refresh our capacity to perform. David Hume's essay "The Epicurean" argued likewise against indolence and advocated balanced "virtuous pleasure" as the best way to live, for the unrelenting pursuit of pleasure is ultimately exhausting. O'Connor consults the writings of these and many other philosophers and intellectuals while arguing his case that idleness is not in itself an evil but is a matter of individual freedom and choice.

This is a scholarly work, thorough and precise, a stimulating source of ideas and knowledge, yet seemed to me to be a little too much on the intellectual / theoretical plane. It would have benefited from a few real-life examples of idleness as a lifestyle being successful, to back up his thesis. Only the South Sea Islanders are cited, under Kant's critique, of a happy, idle society. He does devote a whole chapter to the "Challenges of Boredom", but it is mainly intellectual analysis, argument and counter-argument, none of which proves his case. One modern-day example against his argument is that millions of people buy 'Lotto' tickets in the hope of being free of the burden of work, or having the means to live a fuller life. Yet how often we hear of the resulting misery and breakdowns that occur in the lives of jackpot winners.

In the Princeton interview O'Connor is asked: "Does your book argue, then, that we need to work less and do more to enjoy our free time?" He replies: "No I make no positive proposals for any alternative lifestyle. The philosopher as guru is not a happy spectacle." I think that is a pity and I have to disagree. It is all very well to produce a fine academic work of erudition on a complex subject, but I would have liked to hear how he thinks a more 'idle' and ideal lifestyle could be applied in the real world. He did subtitle his book as a 'philosophical essay' and on that basis he had a valid platform to present his own thoughts, as Russell did in his essay, on what practical solutions might be found for this 'anxious world'.

My own conclusion on the subject, having considered Professor O'Connor's detailed examination of a vast range of philosophical thought, is that idleness has its attractions, but only for a time and not as an entire way of life. All arguments on the subject boil down to the balance between work and play, in essence. For those who find and practice their vocation, work becomes play. Sportsmen, musicians and actors, for example, are not producers of commodities but they provide valuable service to humanity and find satisfaction as a by-product. My final thought is the maxim "love what you do, or do what you love." That can be the key to a happy life, and you don't need to be a philosopher to know that. -- Kevin Murphy

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