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Bertrand Russell
In praise of idleness

Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying: "Satan
finds some mischief still for idle hands to do." Being a highly
virtuous child, I believed all that I was told, and acquired a
conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment.
But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions
have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work
done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that
work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern
industrial countries is quite different from what always has been
preached. Everyone knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw
twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of
Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them
jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler
was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy
Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public
propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after
reading the following pages, the leaders of the Y.M.C.A. will start a
campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not
have lived in vain.
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Before advancing my own arguments for laziness, I must dispose of one
which I cannot accept. Whenever a person who already has enough to
live on proposes to engage in some everyday kind of job, such as
schoolteaching or typing, he or she is told that such conduct takes
the bread out of other people's mouths, and is therefore wicked. If
this argument were valid, it would only be necessary for us all to be
idle in order that we should all have our mouths full of bread. What
people who say such things forget is that what a man earns he usually
spends, and in spending he gives employment. As long as a man spends
his income, he puts just as much bread into people's mouths in
spending as he takes out of other people's mouths in earning. The
real villain, from this point of view, is the man who saves. If he
merely puts his savings in a stocking, like the proverbial French
peasant, it is obvious that they do not give employment. If he
invests his savings, the matter is less obvious, and different cases
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One of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to
some Government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the public
expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for
past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money
to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare
who hire murderers. The net result of the man's economical habits is
to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his
savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if
he spent it in drink or gambling.
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But, I shall be told, the case is quite different when savings are
invested in industrial enterprises. When such enterprises succeed,
and produce something useful, this may be conceded. In these days,
however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail. That means that
a large amount of human labor, which might have been devoted to
producing something that could be enjoyed, was expended on producing
machines which, when produced, lay idle and did no good to anyone.
The man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is
therefore injuring others as well as himself. If he spent his money,
say, in giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope) would get
pleasure, and so would all those upon whom he spent money, such as
the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger. But if he spends it (let
us say) upon laying down rails for surface cars in some place where
surface cars turn out to be not wanted, he has diverted a mass of
labor into channels where it gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless,
when he becomes poor through the failure of his investment he will be
regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune, whereas the gay
spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically, will be
despised as a fool and a frivolous person.
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All this is only preliminary. I want to say, in all seriousness, that
a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in
the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and
prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.
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First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the
position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other
such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is
unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The
second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only
those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders
should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given
simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called
politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge
of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art
of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e., of advertising.
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Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of
men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are
men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for
the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners
are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them.
Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the
industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is
historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing
they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.
From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a
man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was
required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his
wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their
labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus
above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was
appropriated by warriors and priests. In times of famine there was no
surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as
at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of
hunger. This system persisted in Russia until 1917 (since then,
members of the Communist Party have succeeded to this privilege of
the warriors and priests) and still persists in the East; in England,
in spite of the Industrial Revolution, it remained in full force
throughout the Napoleonic wars, and until a hundred years ago, when
the new class of manufacturers acquired power. In America, the system
came to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, where it
persisted until the Civil War. A system which lasted so long and
ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men's
thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the
desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-
industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has
made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the
prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly
distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the
morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.
It is obvious that, in primitive communities, peasants, left to
themselves, would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which
the warriors and priests subsisted, but would have either produced
less or consumed more. At first, sheer force compelled them to
produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found
possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which
it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to
support others in idleness. By this means the amount of compulsion
required was lessened, and the expenses of government were
diminished. To this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be
genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a
larger income than a workingman. The conception of duty, speaking
historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce
others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for
their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from
themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical
with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true;
Athenian slave owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure
in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have
been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to
civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only
rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were
valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And
with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure
justly without injury to civilization.
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Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the
amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for
everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the
men in the armed forces, all the men and women engaged in the
production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war
propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were
withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general
level of physical well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side
of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of
this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if
the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would
have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not
yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific
organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations
in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern
world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which
had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition
work, had been preserved, and the hours of work had been cut down to
four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was
restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours,
and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is
a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he
has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his
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This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances
totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been
disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given
moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of
pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight
hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of
men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not
need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any
more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody
concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours
instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in
the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still
work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go
bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are
thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on
the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are
still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable
leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal
source of happiness.
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Can anything more insane be imagined?
The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking
to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen
hours was the ordinary day's work for a man; children sometimes did
as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome
busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they
were told that work kept adults from drink and children from
mischief. When I was a child, shortly after urban workingmen had
acquired the vote, certain public holidays were established by law,
to the great indignation of the upper classes. I remember hearing an
old Duchess say: "What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to
work." People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists,
and is the source of much of our economic confusion.
Let us, for a moment, consider the ethics of work frankly, without
superstition. Every human being, of necessity, consumes, in the
course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of human labor.
Assuming, as we may, that labor is on the whole disagreeable, it is
unjust that a man should consume more than he produces. Of course he
may provide services rather than commodities, like a medical man, for
example; but he should provide something in return for his board and
lodging. To this extent, the duty of work must be admitted, but to
this extent only.
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I shall not dwell upon the fact that, in all modern societies outside
the USSR, many people escape even this minimum amount of work, namely
all those who inherit money and all those who marry money. I do not
think the fact that these people are allowed to be idle is nearly so
harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork or
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If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be
enough for everybody, and no unemployment - assuming a certain very
moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-
to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to
use so much leisure. In America, men often work long hours even when
they are already well off; such men, naturally, are indignant at the
idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of
unemployment; in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons.
Oddly enough, while they wish their sons to work so hard as to have
no time to be civilized, they do not mind their wives and daughters
having no work at all. The snobbish admiration of uselessness, which,
in an aristocratic society, extends to both sexes, is, under a
plutocracy, confined to women; this, however, does not make it any
more in agreement with common sense.
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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 be bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a
considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best
things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population
should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually
vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive
quantities now that the need no longer exists.
In the new creed which controls the government of Russia, while there
is much that is very different from the traditional teaching of the
West, there are some things that are quite unchanged. The attitude of
the governing classes, and especially of those who conduct
educational propaganda, on the subject of the dignity of labor, is
almost exactly that which the governing classes of the world have
always preached to what were called the "honest poor." Industry,
sobriety, willingness to work long hours for distant advantages, even
submissiveness to authority, all these reappear; moreover authority
still represents the will of the Ruler of the Universe, who, however,
is now called by a new name, Dialectical Materialism.
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The victory of the proletariat in Russia has some points in common
with the victory of the feminists in some other countries. For ages,
men had conceded the superior saintliness of women, and had consoled
women for their inferiority by maintaining that saintliness is more
desirable than power. At last the feminists decided that they would
have both, since the pioneers among them believed all that the men
had told them about the desirability of virtue, but not what they had
told them about the worthlessness of political power. A similar thing
has happened in Russia as regards manual work. For ages, the rich and
their sycophants have written in praise of "honest toil," have
praised the simple life, have professed a religion which teaches that
the poor are much more likely to go to heaven than the rich, and in
general have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some
special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just
as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special
nobility from their sexual enslavement. In Russia, all this teaching
about the excellence of manual work has been taken seriously, with
the result that the manual worker is more honored than anyone else.
What are, in essence, revivalist appeals are made, but not for the
old purposes: they are made to secure shock workers for special
tasks. Manual work is the ideal which is held before the young, and
is the basis of all ethical teaching.
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For the present, possibly, this is all to the good. A large country,
full of natural resources, awaits development, and has to be
developed with very little use of credit. In these circumstances,
hard work is necessary, and is likely to bring a great reward. But
what will happen when the point has been reached where everybody
could be comfortable without working long hours?
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In the West, we have various ways of dealing with this problem. We
have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of
the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of
whom do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any central control
over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We
keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we
can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork. When all
these methods prove inadequate, we have a war; we cause a number of
people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to
explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered
fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though
with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe
manual work must be the lot of the average man.
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In Russia, owing to more economic justice and central control over
production, the problem will have to be differently solved. The
rational solution would be, as soon as the necessaries and elementary
comforts can be provided for all, to reduce the hours of labor
gradually, allowing a popular vote to decide, at each stage, whether
more leisure or more goods were to be preferred. But, having taught
the supreme virtue of hard work, it is difficult to see how the
authorities can aim at a paradise in which there will be much leisure
and little work. It seems more likely that they will find continually
fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future
productivity. I read recently of an ingenious plan put forward by
Russian engineers, for making the White Sea and the northern coasts
of Siberia warm, by putting a dam across the Kara Sea. An admirable
project, but liable to postpone proletarian comfort for a generation,
while the nobility of toil is being displayed amid the ice fields and
snowstorms of the Arctic Ocean. This sort of thing, if it happens,
will be the result of regarding the virtue of hard work as an end in
itself, rather than as a means to a state of affairs in which it is
no longer needed.
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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. We have been misled in this matter by two
causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has
led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor,
while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.
The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in
the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth's
surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the
actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his
life, he is not likely to say: "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." I have never heard
workingmen say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should
be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from
their leisure hours that they derive whatever happiness they may
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It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would
not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work
out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern
world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have
been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for
lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by
the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought
to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own
sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning
the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the
young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is
respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money
profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring
a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides
you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are
praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the
food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat
only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that
getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are
two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well
maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit
there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative
from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual,
in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work
lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce
between the individual and the social purpose of production that
makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which
profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of
production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we
attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and
that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the
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When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not
meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be
spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours' work a day should
entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and
that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit.
It is an essential part of any such social system that education
should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should
aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use
leisure intelligently. I am not thinking mainly of the sort of things
that would be considered "highbrow." Peasant dances have died out
except in remote rural areas, but the impulses which caused them to
be cultivated must still exist in human nature. The pleasures of
urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas,
watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This
results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up
with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures
in which they took an active part.
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In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working
class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no
basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive, limited
its sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify
its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in
spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we
call civilization, 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.
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The method of a hereditary leisure class without duties was, however,
extraordinarily wasteful. None of the members of the class had been
taught to be industrious, and the class as a whole was not
exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but
against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who
never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and
punishing poachers. At present, the universities are supposed to
provide, in a more systematic way, what the leisure class provided
accidentally and as a by-product. This is a great improvement, but it
has certain drawbacks. University life is so different from life in
the world at large that men who live in an academic milieu tend to be
unaware of the preoccupations and problems of ordinary men and women;
moreover their ways of expressing themselves are usually such as to
rob their opinions of the influence that they ought to have upon the
general public. Another disadvantage is that in universities studies
are organized, and the man who thinks of some original line of
research is likely to be discouraged. Academic institutions,
therefore, useful as they are, are not adequate guardians of the
interests of civilization in a world where everyone outside their
walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits.
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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. Young writers will not be
obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers,
with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for
monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will
have lost the taste and the capacity. 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 learned in their youth,
which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.
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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. Since
men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only
such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least 1 per cent will
probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits
of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these
pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered,
and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly
pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that
the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having
the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less
persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The
taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly
because it will involve long and severe work for all. 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 of a life of arduous
struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility
of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have
overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have
continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines;
in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being
foolish for ever.