Sunday, November 01, 2009

In praise of idleness

I've been reading Bertrand Russell's 'In Praise of Idleness'. The title attracted me - and I remember my mother eading his stuff when she was about my age, and I always wondered what she saw in him. I think I still do, though it's interesting reading these 15 essays written in the 1930s.

He covers a wide range of topics, from idleness, to architecture and social conditions, to communism and fascism, the cynicism of the young, the powers of capital (to use a Marxist phrase). I cannot quite work out what kind of type he was. Clearly he was not a scientist - while there are references to other thinkers/writers, they are not properly referenced. While one could argue that perhaps the style of academic writing may have developed since then, in fact Freud who wrote a good 20 - 50 years earlier, was fairly meticulous in his referencing. So he is not a scientist - is he 'just' a thinker? He did get a Nobel Prize for literature - which makes me wonder what constitutes 'literature' - I always thought it was novels, poetry and such like - but I don't think he wrote those.

The book is fairly readable; the foreword talks about his wit - I did not notice much of that, unless it was unintentional. Clearly his ideas are somewhat dated. But there are some interesting moments:

In his essay on idleness he suggests that 4 hours work is quite enough for anyone, given the possibilities of modern (1935!) machinery. If the income from work were properly distributed we could all live quite happily and enjoy idleness - time to sit and think. (I am getting better at that....though for a long time that damned protestant work ethic got in the way). He even suggests that teachers should not work for more than 2 hours per day to keep themselves fresh and interested in their charges.

On architecture and social conditions he suggests that families should live together, eg in apartment blocks, with a communal kitchen and kindergarten, to free (especially working) women from the drudgery of housework. The kitchen would provide wholesome meals for families (this might be desirable given the UK obesity epidemic) and the nursery would be child-safe so the children could explore their limits; they would spend all day there, only returning to their parents after the evening meal. A bit like the kibbutz idea - at the time attachment theory (relating to babies and children) was not even thought of. ...

On finance and financiers he writes: 'the interests of finance in recent years have been opposed to the interests of the general public....It is unwise to leave financiers to the unfettered pursuit of their private profits'. Something we could echo today....

On youthful cynicism he suggests that young men (sic) in Russia are not cynical because they accept ...the Communist philosphy. Perhaps he was not aware of the Stalinist clampdown on free speech, even thought, at the same time.

He writes a lot about stoicism and mental health, particularly in the face of death. He suggests, for example, that parents who lose a child should not hide their grief from their other children, who might then think that they would not care either if this child died. I suppose there is not much danger of hiding parental grief these days - perhaps the opposite is the case.

Although he often mentions the lot of downtrodden wives, he is still a man of his period; discussing body and soul he writes 'we knew that a man consists of a soul and body'. And pray, what do women consist of?

Interesting reading, in terms of social construction of social categories.....

and now I will idle some more.