It is a safe bet that all of us were brought up with the idea that laziness is something to be avoided at all costs; being lazy is a waste of precious time and life, a squandering of valuable opportunity. After all extreme laziness – sloth - was one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. In fact, the condemnation of a habitual disinclination to exertion probably derives from the religious idea that just as the virtue of work supports society and furthers God's plan on earth, so the vice of inactivity invites sin. This idea was propagated by the eighteenth-century nonconformist Isaac Watts, who industriously penned over 700 hymns, many still sung today. One included the line:
‘How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour’,
and in his popular tract ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’ (1715) Watts informs us that:
‘Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do’ and the idea has stuck.
But for most people it is the desire for material gain rather than spiritual reward that motivates devotion to work, even though it has become clear that increased work does not equate with increased productivity. Between 1870 and 1998 the number of annual hours worked per person in Western Europe halved - from 1,295 to 657 - yet living standards and average wealth increased enormously, with the populations of 1998 producing in real terms eighteen times what they had in 1870. In 2000 French law cut the maximum working week to 35 hours, after which unemployment fell and strong economic growth continued. And this in a country notoriously fond of relaxation and scornful of the Protestant work ethic, where a few days ago, when the government attempted to add a mere two years onto the already generously low retirement age of 62, the entire country went on strike!
It also appears that greater wealth, beyond a reasonable level of security, does not bring greater happiness. Of course, if you must be miserable, it is preferable to be so in comfort, and there will always be those who enjoy not only keeping up with the Joneses but outdoing them. But in general, as productivity, income, and consumption have risen hugely over the last fifty years, so have ill-health, anxiety, depression, stress and burn out. Machines, optimistically predicted since Victorian times to free humankind from the tedium of work, have done the opposite. Today, ever more sophisticated electronic devices keep us bleeping and pinging, wired and screen-focused, 24/7. The traditionally hallowed boundaries between home and office, work and play have all but disappeared as we enter the brave new world of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (no time for commas there).
But to return to our theme: is idleness really the same as laziness, can it fairly be equated with sloth? Here at The Hermitage, we definitely think not, and we are on a mission to rehabilitate the idea of idleness and redefine it as a positive virtue, a refined and civilising type of activity that is immensely beneficial. Our mentor in this endeavour is the celebrated English philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell had distant family connections to India: his great-great-grandfather, the first Earl of Minto, had been Governor-General from 1807-13, and his cousin the fourth Earl was Viceroy and Governor-General from 1905-10. Russell himself was a lifelong supporter of Indian independence.
Russell, who was very far from lazy, refers in his ‘In Praise of Idleness’ (1935) to the ‘foolish asceticism’ which keeps humans tied to the treadmill of labour, and offers instead the manifold benefits of what he ironically calls ‘useless knowledge’. This is the exercise of the mind in artistic, recreational and agreeably social pursuits. In this advocacy of the refined intelligence, he was heir to a perennial understanding that stretches back to the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to Plato and beyond, to the forest sages of ancient India. It flowered in the Elizabethan age when the poet Edward de Vere wrote:
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such perfect joy therein I find
That it excels all other bliss
That world affords or grows by kind.
For too many people of course, even today, such priorities are not a realistic option. Having neither the money nor the leisure time to idle away in the pursuit of 'useless knowledge’ they remain caught in what Russell calls 'the cult of efficiency', which only values the economic benefits of knowledge, or the increase in power over others which these may bring. (Our modern universities, busily cutting their humanities departments in favour of ever more maths, science and ‘business studies’ should take heed). Moreover, those lucky enough to have the resources for idleness, he argued, tend to spurn it in favour of the kind of 'vigorous action' that may bring a sense of control but promotes little or no reflective understanding about the wider purposes of life. (Fast forward to today’s ‘busy bees’ doggedly monitoring their body-stats while walking, jogging, or working (sic) out on gym machines.) Russell regards this 'instrumental' view of knowledge as harmful because value is placed exclusively on its outcomes, rather than on the reasons underlying it. As a result, society accords wealth and power the highest value, whereas idleness - defined as contemplative knowledge leading to the possibility of new, creatyive perspectives and real wisdom – is seen as just loafing around, mere laziness.
Russell's central point is that work is not the aim of life. If it were, people would always enjoy it. Yet those who carry it out tend to shun work whenever possible; it is generally those who tell others what to do who laud its virtues. If idleness was valued aright, Russell claimed, we would live in a world in which 'pleasurable, worthwhile and interesting' activities were freely pursued by all.
If the philosopher’s view seems overly rarefied, others have taken a more drastic route to overcome the tyranny of work. Most notorious was Karl Marx, who advocated a revolution of the exploited ‘proletariat’ to destroy the ‘bourgeois’ organisation of labour and establish a ‘Communist’ utopia. But the Greek word utopia means ‘nowhere’, and Marx’s vision of the liberated life was laughably vague. In his little known but seminal book The German Ideology he describes his post-revolution Eden as a place where anyone can:
‘do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening and be a critic after dinner, just as I have a mind’.
Well, that may sound like the aristocratic dilettantism any true idler would approve of, but hang on a minute. Just who is going to manage those horses and hounds and manufacture the guns and riding equipment? Who is going to maintain and stock the rivers and lakes? Who is going to rear and husband the cattle or write, edit, print, publish, distribute, and sell those books to be criticised? That all entails well organised labour, and an awful lot of it.
Russell put his finger on the problem with such utopian visions when he observed that:
‘Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power’ and the history of Marxism in practice bears this out. Marx himself advocated ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. And what did he mean by ‘dictatorship’? As his accomplice Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1906: ‘Dictatorship means unlimited power, based on force and not on law’.
Well, no idler could accept that, as we are always in favour of freedom of thought and action, so enough of politics.
The Hermitage’s contribution towards the cultivation of a civilised idleness is much simpler and more direct. We offer our guests a nourishing ambience in which they can do what they wish while being looked after by an unobtrusively attentive staff alert to their every need. As well as the enjoyment of delicious food and sociable gathering, our tranquil oceanside facility is a paradise garden offering the novice idler the gentle activities of yoga and healing ayurvedic treatments as well as healthy swimming and walking. The more practised idler may prefer just sitting, whether for reading, writing or reflection. Either way, we know from experience that whoever comes and enjoys the nourishing ambience of The Hermitage will find themselves pleasurably and irreversibly converted to the gentle art of idling.
The hammock awaits and we look forward to welcoming you!