Tag Archives: #socrates

Seeking Solace in Philosophy

As an economist the quality that you most need is equanimity. Why, because as an economist you are all to aware of the follies of the politicians and the damage their policies can wreak on the economy and society. A concern heightened by my anxiety about the futures of my daughters and my expected grandchild. When a senior banker accused some of our leading politicians as being ‘clueless’ on the economy, I mouthed a silent ‘hear, hear’. What an economist needs is some defence mechanism that prevents them from being overwhelmed by pessimism. When one writer called economics the miserable science he was all too correct in his opinion.

Perhaps I should adopt the philosophy of Democritius, who dispelled this anxiety about the follies of mankind and in particular its leaders in laughter. However laughter is only a temporary source of relief and soon the feeling of pessimism returns. I find some solace in the classical Greek philosophy of scepticism. A philosophy which demonstrates that all which passes as human knowledge is fallacious. This is of some comfort when I realise that the ‘reforming’ policies of our latest group of reformist minded politicians are based on little more, that what can be described as a set of incoherent and wrong headed series of assumptions about human society. While I can get some pleasure from demolishing these policies in my mind, it does not help alleviate the blackness of mood.

Philosophy has always been a refuge for me. I can retreat to my philosophy books, which takes me to a world far removed from the pettiness of what passes for the public debate. Ever since I was introduced to him at university I have been entranced by the figure of Socrates. When Plato writes of about Socrates and one of his students going to the cool river bank to escape the hot sun in Athenian sun to find the a more congenial place for discussion, I feel that I could be there with them. Aristotle writes that the highest form of human activity is this, the contemplation of the great questions that have always puzzled and intrigued mankind. Students of philosophy such as myself enjoy the intellectual cut and thrust in the dialogue employed by the greatest of philosophers. What we understand is that there are no simple or easy answers to the great questions posed by the nature of human existence. While practising this very Western form of active contemplation, I can get so lost in the books that I’m reading so that I forget the world outside.

When devising his philosophy Plato would make use of the myth to make his reasoning comprehensible to his audience. Plato’s the cave is one very familiar myth, but there are others. One of my favourites is the myth of human creation in ‘The Timeaus’, he uses this myth to explain the fallibility of human understanding. Mankind he writes is fashioned by the demiurge (the divine craftsman) out of clay. If mankind is made out of some inferior substance to that of which the Gods are composed, they are therefore incapable of understanding or sharing superior knowledge possessed by the Gods. Compare this to the less interesting contemporary myth of the market, which dominates current policy making. It’s a myth that tells us little about the economy. The central tenet of market theory is that there is a price at which markets clear, that is there is a price at which supply equals demand. There has never been a market in which an equilibrium of supply and demand has been attained. In reality markets are inherently unstable, as supply and demand are constantly changing and are never equal. Consequently the myth of the market as a guide to policy making is unhelpful, although perhaps to call it useless is going too far. This is why I prefer philosophy to economics, the stories it tells are more interesting and more truthful.

Recently stoicism has begun to find favour. This is practical philosophy devised by the classical Greeks. Its purpose was to help its practitioners lead the good life. This practical philosophy teaches that the only things that one can control are the one’s own emotions and feelings. There is a story which demonstrates this. There was a stoic philosopher on a ship caught in a storm. He was the only person to remain calm during this storm. When asked why he was indifferent to the crisis, he said that the observed a pig on the ship. The pig seemed undisturbed by the storm, so he imitated the behaviour of the pig. There was nothing he could do to avert the possible impending disaster, so the only practical policy he could adopt was to remain calm, as his getting anxious would do nothing to avert the possible impending crisis. Those things in life that the individual cannot control they call the ‘indifferents’. There are many ‘indifferents’ that the individual cannot control, also some such as good health they can influence by adopting a sensible diet. Anxiety comes from worrying about these ‘indifferents’ over which the individual has little control.

Donald Trump and the alt. right are a threat to the way of life that enjoy. There ever willingness to resort to violence or to threaten its use, is a threat the the tolerant civilised lifestyle which I value. As is also his constant demeaning of various ethnic groups as the threatening other. As this is an indifferent over which I have little control, the person who suffers if I obsess about this is me. Constantly being anxious is damaging to the human personality. Being a good stoic I am concerned about the irrational and erratic behaviour of our leaders, but I am not going to be overwhelmed by my anxieties on that score. Also I can influence this particular indifference by becoming political active. I can become part of the resistance.

John Stuart Mill gives me solace when I read that freedom, is the freedom to think. Whatever the alt. right does it cannot control my thoughts. In doing this I do have an advantage in that I am retired and can devote my time to reading my philosophy books. Perusing one of Plato’s dialogues on Socrates I can lose myself in the world of the Classical Greek philosophy. Also I can counter the nasty xenophobia of the alt. right by going to my local coffee shop, and there I can immerse myself in the Italian culture. What can be more engrossing than a discussion of the merits of the various types of pasta, while enjoying a cup of Italian coffee. What I am trying to say is that for a stoic there is much I can focus on to enjoy in these unhappy times.

Stoicism offers an interesting historical parallel, Seneca one of the best known stoics lived in a Rome, whose ruler was the narcissistic Nero. Given the predominance of narcissistic leaders in the Anglo Saxon world, who mistake their personal well being and success as metaphor for that of society, one can see the value of reading Seneca. Despite being an advisor to one of the most capricious and unpredictable of Emperors, he not only survived in that role for many years while others perished, but he did for many years act as a restraining influence on Nero. During those years he lived a modest moral life in keeping with the tenets of stoicism. Although even he lost his life as Nero’s paranoia intensified. His ‘Letters’ and plays I believe should be required reading for staff in Donald Trump’s White House.

When I read Erasmus’s ‘Adages’ I am reminded that the curse of having leaders pursuing policies that are ruinous to their countries in order further their own personal ambition is nothing new. Renaissance Italy in which he lived was plagued by wars between the Princes and Dukes of the various city states, which might have brought fleeting glory to these men, but which were ruinous for there various city states and the Italian nation. Is there no more insightful into the psyche of politicians, than Erasmus’s adage that ‘war is sweet to those who have never tried it’? Despite the almost constant internecine warfare in Italy, Erasmus still managed to write and publish his criticisms of the crass behaviour of the ‘great’ men of Italy. Although, as with many writers living in authoritarian states to avoid persecution, his critiques of foolish and arrogant leaders were set in the past or given such ambiguous settings that no contemporary leader could consider themselves libelled.

Reading philosophy reminds me of the heights to which the human spirit can rise, in contrast to the gutters of the human spirit in which so many of our contemporary leaders reside. This is why I find solace in philosophy.

Against Riches

Socrates is perhaps the first of the great philosophers and he was hopeless with money. His wife was driven to despair when he instead of working at his profitable trade as a stone mason, he spent his time in philosophical discussions with his friends in the market place. There is some dissonance between philosophers and wealth. Even when such as Bertrand Russel they inherit wealth, they usually mismanage it and bequeath their heirs less wealth than they themselves inherited. Wittgenstein was a philosopher in the true socratic tradition, he gave the estates he inherited to his brother, as managing an estate would be a distraction to his study of philosophy. There is something about the love of wisdom that causes philosophers to disdain wealth.

Wealth does seem to produce trivial or just plain silly thinking in the people that possess it in abundance. Possibly best demonstrated in the life style website Goop of the actress of Gwyneth Paltrow. There one can find all manner of bizarre lifestyle practices that are claimed to enable the practitioner to lead a better life. While such sites are easily mocked and are of little real significance, what is disturbing the reverence with which the thoughts of the very rich are treated. Billionaires think that the possession of such great wealth distinguishes them from the common run of mankind. They see themselves as supermen, who think that they should be privileged not just for their possession of great wealth, but for there thinking, they are the thinkers of exceptional thougts. I remember reading as a child that the common man would be out of their depth at the dinner table of the Mountbatten’s*, because these gifted individuals thought thoughts beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man.

These ‘great thinkers’ can rely upon myth makers to weave a story that demonstrates their superiority. Ayn Rand is the latest of the myth makers who claim the possession of great wealth as an indicator of a great mind, a person who is one of society’s shakers and movers. Prior to that it was people such as Lord Blake who claimed that membership of the aristocracy was the best qualification that a person could have for leadership roles in society.

Yet when the thoughts of these great men are examined, they are notable not for there genius but their mediocrity. I remember reading of what billionaire who claimed to be able to solve Britain’s unemployment problem. He claimed that it could be done by abolishing the minimum wage. What he claimed was that the current wage rates made too many people to expensive to employ, therefore there was unemployment. Obviously if wages were cut all would be employed. What never occurred to him was that a certain minimum level of income was necessary for human survival. The fact that low wages would lead to hunger and other social ills was of no consequence to him. For him the poor never featured in his thinking as fellow human beings.

The question I want to answer is why does the possession of great wealth make it impossible to think great thoughts. I am not condemning the possession of wealth, just the possession of great wealth. As a person of modest wealth that would be hypocritical, I do believe that there is a certain minimum level of wealth that is necessary for the good life. There is no virtue is not being able to pay the bills.

When trying to ask why such ordinary men believe that they alone are uniquely gifted with knowledge denied to others, one answer is arrogance. The vast majority of the wealthy were born into wealth and as such from the very moment they were conscious, they expected to be deferred to by those around them.Whatever they said would be treated with respect, no matter how silly their ideas. Growing up on a country estate, I soon learnt that the greatest misdemeanour was to show disrespect to the seigneur or a member of his extended family. Disrespect meant uttering some disagreement no matter how moderate the thoughts expressed by a member of this group. The father of the current seigneur demanded that his workers only spoke to him if he spoke to them first. Anybody who disrespected this rule was immediately dismissed. While this is an extreme example, it does demonstrate how privilege of birth leads to the corruption of the intellect.

All of these people it can be argued have been educated at our elite universities, so they should as Lord Mountbatten thought be better educated than the common place individual. However such education seems to be designed to give them an elegance of expression rather than of thought. All the lazy prejudices of the wealthy are given a literary sheen that makes them when expressed appear profound. A friend of mine who was a former member of the working classes, always criticised Bob Crowe* when he appeared on television for the inarticulate nature of his expression and thinking. What he was doing was equating a limited verbal vocabulary with an unsophisticated manner of thinking. Yet I never heard him utter such criticisms of the various representatives of the employing class or the political right who appeared on TV. He as with all of us was over impressed with an elegance of speech which disguised a vacuity of thinking.

Probably it helps that the ideas of the wealthy are so often part of the mainstream of the public dialogue.  In an unequal society the ideology of social and intellectual inequality is one of the essential props necessary for the perpetuation of the system. Therefore it is easier to get one’s thinking accepted and into print if such thinking accords with the accepted belief system. Finding a publisher is much easier if an individual writes in the language of the mainstream. The media then confirms the thinking of the most mediocre of the class of the wealthy. It really should be of little surprise that the wealthy and privileged should think that their thoughts are those that are correct and true, as they are rarely exposed to contrary thinking in the media.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of the thinking of the lower middle classes, a group for whom life is often a struggle. This is not a struggle for survival but a struggle for success. A struggle to gain those material goods thought necessary for the good life. Yet they are also group which has sufficient leisure for study and whose education introduced them to the writings of the great thinkers of the past. Aristotle was a doctor and as such is one whose life is an exemplar for the middle class thinker. There is no privilege, one has to earn the right to heard, one has to compete within the market place of ideas. Not having a privileged status one is denied to opportunity to think stupid thoughts, as such thinking would be ridiculed. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the case for right wing philosophy is almost impossible to make*. A reasoned philosophy cannot have as it’s founding principles self satisfaction, complacency, greed or the abuse of power. When people such as Lord Blake defend privilege they rely upon tradition, they see tradition as the passing down of a superiority in thinking and manner from one privileged generation to another. Bear and bull baiting were traditional sports practised in Britain for centuries, yet this did not make them right, both were justly outlawed because of they were barbaric. Blake’s defence of privilege is equally fallacious.

Not having a privileged upbringing makes one aware of the inequalities and unfairness of human society, whether one wishes it or not you are constantly being reminded of the failings of that society. One is born a critic of society, a discontent being inured which makes one instantly critical of existing human practices and ideas.  Without this critical faculty, thinking becomes trivial ,insubstantial and uninteresting, it is the thinking of the self satisfied. This sense of a lack of an indefinable something in society is what drives us to look for new and different answers. Kierkegaard writes of the abyss, the point at beyond which the thinking person comes to that point at human thought ceases provide any meaning to life. For Kierkegaard it is at this point that people turn to Christ. Only Christ can provide this missing something . Although I love Kierkegaard as an author, I would suggest that this sense of an abyss instead forces on one a recognition of the inadequacy of existing ideas and the desperation to seek new answers.  I don’t believe philosophers can ever adequately answer the problem posed by the abyss. Every generation will find fault with existing thinking and will feel the need to find new answers to the challenge of the abyss. It is the reinventing of the wheel but a very profitable reinventing. Being born to wealth means the sense of the abyss will never be as acute, as wealth can always buy distractions from the abyss. Possibly this is why the life of the super rich is one of conspicuous consumption, they constantly need new toys to distract them from the emptiness of their lives.

If the rich and privileged are not capable of great thoughts, I would argue that they are disqualified from great holdings of wealth which give them power over the lives of others, which they are not qualified to possess. There is one contemporary example which demonstrates the unfitness of the rich to their wealth. Hugh Hefner the millionaire publisher used his magazine ‘Playboy’ as a vehicle for promoting his thinking and superior lifestyle. A man whose written thoughts were no more than a manual on how to exploit young women, which demonstrates the essential nastiness that is at the heart of the culture of the rich and powerful.

* A former member of the Royal family at whose table the now Prince of Wales regularly dined.

  • The former leader of the RMT union who in negotiations regularly outsmarted his opponents. Men all of whom had been educated at the elite universities and whom one would think would be superior in the skills of reasoning and argument. I do suspect Bob Crowe overplayed his inarticulacy, so as to give his opponents a false sense of superiority.
  • One exception to the rule is Michael Oakshott, but his conservative philosophy was a philosophy of scepticism, which was inherited  from the Greek philosophers of scepticism, men such as Pyrro and Sextus Empiricus. Reading Wikipedia `I see that I have a very different understanding of Michael Oakshott to that of the author of an article on him.

Why economics fails

There is it seems a present a desire to doubt the validity of economics and the skills of its practitioners.  Just yesterday there was Chief Economist at the Bank of England issuing a mea culpa on behalf of the profession, in which he apologised for his and their failings and said that economists must do better in the future. He is just another ‘failing expert’, as Michael Gove would have said. When Michael Gove said in the EU referendum debate that the people were fed up with experts and were best of without them, one assumes that he was speaking about economists. However Michael Gove as with many politicians is adept at deflecting the blame for their own mistakes on to others. Politicians are those in charge and they make the decisions on matters of economic policy and not the economists. Yet whatever failures of government policy that occurred in the period 2010 to 2016, Michael Gove and his colleagues will never put there hands up and accept their share of the blame. Politicians such as him have a list of scapegoats to use to disguise their failings and another such favourite is the  EU. Teresa May’s disparaging comments about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere can be paraphrased to describe contemporary government ministers, they are the ‘ministers of nothing’ knowing and caring little about their departments. Just sitting out their ministerial brief waiting for an upgrade to a more high profile ministry.

While it is the politicians that have been responsible for the disasters of recent policy making, economists still share some of the responsibility, in that they have encouraged politicians to develop an almost papal like sense of infallibility. Neo-liberal or free market economists claimed in the decade 1970-80 to have discovered the holy grail of economic policy making. They claimed that at the heart of any economy there was a self regulating market which when left to itself produces the best results for all. This market mechanism was capable of outthinking any politician. If  left to itself it would settle on the natural equilibrium levels of growth, employment and inflation, which would in turn mean society would enjoy a level of prosperity that it would otherwise never achieved if the economy had been managed by politicians. All the politicians had to do was to create the optimum conditions in which to enable the market to work unhindered, which was quite simply a bonfire of regulations. They can maintain an Olympian disdain knowing that they know  the answers to everything and have to hand the one key policy measure, impose the free market on the seemingly intractable problem.

One thought  that never occurred to these politicians or economists is fallibility of human thought, never in history has mankind ever succeeded in creating the perfect social organism. They seem to have forgotten such schemes are referred to as utopian in the history books, because they are always hopelessly impracticable.

What cannot be said is that there were no warning signs. When with great enthusiasm the Conservative government of the 1980s followed the policy prescriptions of Milton Friedman, failing to notice that his major policy prescription was unworkable. He said that the government should be regulate the economy through control of the money supply. Unfortunately he had not done his homework, as in practice it proved impossible to define what exactly was money supply. The Bank of England came up with at least five possible descriptions of money supply. There preferred choice was description number 3, what was known as M3. The only reason for choosing M3 was that it was easier to calculate than the other possible choices. Then having settled on M3, they realised that it would be extremely difficult to devise ways of controlling this money supply. All possible solutions would involve interfering in how the banks managed their finances. Instead the government opted for controlling by money supply by controlling demand for money. If they changed interest rates this would either or lower the price at which people could borrow, so if they put up interest rates people would borrow less and the amount of money (bank deposits) in circulation would fall. Never once did it occur to the government that controlling interest rates was not the same as controlling the money supply. Interest rate changes could change the supply of money held but it was a very indirect and imprecise control. Unlike what Milton Friedman desired what the government used as a very rough and ready measure to control money.

Politicians were obvious to the problems of implementing this policy, is it because the economics of the time was encouraging them not to think and question. They cannot claim not to have any warnings of the volatility of the free market as there were many financial crashes from the period 1979 to 2008.Yet these politicians believing they possessed the holy grail of policy making were  able the collapse of the Asian tiger economies or the dot com crash.  In consequence the great financial crash of 2008 which should have been foreseeable became the catastrophe that came out of nowhere, a veritable economic tsunami.

What economists should also be blamed for is there willingness to overstate their abilities and knowledge of all things economic..The economy is one of the most complex of mechanisms developed by mankind and yet economists all to often suggest that they really do know, when they don’t. I as an economist take my lead from Socrates. The oracle at Delphi told him that he was the wisest of men, yet this was a man who claimed to know nothing. Was not the oracle stating that Socrates was wise because he was the only man prepared to acknowledge his ignorance? I always wished that as a teacher I had told my students that I really knew nothing about economics. Yet as an economist I know a thousand times more things about the economy that any politician. What I see Socrates as saying is not that he lacks knowledge but answers. He was I believe using his ignorance as ploy to unsettle  his rivals, as a reading of any of Plato’s dialogues does demonstrate that Socrates knew quite a lot. Any economist when faced with a problem should be prepared to state his ignorance, as with a rapidly evolving and every changing economy, yesterdays’ knowledge is never sufficient to provide today’s answers. As  an economist what I possess is a knowledge of problems that have occurred in the past which appear to have some similarities with the problem at hand. Using that knowledge I could suggest a variety of policy solutions and recommend that which I think would be most effective. However I know that in what is an ever changing economy events may happen to make my policy recommendations ineffective. Humility should be part of the economists weaponry. I know that I can’t give Michael Gove the definitive answer he craves, the world is much more complex than the one viewed from Westminster or his newspaper column. I do know that my answers are better than his on all matters economic, as some knowledge of the economy and its workings are always better than none.

The last word I leave to Erasmus, ‘only a fool boasts of their ignorance’ or should it be ‘that only a fool takes pride in their ignorance’. A faulty memory prevents me recalling Erasmus’s exact words.

The Pleasures of Old Age

Nicholas Lancret :The Four Ages of Man: Old Age: The National Gallery

Although I’m not sure when old age starts, I’m sure being 68 enables me to speak authoritatively on this subject. Cicero was probably the first to write on this subject. What strikes me is his words on no longer being distracted by the thoughts of young women, which when young had prevented him from focusing on the more serious business of life. Although I think he was perhaps overstating the case, as older men do still notice pretty young women. Cicero was correct in that in old age the removal of the distractions of youth meant he had the time to do those things that really mattered. For Cicero this was mastering his Greek philosophy texts and rendering them into a form suitable for his Roman readers.

Cicero carefully omits to any of the downsides of ageing, the chief of which is the physically disabling illness that come with age. Perhaps as old age occurred at early age in classical Rome, he was spared these illnesses or perhaps he realised all of his readers were so aware of them that they did not need repetition. However I do feel there is a certain dishonesty to an account of ageing which leaves this out. Ageing for me means an intermittently crippling neurological condition that prevents me indulging in one of my favourite activities, that is walking in the Yorkshire countryside. However such problems are more than offset by the pleasures of ageing. Slowing down because of physical infirmities forces on a you a different kind of sensory pleasure, one that which is associated with doing things slowly. In my case spending time savouring coffee in my favourite coffee shop, a pleasure when young which was spoilt by the constant need to be somewhere else.

Freedom means being freed from the constraints of having to conform to the rules and conventions that govern working and social life. To be a success in a chosen career or at social gatherings one has to conform to these rules. Now being freed from the need to impress my superiors and peers I have the freedom to do as I please. What I hated about my younger self was the need to conform to the conventions in clothing. I wore jeans long past my youth trying to retain the pretence of a former youthful appearance. What I tried but soon gave up on was the baseball cap. Fashionable it might be but I’m not an American high school student or rapper. Now I wear in preference the impracticable British flat cap. An item of headwear that blows away at the first gust of wind, but it’s establishes my British identity. If I was to describe my appearance, it would be that of a slightly down at heel ‘Edwardian gent’. Sensible but stylist jackets in the winter and blazers in the summer are my choice for coats. Never the summer T-Shirt of youth. When in Italy I am paid the supreme compliment of being mistaken for an Italian, although to be honest I’m not as stylish as the average Italian man. What I do try to do is conform to a certain concept of ‘smartness’ that is alien to today’s culture. Is not the Englishman at home distinguished by his ‘dress down’ appearance? This dressings down is not so much a sign of indifference to appearance, but fear of looking different from one’s friends. Respect is earned by dressing down and drinking too much, both of which I can now disregard through not caring.

However the real gain from ageing is the retirement and the freedom it confers. A freedom to do nothing, although that pleasure soon dissipates after the first few days of retirement. It’s the freedom to indulge in those pleasures that the time constraints of working life denied you. Aristotle is right when he says the greatest good of all human activities is contemplation. It’s the freedom to think, a right increasingly denied in my former profession of teaching. Now head teachers, education managers and politicians are terrified of independent thinking, as it might expose the fallacious nature of many of their actions. J.S.Mill defined freedom as the freedom to think as you please without constraint. Now in so much of public service, that pleasure is denied as the individual that thinks independent thoughts might inadvertently express them much to the discomfort of big brother and their career. As a retired teacher I am free from this restrictive self policing. Only when you are old can you really appreciate the pleasure of allowing you thoughts to meander in any direction, as you no longer have to think to someone else’s order.

This freedom from self policing is not what Cicero was writing about in his discourse on old age, but the freedom to have the time to re-evaluate one’s life. To consider what is important and discard those activities that are unimportant. The trivia that clutters up life when working, which detracts from the pleasure if living can be discarded. One such trivia was unnecessary travel, I spent many hours stuck on the motorway going to or from work. Now I only travel for pleasure and usually that only involves a short walk to my favourite coffee shop, where I spent my time in active contemplation over numerous cups of coffee. It’s not true that you need quiet for contemplation, people such as myself require noise, as my whole working life was spent in the noise and bustle of the classroom. Much of my time is spent on meditating on the writings of such past philosophers and religious thinkers such as Ficino and Farid Ud-Din Attar, that I read for pleasure not work. Cicero is right in this respect when you are distracted by the pleasures of youth you lack the time and inclination for the pleasures of study. The classical Greeks valued their time off for contemplation, the Greek citizen deferred work to others. They could spend the day arguing and discussing matters of concern in the agora (the market place). One hallmark of the Athenian citizen was to attend the assembly of the citizens and actively partake in decision making. Work was for slaves, not citizens. Thinking or contemplation now has become thoroughly professionalised and only professional philosophers have the right to think. Only a paid for activity is considered valuable in our society; yet it is retirement that makes you realise it is the unpaid for activities that are really valuable. In a society that values work and despise time off as being for wimps, only the aged are allowed the privilege of time off.

Montaigne in one if his essays writes of the pleasure of engaging in thinking with his old friends. Except in his case these old friends are the philosophers whose books he keeps in his library. In this I concur, there is no greater pleasure than in dipping into a book that you have read and becoming reacquainted with an old friend. Revisiting a text such as ‘The Protagoras’, where Socrates goes to meet his philosophically minded friends who are staying at a friends house and meets them when they are rising from their beds and from then on the discussion ensues on the nature of man and the Gods, gives me constant pleasure. As with Montaigne I feel that I am a privileged but invisible observer at this discussion.

Briefly the pleasure of ageing is time, time to think and stand back observe the doing of others. Not to feel the necessity to participate in the frenzied activity that is contemporary society, ageing allows to you be yourself.

Socrates Classical Greek philosopher died 399 BCE
Aristotle Classical Greek Philosopher 384 – 322 BCE
Cicero Classical Roman Statesman and Philosopher Assassinated 44 BCE
Ficino Italian Philosopher 1433 – 1499 CE
Farid Ud-Din Attar Persian Muslim poet, theoretician of Sufism. 1145 -1220 CE
Montaigne French Essayist and Philosopher 1553 – 1592 CE
J.S.Mill British Philosopher 1806 – 1873 CE

In Praise of Idleness


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.