September 5, 2017

"... but others will be regarded as idlers..."

A phrase from my first post of the day. I needed to break that out for separate discussion. I'd written: "We should respect some of the working-age adults who stay out of the labor market, but others will be regarded as idlers (not to mention criminals)."

That brusque treatment of idlers fit the post, but there's much more to be said about idlers, and some of it I've already said (in this blog's archive). To avoid hypocrisy, I don't think I need to say we should respect idlers. But I do need to reject the seeming implication that we must disrespect them.

2 of my favorite books are about idlers.

First — which I wrote about back in 2006, here and here — is "Essays in Idleness" by the 13th century Buddhist monk Kenko. He wrote:
What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.
And I said:
How many words in that sentence do you need to change to make it all about the blogger? That's no Zen koan. The answer is too obvious: one! But there is a deep mystery in Kenko's sentence. "Nothing better to do" can be understood to mean not that one has nothing good to do but that this is the very best thing.

How much do you value your free time? Do you use it to rest and recover or do you use it to do work that, because it's done in your own time -- in time you own -- is transformed into pleasure?
The second book is "An Apology for Idlers" by Robert Louis Stevenson. As I blogged a year ago, it begins:
BOSWELL: We grow weary when idle.

JOHNSON: That is, sir, because others being busy, we want company; but if we were idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another. Just now, when everyone is bound, under pain of a decree in absence convicting them of l├Ęse-respectability, to enter on some lucrative profession, and labour therein with something not far short of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party who are content when they have enough, and like to look on and enjoy in the meanwhile, savours a little of bravado and gasconade. And yet this should not be. Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself....
Are you doing a great deal that is not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class? I sure am! And that's no gasconade.

48 comments:

tcrosse said...

Gasconade pairs nicely with a good, fruity artisanal rodomontade.

LYNNDH said...

I was idle yesterday. Just mowed the yard, sprayed weeds, cut a piece of wood for a project, made dinner, cleaned up, cleaned out the cat boxes, picked tomatoes. I should have done more but sat in a chair relaxing on my back patio.

Sebastian said...

Better than nothing better is the highest standard.

tim in vermont said...

Wouldn't it be great if we could eat witty conversation and burn bon mots in the fireplace? If we could stack rhetorical conceits, one on the other to build homes, or better yet, just live in them as is to keep the storms away?

CJinPA said...

The previous discussion of idlers centered on parents. That changes everything. A mother or father out of the workforce is not "idle." And probably not learning pottery, either.

Without the welfare state, I don't know what kind of idling one could enjoy in the time of Robert Louis Stevenson.

I think society's view of idling is determined by 1. Whose care are you responsible for? and 2. Are you meeting that responsibility?

Am I doing a great deal that is not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class? I'm lucky to have a great wife and two kids at home, so I'm OK with the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class. When the nest is empty, though, watch out world.

Bob Boyd said...

What this post needs is a good stock photo of some idlers plying their trade.

Ralph L said...

One of Dr Johnson's series of essays was called The Idler.

tcrosse said...

Dolce far niente.

rehajm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Humperdink said...

Most car engines have idlers, aka pulleys, that don't "drive" anything, such as AC or an alternator. But they are absolutely necessary if you want the car to roll down the highway.

M Jordan said...

"An idle mind is the devil's workshop."

Quoted by my grandmother, many times, to me, who proved it true throughout my life.

tim in vermont said...

Most car engines have idlers, aka pulleys, that don't "drive" anything, such as AC or an alternator. But they are absolutely necessary if you want the car to roll down the highway.

The trouble is that you can't improve the performance of the engine by increasing the number of idlers, whey will just drag down the horsepower, since each one will have a cost in friction.

Nonapod said...

We have it drilled into us from a young age (or at least I did) that we should be ashamed of being idle. Being busy (or seeming busy) is virtuous and idleness is an indulgence. Being idle implies unproductiveness, it means you're leaching off of the hard work of others. So in that paradigm it's zero sum. You're taking advantage, even hurting people with your laziness.

Of course, what would happen in a world where idleness isn't zero sum? What would happen if you could choose to be unproductive and that decision doesn't take advantage of other people? I guess if we really achieve post scarcity at some point that could be a valid question.

buwaya said...

I aspire to the high calling of idler.

Soon, soon, I will retire to glorious idleness, to enjoy my wealth.

Unless, of course, you restless Americans ruin our fortunes with a civil war.

rhhardin said...

Wm. Empson "The Structure of Complex Words," in chapter "A is B," on the slogan "Work is Prayer" (p.335-336) following comment

sunsong said...

The word, idleness has a specific meaning to most people -- not *doing* anything or being lazy. For me, there is an interesting distinction between *doing* and *being* and both are valuable and important. The 'capitalist' mantra is do, do, do...produce, produce, produce and most of all make MONEY! And for dedicated capitalists *being* is not understandable and so they just criticize what they don't understand. I don't think idleness is a helpful word here. But that's just me :-)

If you don't pause and reflect, if you don't meditate and get to know yourself...you are missing out, imo

Humperdink said...

"The trouble is that you can't improve the performance of the engine by increasing the number of idlers, whey will just drag down the horsepower, since each one will have a cost in friction."

Yeppir. Be it smog pumps or idlers, if it doesn't add performance, it negates it.

rhhardin said...

The sentence has got to say that proper work is general-but-real prayer. The equation inside work, to give it the right subject, must, therefore, be of the form "Honest work is the norm of all kinds of work", whereas the equation inside prayer must be of the form "the most general kind of prayer deserves the same feelings as the narrow kind"; or, putting in more interpretation, "Everything that serves God ought to be respected, like direct worship of Him". The actual sentence will now say "honest work serves God". This I think seems a reasonable account, but prayer is not getting a straight-forward kind of pregnancy; we cannot suppose that, as the slogan is ordinarily interpreted, usefulness to the public is taken to be what is typical and essential in the idea of prayer. So far from that, it seems to me, prayer is made typical of public service, and our idea of prayer istelf stays much where it was. But even this feels very strained. Perhaps my idea of the meaning comes down unnecessarily heavily on the side of Works as opposed to Faith. The generalization of prayer need only make it cover "any process by which you try to make God look on you with favour and therefore allow what you want to happen." This does not look an unreasonable account of prayer; and if you limit proper work to work which is done humbly, leaving the issue in the hands of God, but with so much effort as to prove that your wishes are serious ones -- then it is plausible to call this work a form of prayer. In effect, I should think the epigram is bound to recommend Works (that is, doing good to other people), if only as a proof that you have faith, but you can extract a meaning from the word prayer without bringing that in. However, in any case, this general meaning of prayer is given together with a typical or central example of itself, that is, ordinary praying. And this element regarded as the Type has to come as predicate in the prayer equation, whereas the Type was the subject in the work equation. In the terms which I have defined earlier, work takes a typifying pregnancy and prayer becomes a qualifying pregnancy after first being generalized; this is why their meanings get stretched in such different ways. Of course, I do not mean to deny that the stock Emotions of both words are intensified in the process; no doubt we are to feel something like "How hard good people work!" in work and "How holy is prayer!" in prayer; but I do not see that this gives much help in deciding on the logical structure.

(to be continued - google lies about the character limit, they say 4096 and it won't take 4053)

rhhardin said...

(continuing)

This kind of structure, I think, is the standard one for a "A is B" slogan, but we must guard against supposing that people can only take the thing in one way. It would be easy to be merely deluded by work, and forget that the slogan would yield an immoral moral if applied to cat burglars; then work has no pregnancy. And if cat burglars were suggested afterwards this man would be likely to dismiss them impatiently, with an idea "of course work ought to be proper work", so that he gives the equation the order of terms due to a qualifying pregnancy. But I think he is missing one of the points of the slogan, which is that even his own work ought to be examined to make sure that it is real good work, before it can count as prayer. And then again, the slogan might be used for a very different purpose, as when a man is excusing himself from going to church because he wants to dig in his garden. The idea which will now be altered, if you agree with this use of the slogan, is not that of work but that of prayer. He is trying in fact to make prayer carry a typifying pregnancy, something like "Practical service is the essential, the only real kind of prayer." This is a strained use of the word, in fact an attack on it, but now the new meaning of the word is acting as the subject; the difference is that it is now taken as typical of the ordinary one in the predicate. The meaning of the the sentence, as apart from the equations in it, seems now to reduce to an identity along he line "Honest work is practical service".

tim in vermont said...

there is an interesting distinction between *doing* and *being* and both are valuable and important.

Yeah, being is important, it's the whole point really, but it's hard to eat on account of its "unbearable lightness." Who do you put to work to feed you while you "be" and what about their right to just "be." It's an honest question that you can't answer.

tim in vermont said...

At least the ancient Greeks admitted that that is what slaves were for, Sunsong.

buwaya said...

IMHO, work is prayer.
"ora et labora" is a Benedictine motto.
It is inscribed on walls in thousands of Catholic institutions.
This is in what is effectively a "socialist" clerical-monastic society.

It does not take idleness to know oneself, nor does work prevent reflection and education. The very opposite in fact. And I have no great opinion of the self-knowledge, general knowledge, nor sense of perspective of people who suggest *being* is an end in itself.

Original Mike said...

I earned my idleness.

rhhardin said...

Labora et Covfefe

CWJ said...

tl;dr.

I never thought I'd type that wrt an rhhardin comment.

CWJ said...

rhhardin @ 10:34.

That's more like it.

Oso Negro said...

People can be as idle as they please as long as I do not have to pay for it.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Ann Althouse said...Are you doing a great deal that is not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class? I sure am! And that's no gasconade.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're a retired law Professor, aren't you ma'am? I mean, I'm sure your career wasn't like those other grasping, scrambling law professors you're contrasting yourself with...but this seems maybe a little too self-congratulatory, no? A nice stable married life as a law prof. in Madison isn't exactly the same as a bohemian tramp living out of a second hand steamer truck, is what I'm saying.

The larger point is that the 60's-inflected anti-work ethos is possible only in times of relative material abundance...all that slacking off has to be paid for somehow. A society that prizes slacking off without acknowledging what underwrites that idleness is at least as bad as a society that prizes work too highly. The latter, at least, is sustainable!

John Nowak said...

Georgie Minifer tried the"Being, not Doing" thing in the 1918 novel Magnificent Ambersons. Didn't work out for him.

Probably better to point out that successful systems attract parasites, which can and will eventually kill the host organism.

Mike Sylwester said...

I have been reading The Praise of Folly, written by Desiderius Erasumus in 1509. One of the book's main ideas is that it is society's silly goof-offs who cause the most progress. Such people tinker around to find ways to make life easier and funner.

Although Erasmus himself was a philosopher, he acknowledged that philosophers mostly wasted their time on strenuous mental effort that was unnecessary and unproductive.

Meanwhile, social progress was made by people whose thinking was superficial and playful.

JML said...

Charles Schulz once said something along the line that some of his best ideas at work were conceived with his feet on his desk while looking out his window, but that he never wanted people to see that least they think he was lazy.

I was a stay at home dad for almost four years - the hardest day I ever worked was during that time, and I was once in the AF and flew as an aircrew member and had a couple of very long and exciting days...but a two year old can get pretty creative on where they spread their poop, and you can't kill them.

dbp said...

"...do you use it to do work that, because it's done in your own time -- in time you own -- is transformed into pleasure?"

I use it to do work, which if I did not do it--it would have to be done by somebody that I would have to pay. I suppose there is some pleasure in saving money, but it is more like a necessity than a pleasure. So, no. I don't enjoy fixing the garage door, replacing the brakes on my car, mowing the lawn or replacing old windows, but I want the car to be able to stop and the lawn to not be a jungle.

bagoh20 said...

What if the the few percent who pay the majority of the taxes for everyone stopped working to discuss essential oils all day? What if the few who have to continue to work to pay for underfunded pensions stopped working to enjoy more of their time?

I'll tell you what. A lot of people would miss there work ethic pretty badly, and I'm sure they would suddenly have a great deal of criticism for idleness. How dare they stop supporting my idleness by being idle!

Much of this support of idleness is just trying to justify taking advantage of other people. Basically it's a call for slavery. How's that mint julep, massa?

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Mike Sylvester said...Although Erasmus himself was a philosopher, he acknowledged that philosophers mostly wasted their time on strenuous mental effort that was unnecessary and unproductive.

That's funny; I thought immediately of Montaigne! Erasmus did most of his writing while employed by a University, didn't he? That wasn't exactly idle time, if so.
Montaigne did most of his writing after he retired from public life (although I guess he was writing even when he was Mayor), ensconced in his tower and supported by his estate.

One can be idle when one is supported. "By the sweat of your brow will you eat" is still true...if you're able to eat by the sweat of someone else's brow, or by the accumulated/saved sweat of your own, then that fact ought to at least merit a mention.

bagoh20 said...

"If you don't pause and reflect, if you don't meditate and get to know yourself...you are missing out, imo"

True enough, but how much time does that take? I know people who are hard at that meditation all day, and they just can't seem to finish it, but maybe tomorrow.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Where's Robert Wright when you need him?

(j/k, j/k; no one needs him)

buwaya said...

From the Benedictine Rule - The version for Benedictine Sisters
The family girls school was Manila's Benedictine Abbey (St. Scholastica's)

http://www.osb.org/rb/text/rbemjo3.html#48

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul.
Therefore the sisters should be occupied
at certain times in manual labor,
and again at fixed hours in sacred reading.
To that end
we think that the times for each may be prescribed as follows..."

Danno said...

I prefer to think I am liming my day away, rather than being idle.

Gahrie said...

I am willing to allow anyone who wants to, to pay me not to work.

Mike Sylwester said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YuriG said...

There's also Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness":

https://libcom.org/files/Bertrand%20Russell%20-%20In%20Praise%20of%20Idleness.pdf

Mike Sylwester said...

HoodlumDoodlum at 12:19 PM

Erasmus did most of his writing while employed by a University, didn't he?

Erasmus was essentially a courtier. He moved around throughout Europe staying in the homes of the royalty and aristocracy. He would spend some time tutoring, but mostly he read the books in his hosts' libraries full of classical books.

Erasmus's native language was Latin. Therefore he was able to live anywhere in Europe if he was hosted by highly-educated people. He wrote and published perhaps more than anyone else of his time -- all in Latin.

He was ordained as a Catholic priest but he never worked in that capacity. He was the major critic of the Catholic Church before Martin Luther. Today Erasmus might be called "a public intellectual".

He remained celibate, so he was free to travel and spend his time as he wished.

buwaya said...

"He moved around throughout Europe staying in the homes of the royalty and aristocracy. He would spend some time tutoring, but mostly he read the books in his hosts' libraries full of classical books."

The irony and pity of today is that one does not need to be a courtier or public intellectual to enjoy the rare books of classical literature. But hardly anyone bothers, anymore.

Even a couple of decades or so ago, to read Epictetus "Enchiridion" one needed, at minimum, access to a library with, say, the Loeb Classics. This was not commonly available even in a US municipal library in the 1980's. Or for the works of the Church fathers - Augustine's "City of God" or Aquinas Summa, one had to have access to a Catholic University, or at least a Seminary.

But today nearly everything of that nature is online.

http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.ii.html
http://www.newadvent.org/summa/

buwaya said...

BTW,

I can't think of works more subversive to the dogmatic formularies of the modern ruling class than the works of the ancient Stoics or the Church Fathers.

There are whole libraries of hate speech right there.

buwaya said...

In his own way, Tom Wolfe probably wrote one of the most subversive works of American literature, in his "A Man in Full".

It is in the main a novelization, a popularization (to the extent a literary novel can be that) of the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. There is very little in Western thought that is so antithetical to the modern world-view, to modern mores, that enshrine personal emotions as the new pagan god, or sacred idol.

This book is blasphemous to the modern academic-bureaucratic-feminist ideology.

William said...

Right now is the golden age of idleness. What with Netflix and Amazon, you don't even have to endure the minor irritation of commercials while watching tv. And then there are adjustable beds. You don't have suffer the discomfort of changing positions with such a bed. I was born in a primitive era where you had to actually move to the TV set to change channels. You frequently had to adjust the rabbit ears and horizontal roll bar as well. I can't tell you how much labor, effort, and frustration went into watching television. Most people found work a welcome relief from the tedium and discomfort of watching television.

tim in vermont said...

tl;dr.

I never thought I'd type that wrt an rhhardin comment.


You have to make sure you read the 10:18 comment first, then it all makes sense..... err sort of.

Craig said...

Made my students in Tonga read An Apology for Idlers.