“I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.”
Have you ever heard anyone say this? No, neither have I. Nor had Bertrand Russell, from whose In Praise of Idleness the above quote comes. Russell, arguably one of the most important philosophers in modern history, wrote his essay on the subject of work: specifically why we are so often inclined to view hard work as “saintly”.
You’ve heard it all before: hard work is good for you. The people who don’t work are lazy. Poor people don’t work because they’d rather do drugs and fornicate with themselves. The only way to get someplace in life is through long, pitiless, difficult labor. No pain, no gain.
But is any of this really true? It strikes me as fascinating that, throughout history, the wealthy (the idle elite), the landowners, and the aristocrats, have all campaigned for the idea that hard work is morally-good; you work hard and you’re going to get into heaven. Having money, being able to spend a significant portion of your life in leisure? Well, that’s very clearly undesirable — nobody who spends their time enjoying the idle nature of life could possibly be considered righteous. How interesting, that this mode of thought for so long gave people a sense of pride in their honest labor, despite the fact that such labor existed (and exists) entirely to support the supposedly immoral leisure time of the self-same elite who promote these messages.
In Russell’s essay, he contends that we are approaching a time when it will be possible to have people work for as little as four hours a day — and through that amount of work manage to provide for all of their basic needs. He was writing this back in 1932; in the modern world Russell’s vision is not merely feasible — it’s fully possible. In an age of enhanced mechanization, why can we not spend most of our lives idly enjoying our life? Why must we force ourselves to toil ceaselessly merely to make enough to put a roof over our heads and food upon the table? And why, I ask in all sincerity, do so many people caught in the endless monotony of pointless “work” stand and defend it so vocally, with such vehemence, as if it were the greatest and most holy of all moral principles to break one’s back for a pittance? You’ve heard them before. These are the people shouting “get a job!” from out their pickup truck windows.
“In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. […] Men, who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion.”
O, to imagine such a world as this!
The truth that so many find painful to admit is a simple one: work, in itself, is not some superior state of existence. As Russell says, we must learn to understand that the simple act of moving matter about from place to place on the surface of the Earth does not merit our boundless devotion. Living to work is not a grand state of human existence, but a perversion of it — a perversion which provides the natural state of idle time to those who control those who work.
In our current system, the populace is too bogged-down in excess work to concentrate on the good things in life; we cannot enjoy any leisure but that which is utterly passive, nor can we engage with our civic responsibilities in the manner necessary to uphold a democratic state. We are caught within a vice-like grip of business going about our days possessed of the ridiculous notion that “this is the way things are supposed to be,” or “this is just the way things are.”
Given the chance to break from this imbecilic notion of productivity, what wonders might we produce? What a society we might have if we were not wasting all our natural potential — for every human holds incredible potential — on providing the select few with a lifestyle of absolute leisure (which few of them do anything extraordinary with)? For every rare soul among the current elite who uses their life’s leisure well — for the benefit of the species and the planet — how many do nothing of real worth, instead concentrating their efforts on ever-increasing accretion of wealth? What could become, instead, of an entire populace freed from monotony and overexertion — freed to explore their passions, their hopes, their dreams; free to be the very best that they can be?