May 5, 2020

In Praise of Idleness

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

In Praise of Idleness is the title of a little essay the English Philosopher Bertrand Russell penned in 1932, three years before this idler made his debut into this world, which of course is neither here nor there, like this blog itself. But when this idler had turned into an indolent teenager and needed to find a way to pass his long summer vacation without having to resort to the indignity of working, he discovered the pleasure of reading books by Bertrand Russell, who quickly became his favorite philosopher, not that there was much competition as in those years I had barely heard of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche was simply beyond this Ken's ken. But Russell didn't write in the knotty prose favored by many modern academic philosophers; he wrote in a stylish accessible English, blessedly free of jargon and sprinkled with dashes of lively, wry humor.

I can still remember sitting on the outside steps of my parents' house one summer reading Russell's marvelously entertaining A History of Western Philosophy, which was my introduction to this vast treasury of Western thought. Russell's own erudition was obvious, but he was never pedantic; he was witty. He loved characterizing certain philosophers as "wicked," a charming way of describing their personal foibles and forays into what Russell thought was nonsense. He joked about Thales cornering the grape market, but also falling into some kind of a pit while thinking abstract thoughts, a humble and certainly ignominious beginning, Russell allowed, to Western philosophy. About such misadventures, Russell was fond of adding the stock exculpatory phrase, "That was not my fault." I picked up certain of Russell's other verbal tics, too, such as beginning my sentences with the phrase, "For my part," which was pure Russell-speak. (I always felt I should be smoking a pipe when using that phrase, but when I tried it as a young professor, I found that its pleasing aroma was far different from its acrid taste and soon gave it up for hard drugs.) And I loved the fact that Russell, who was a small man, was called by all his friends, "Bertie."

Of course, Russell was far more than a wit. He may have been small in stature but he was a giant figure in Western philosophy and mathematics for most of the 20th century and lived to the improbably great age of 97. He was even awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. If you were to read books like his classic history of Western philosophy, his absorbing autobiography or his famous essay, Why I am Not a Christian, you can see why. He wrote books for the general public as well as fiendishly difficult books on the logical foundations of mathematics. He liked to joke that because he could write books like Principia Mathematica (with Alfred North Whitehead), which showed off his brain, he was entitled to write such popular potboilers as Marriage and Morals (he knew a bit about both having had four marriages and numerous affairs, some of them quite scandalous).

Well, clearly, I could write about Russell well into the night, but I haven't yet said why I am spending so much time on him to begin this blog. The answer is simple: Russell is in vogue again because of COVID. What is COVID but a period of enforced involuntary idleness? So, naturally, I find that people are rediscovering Russell's little essay on the virtues of idleness. I was seeing so many references to it in articles I was reading, I felt compelled to order the damn thing myself. It's on its way from Amazon, but, like everything else these days, and true to its title, it is taking its time. I am certainly looking forward to idling away my time with it soon. It'll be just Bertie and me again, like old times.

And, frankly, idleness is my both my middle name and my m├ętier during this caesura in time. As far as this pandemic goes, I have -- so far -- been one of the fortunate ones, as I well realize. Not only have I managed getting to avoid getting infected -- knock on silicon -- but I spend my days being busy doing nothing. It's not exactly what the Italians like to call the dolce far niente life -- a time of sweet indolence -- but it veers dangerously close. I used to have an extensive e-mail life of correspondence with a wide assortment of friends and professional colleagues, but after an initial flurry of feverish notes and inquires to make sure I was all right, my correspondence has dried up more quickly than a creek in August. No one has anything to say anymore because nothing is happening. So I have to find things to do to entertain myself. My girlfriend reads books aloud to me. She's just knocked off the whole of Pride and Prejudice (all 490 pages) and now she is reading the stories of Alice Munro to me. We watch films -- usually adaptations of Jane Austen's books -- or Netflix series like Unorthodox, or watch operas streaming from the Met. I have my own reading to do, too, of course -- anything by Mark Helprin and lately a horrifying book about a Polish member of the resistance during World War II who volunteered to enter Auschwitz in order to foment a resistance movement there. You really don't want to know more about that book. We all have enough to deal with these days -- except for me, of course -- to divigate into that hellish cauldron of unspeakable bestiality. For my part (ahem), I have nothing to deal with but the decay of my body and nothing do but wait along with everyone else.

But now I have suddenly found a new avocation. Inspired by Bertrand Russell's example, I am determined to use this time nonproductively to cultivate the arts of idleness. 

To begin with, I've been compiling a kind of bibliography of idleness -- a miscellany of books on the subject as well as some pithy quotes on the virtues and uses of idleness. Not long ago, a friend sent me an article in The New York Times by one Dwight Garner, the headline for which immediately appealed to me: "Celebrating Literature's Slacker Heroes, Idlers and Liers-In." Turns out there is already a fairly extensive literature devoted to the pleasures of idleness by those who ardently advocate the practice while lying in bed eating bonbons.

Garner begins by reminding us of a famous character in a 19th century novel by the name of Oblomov, a young nobleman who was incapable of taking any significant action. Instead, he simply stayed in bed. I've never read this novel, but from what I have learned about it, the only movement by this character in the first fifty pages take place when he moves from his bed to his chair. My kind of man.

Apparently, lying in bed has appealed to more than a few would-be sloths, some of whom managed to become quite famous nonetheless. There was G. K. Chesterton's essay, "On Lying in Bed," for example. Then there was Dr. Johnson's unassailable contention that "the happiest part of a man's life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning." And of course everyone knows that Proust wrote his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, while lying in bed. Another celebrated Frenchman, the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, was reputed to spend all day in his pajamas unless he had an appointment.

These days I would be inclined to alter Dr. Johnson's dictum to aver that my happiest hours are in the early morning while still dreaming in bed. The day usually goes downhill from there once I try to move, a mistake I hope soon to correct as I slide into deeper levels of slothfulness. And, according to what I've been told, lying in bed is also recommended for sex, though I gather that may require some exertion.

Getting back to Garner's article, he mentions a number of books that deserve to be in any aspiring idler's library. Among the titles he has made me aware of are: Robert Morley's In Praise of Obesity, Adam Phillips's On Being Bored, Eva Hoffman's How to Be Bored, Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing, and Patricia Hampl's The Art of the Wasted Day. And for variety, you have Keith Waterhouse's primer The Theory and Practice of Lunch. Garner advises that you may want to provide plenty of time to nap between savoring these delectable how-to-do-nothing books. Moderation all things, even laziness, it seems, is the ticket.

Garner refers to still other books, but apparently, if you are really going to be lazy and want to read only one book, then it is the indispensable 2005 Tom Hodgkinson classic, How to Be Idle. According to what I've read, it was a near best seller in its day, spawned an almost cult-like following among dedicated idlers, and is regarded by many as the definitive book on the subject.

Here is a bit of what Garner has to say about this Bible for the idling class:
"This book seeks to recover an alternative tradition in literature, poetry and philosophy, one that says not only is idleness good, but that it is essential for a pleasurable life," Hodgkinson writes in his preface. "Where do our ideas come from? When do we dream? When are we happy? It is not when staring at a computer terminal worrying about what our boss will say about our work. It is in our leisure time, our own time, when we are doing what we want to do." He recommends not clicking on news radio upon waking. He nails me entirely when he writes, "A certain type of person feels it is their duty to listen to it, as if the act of merely listening is somehow going to improve the world." He is the laureate of sleeping in. "The lie-in -- by which I mean lying in bed awake -- is not a selfish indulgence but an essential tool for any student of the art of living, which is what the idler really is. Lying in bed doing nothing is noble and right, pleasurable and productive."
Although many people have condemned idling as a mere waste of time rather than as a resource for using time well, Hodgkinson can find considerable support from some eminent personages who, like Russell, have touted its value and even its necessity. Consider some of these quotes I have assembled from just a quick cursory perusal of what you can find for yourself on the Internet:

Idleness is an appendix to nobility -- Robert Burton

The condition of perfection is idleness: the aim of perfection is youth -- Oscar Wilde

The exquisite art of idleness, one of the most important things that any university can teach -- Oscar Wilde

One of the commonest characteristics of the successful man is his idleness, his immense capacity for wasting time -- Arnold Bennett

It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top -- Virginia Woolf

As peace is the end of war, so to be idle is the ultimate purpose of the busy -- Samuel Johnson

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good -- Soren Kierkegaard

Well, I think I have provided enough here to convince you that, if your circumstances permit, the cultivation of idleness may be one of the best ways for us to navigate our way through this pandemic. As bad as it is and will be, it still provides us with a golden opportunity to savor life in the slow-mo lane. For my part (sorry!), I know I am looking forward to my reunion with Bertie Russell once his book arrives and I can get cracking on my idleness curriculum, which I plan to follow rigorously while in bed. And once I've finished Russell's primer, I feel I will then be ready to move on to the essays of the man G. B. Shaw called "The Incomparable Max," the peerless Max Beerbohm whose life of dilatory idleness set such a high standard that one can only marvel at but never hope to achieve. Still, as Browning said, a man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Even we idlers are not without our own aspirations and idler heroes.

But that's enough for now. It's time for my nap.


  1. I must admit, my first inclination was to not comment. Perhaps I am not as advanced in the art of Idleness as others since I am now writing this. I would like to thank you Kenneth Ring PH.D. for calling our attention to Idleness. My favorite time of day is also that time after waking but before I get out of bed. It is when I do not have to think about anything and can dismiss thoughts that try to get my attention. Recently, a thought broke through that intrigued me enough to take hold of my imagination. It grew into an idea that got me out of bed wanting to make it happen; have IANDS meetings to discuss Lessons from the Light by Kenneth Ring, PH.D. I have held a few of them so far. The people who attended have been grateful for the opportunity to voice their concerns and relieved to have a book so appropriate to deal witlh them. Thank you Kenneth Ring, PH.D. for all the work you did to make this book possible. May you enjoy your days of Idleness.