In Praise of Idleness

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Aristotle writes an the end of the ‘Ethics’ that the greatest possible human good is contemplation, a life lived remote from endless activity. Another example of the benefits attributable to idleness is the life of Socrates, possibly the greatest of the Greek philosophers. He gave up his work as a stonemason to engage the citizens of Athens in discussions on philosophy. He wanted to educate them as to the real nature of good and so reform the behaviour of their behaviours. This meant he neglected his work as a stonemason and his family were left in want. Xanthippe his wife got an unfair reputation as a scold, as was constantly trying to persuade him to work. Despite his neglect of his family Socrates was revered by the citizens of Athens as their greatest teacher. Yet while the ancient Greeks could value leisure as one of the greatest goods, the rich countries of contemporary Europe look on leisure or idleness as an evil. Germany is trying to impose a work culture on the work shy Italians who take three hour lunch breaks. Good is equated with the hard working German labourer not the idle Southern European. What Germany and the European Union is attempting to do is to remove those rights workers have to create in Italy a British style flexible labour market where workers only right is to receive payment for their work. A country where Tesco’s the largest supermarket chain is applauded for scrapping it’s worker’s pension scheme.

There is an unfortunate axiom of business practice which states that if something has to be done, give the task to a busy man. Probably the task will get done sooner but probably not very well. The culture of overwork is now thoroughly embedded in British institutions,and the example I shall give us the one that one I am most familiar and that is teaching. When I started teaching in 1972 the breaks for play and lunch were periods in which teachers got a respite from the students. Children were discouraged from coming to the staff room and disturbing teachers during their rest period. Now any sense of break from work is strictly discouraged, teachers are expected to spend those periods of break on productive activities. Activities defined as productive by the management. The freedom to have time to think and speculate is strictly discouraged; what they don’t want is teachers questioning today’s battery hen methods of educating children. If they can fill teachers time with relatively mindless paper work, they can prevent this questioning and discontent.

Teaching is one of the professions most unsuited the production line methods. Contemporary teaching practise is good at instructing but poor at educating. When I was in teacher training I learnt that the process of learning was incredibly complex and could not be reduced to one simple method of teaching. This truth eludes education managers and politicians who want one simple method of instruction that yields quantitative measurements that can be checked to ensure that teachers are not slacking. What matters now is appearance, work that matches up with some externally imposed standard or concept of goodness and one that is easily recordable. A good teacher is now one that has excellent records, not one that inspires children with the love of a subject.

The problem idleness poses for the economist

Idleness is one human activity that economics have difficultly coming to terms with. For the economist any activity that leads to human satisfaction counts as contributing to human welfare. Socrates sitting at the rivers edge speculating on the nature of philosophy with a friend was enjoying himself and adding to the sum total of human happiness in classical Athens. Yet to the economist this idling by the river adds counts as nothing unless Socrates charges his friend for his time. Then it would be a recordable cash increase in the income of classical Athens. They would not recognise any inconsistency in their reasoning.

Economists have used the concept of opportunity cost to value idleness. They say what would it cost to persuade an individual to give up one hour of leisure time to work for one extra hour. If they demand £20 extra that is the value of leisure to that individual. However it is an inadequate response as in reality the vast majority of workers have little discretion as to whether or not they work extra hours. In contemporary Britain increasing numbers are on poverty level wages and are desperate for any extra hours of work. Often overtime is not at the discretion of the employee but the employer. Not to work overtime can put one’s job in jeopardy, so the coerced worker provides a very bad example of opportunity cost. Also in many of the professions many hours of unpaid overtime is the norm and refusal can harm job prospects or even out one’s job in jeopardy.

Obviously Socrates is an extreme example and reducing his family to penury is not perhaps the best example. Idleness I do believe when taken in moderation is one of the greatest of all human goods. It is a time to reflect and enjoy the pleasure of thinking, which contributes immeasurably to human happiness. The cost benefit analysis of economics has no role in valuing idleness. If sleep is necessary for human welfare and good mental health so is idleness.

The case for idleness

There is another historical example of the benefits of idleness that I would like to cite. Idleness has always been the weapon of choice of the poor and weak in their struggle against the over-powerful. Even the slaves of Rome managed to organise go slows, an action noted as ‘mumurings’. Roman slaves were one of the most oppressed groups in history. Unfortunate slaves could end up in the arena being killed for amusement in gladiatorial contests, yet they discovered an effective weapon of resistance. However the example I want to use is the one quoted by Anthony Beevor’s in his history of a World War II. Officers in the British army in the initial days after D-Day were frustrated by the habit of their men stopping for brew ups and so delaying the advance. He as with these junior officers had a very poor view the quality of the British fighting man. He is writing from the perspective of the officer corp and as so frequently in history ignores the views of the ordinary soldier. He ignores the fact that these officers were often referred to as ‘Ruperts’, a negative comment on their leadership skills. How many men were killed through poorly thought out plans or tactics? What he ignores is the stoicism of the British infantry man, who even when having little confidence in their leaders would attack the enemy regardless. Brew-ups etc. were one of the ways in which the infantryman coped with the horrors of war. Much has been made of the Polish cavalrymen attacking German tanks (which never happened), yet similar incidents occurred in the British retreat to Dunkirk. There on at least one occasion British infantry regiments bayonet charged German tank regiments. Taking time out has been the time honoured way in which the working men coped with the horrors of a situation into which they had no control, as well as being the best method for striking back at their over mighty rulers.

In today’s Britain when workplaces are becoming more and more oppressive, taking time out is is the one way of copping with the stress. It is also an effective way as the Roman slaves demonstrated. Once Britain had trade unions that effectively organised go slows to curb abusive work practices, with an increasingly disaffected labour force and worsening conditions of work perhaps a modern day equivalent of the Roman ‘mumurings’ is needed.

However I want to praise idleness for its liberating effects, when you reflect or idly speculate you are freed from the constraints and oppressions of everyday life. Even the most oppressive of employers cannot control an individual’s thought, only the public expression of that thought. Individuality and human freedom for me is best expressed by Socrates idling the time away with a friend on the river bank on a hot summers day. I see no freedom in the frenzied round of activities of the supper rich who go from one ‘to be seen at’ approved event to another. J.S.Mill defined liberty as the freedom to think free of external constraints, the chance to escape from the thought police.

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