In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays

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In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays
AuthorBertrand Russell
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectsSociology, philosophy, economics, politics, architecture
PublisherGeorge Allen & Unwin Ltd
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)

In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays is a 1935 collection of essays by the philosopher Bertrand Russell.[1][2][3]


The collection includes essays on the subjects of sociology, ethics and philosophy. In the eponymous essay, Russell displays a series of arguments and reasoning with the aim of stating how the 'belief in the virtue of labour causes great evils in the modern world, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies instead in a diminution of labour' and how work 'is by no means one of the purposes of human life'.

Russell argues that if labour was equitably shared out amongst everyone, resulting in shorter work days, unemployment would decrease and human happiness would increase due to the increase in leisure time, further resulting in increased involvement in the arts and sciences.[4]

Russell defends this thesis with two main arguments:

  • the first is that the value of work is a moral prejudice of the privileged classes who believe that the absence of activity would lead most men, especially those of the poorer classes, to idleness and depravity. Consequently, it would be in the interest of men to be exploited;[5]
  • the second is that industrial production is now sufficient to provide, with a minimum of labour, for the needs of all human beings.[6]

The rationalisation of wartime production has shown that a small number of people can produce the necessities of life for the whole population.[6] Even more so, if this work is shared by the whole population, it follows that an individual does not need to work much to produce the resources essential to life, and some more.

Russell therefore argues that four hours of work per day would be enough to keep the whole population living in sufficient comfort, while the rest of the time would be devoted to leisure.[7] Russell's conception of leisure is similar to the Latin otium praised by Seneca. This leisure would be devoted to all forms of culture (from the most popular to the most intellectual) whose practice would be encouraged by a liberated education.

Other related themes emerge in the book: pacifism, politics (which Russell ridicules), the denunciation of landowners who live in idleness at the expense of others.[8] He also denounces the Soviet regime, which also obeyed the dogma of work in an authoritarian manner, the cult of efficiency, the problem of the confinement of intellectuals in their own sphere, far from the reality of people that have to work, and worker's estrangement from the good leisure (that which is non-passive and which enriches civilisation).[9]

The notion of leisure, no longer as a simple recuperation necessary to the body, but as an opportunity to discover new life experiences is also present.

Publication history[edit]

In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays was first published in the United Kingdom by George Allen & Unwin Ltd in 1935. In 2004, the book was published by Routledge, with a new introduction by the historian Anthony Gottlieb.[10]


  1. ^ Russell 2004
  2. ^ Tremblay, Jean-Marie (2 February 2005). "Bertrand Russell, Éloge de l oisiveté. uit de l anglais par Michel Parmentier. La version anglaise est disponible sous le titre: In Praise of Idleness". texte. Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  3. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1937). Till lättjans lov. Sthlm.
  4. ^ Russell 2004, pp. iv–163.
  5. ^ Russell 2004: "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."
  6. ^ a b Russell 2004, p. 5: "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 civilisation which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilisation, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But their labours 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 civilisation. Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone."
  7. ^ Russell 2004, p. 12: "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."
  8. ^ Russell 2004: "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 civilisation 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 labour 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."
  9. ^ Russell 2004: "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 pre- occupations and problems of ordinary men and women; more-over 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 organised, 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 civilisation in a world where everyone outside their walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits."
  10. ^ Russell 2004, pp. iv–x.


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