Bertrand Russell is a strange name to bring up when we consider the merits of working less.
Though he was a philosopher and mathematician by trade, his prodigious output suggests he was just as much a historian, a social critic, and a political activist.
Today, Russell is most famous for his book A History of Western Philosophy, which is the most important summary of how many of Western culture’s great ideas came to be. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, this book was cited as a big reason why.
Still, when it came to his take on how society should best be structured to allow for optimal happiness and engagement in its citizens, he favored an approach that seemed to contradict the way he’d lived his own life. He imagined a world driven by leisure.
In his essay In Praise of Idleness, written in the second half of his life, Russell makes the case that since the advent of the industrial revolution, at least theoretically, humans have developed the capacity to live so that labor doesn’t have to take up most of our days.
He traces our failure to establish such a world to our deep cultural obsession with treating work as virtuous in itself, rather than seeing it as one part of a full life. In his own words:
“The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things…
The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare.”
Work to Live, Don’t Live to Work
When Russell talks about work in his essay, he is referring to the necessity of manual and bureaucratic labor that takes up most of our collective time, not work as self-expression.
He contends that our attachment of work to the concept of necessity is so strong that we don’t stop to think twice about what we are doing before we over-commit ourselves.
We revere our profit-making capabilities without questioning whether or not the goods in production are actually worthy of consumption beyond their ability to make us more money.
He admits that most of it, though, is a societal problem rather than the fault of individuals. That said, it’s also not too rare — at least today, more than 80 years after Russell wrote the essay — to see people so absorbed with work that they forget there is a life to live outside of it.
Work is, of course, a profound source of meaning for many. If you’re someone who respects your job and gets joy out of it, then why should you stop putting all you have into it?
Well, another part of respecting your job is realizing that work is just one part of life, not the whole thing. Humans may have an innate desire to labor, but they also have a desire to socialize, to form and nurture families, and to express themselves more spontaneously.
Even if you love your work more than you love anything else, you are likely to find it more complete and fulfilling if you step away from it, time to time. That’s when you’ll see all sides.
There seems to be a certain guilt in our current culture associated with just taking time to do nothing, to relax, to leisure, to waste time, and to simply have no plans. But the truth is that, without these things, you are not going to get the most out of your work anyway.
Work is a big part of life, but life isn’t meant to end with work being the only thing you did.
The Inventive Joy of Leisure
The modern concept of leisure is associated with the odd few hours we all get to kill time. That’s when we do things like watch movies, go to the local bar, or take a walk outside.
There is joy in this kind of leisure, to be sure, but it does rightly appear intimidating when we fully consider the possibility that, in a world with far less work, too much of this kind of leisure might be unappealing. We just wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.
Not so, according to Russell. We’ve just forgotten that passive leisure isn’t the only kind.
We can’t imagine what we would do with an excessively blank calendar because we haven’t had the practice. In reality, throughout history, much of our inventiveness has come from the playfulness born from active leisure — when nothing eventually fuels something.
If you give yourself enough time to relax, soon, you will find yourself wanting to express a spontaneous force of creativity, the kind you usually suppress when busy or working.
It’s this force, not work, that creates most of what we value as humans. As Russell points out:
“It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.”
Whether or not society will recreate these pockets of space for us in the near future is uncertain, but there’s no reason that many of us can’t take the first step ourselves.
Clearing the odd weekend off every month, or even a morning or an evening every week, isn’t out of bounds for many people. It’s something we all can and should do for ourselves. Many almost see leisure as something to be feared. That only leads in the wrong direction.
Russell’s critique of a society obsessed with work appears, on the surface, quite ironic.
But if you look close enough, you’ll see that the manner in which he treated his own work was different. He did carve out the space, and he did cultivate leisure when he could.
It just so happened that the product of his leisure — and the spontaneity that it brought — was what would appear to many of us as output only produced on a job. Not to him, though.
That’s why he could be discussing analytic philosophy and logical positivism one day, and then switch gears the next to meaningfully add his voice to the social issues of his time. And on the third day, he could write about what we can all learn from history.
What we formally do to make a living is one part of life. Even if it’s an important part, its role isn’t to consume all of our time. And when it does, we cheat ourselves out of a better relationship with our work. Boundaries aren’t just necessary, they are also beneficial.
It’s easy to take the idea of clearing space to leisurely do nothing and label it “lazy” or a “waste of time,” but that’s overlooking the serendipity of second-order effects in the process. It’s precisely the kind of autonomy that prolonged bouts of leisure produce that move our species in new and pleasantly unexpected directions. We grow and invent when we play.
Today, we’re fast to fill calendars with something. Maybe it’s time we filled them with nothing.