The Ancient Roots of “Doing Nothing”: Is Idleness a Form Of Resistance — Or Just an Indulgence for the Lucky Few?

Lambert: Maybe idleness is good in itself. I feel like I’m coming out of the winter without having hibernated….

Most popular bird song audio at eBirds today.

The pandemic has either created too much free time or too little. Kitchen-table commutes and reduced social obligations expand mornings and weekends for some, while caretakers and gig workers are exhausted by the constant, overlapping demands of home and work.

It’s no surprise, then, that idleness is trending. Concepts like “niksen,” Dutch for “doing nothing,” and “wintering,” resting in response to adversity, have entered the wellness lexicon. Doing nothing is even being called a new productivity hack, aligning the practice with an always-on culture that seeks to optimize every waking minute.

While such prescriptions largely target the privileged who have the resources to curate their schedules, idleness can also be a form of resistance to the capitalist machine. Artist Jenny Odell’s bestselling book “How to Do Nothing” argues for using leisure time to build cohesive communities by engaging with your local environment instead of your smartphone.

In other words, there’s an ethics to idleness. And the debates on its ethics date back thousands of years, to philosophers and theologians who distinguished between civic-minded leisure, or “otium,” and sloth, or “accidia.”

Though leisure and sloth have variously been praised and scorned, a central tension runs through the history of idleness, from the Roman Empire to today: What obligations do humans have to society? And just because you can do nothing, should you?

Ancient Roots

Many ancient Romans disparaged otium as political disengagement that threatened the stability of the republic. (Its opposite, “negotium,” is the source of the word “negotiation.”)

Yet others sought to recuperate leisure and idleness for positive political ends. Cicero and Seneca both advocated for an otium consisting of personal cultivation that would serve society. They argued that properly studying history, politics and philosophy demanded time away from the business of the city. Citizens who learned from these subjects could help ensure peace and stability in the republic. Both took care to distinguish the otium of study from the idleness of hedonistic indulgences like drinking and sex.

Medieval Christian society more sharply divided the two modes of idleness. Monastic communities performed the “Opus Dei,” or work of God, that included activities the Romans would have defined as otium, like contemplative reading.

But the medieval system of vices and virtues condemned sloth. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that it was “the bilge-hold of all wicked thoughts and of all trifles, jests, and filth.” Sloth distracted from many kinds of work: productive economic labor, the spiritual work of penance and the “good works” of charity that supported society’s most vulnerable members.

Idleness and Industry

The division of idleness into beneficial “otium” and reprehensible “accidia” elicited new critiques in the industrial era. The 19th-century economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen acerbically noted that leisure was a status symbol that distinguished the haves from the have-nots. He counted “government, warfare, religious observances and sports” as primary leisure activities enjoyed by capitalist elites. Essentially, Veblen condemned the classical and medieval activities of learning and leisure with the vitriol once reserved for sloth.

At the same time, others construed even the most slothful forms of idleness as a bold resistance to modernity’s greatest ills. Robert Louis Stevenson found in idleness an antidote to capitalist striving that acquainted the idler with what he called “the warm and palpating facts of life” – a kind of immediate experience of one’s fellow man and natural environment that was otherwise squelched by participation in the capitalist machine.

If Stevenson’s take on idleness had a tongue-in-cheek dilettantism to it, Bertrand Russell’s was deadly serious. He saw the solution to the high-stakes ideological conflict of the 1930s, between fascism and communism, in leisurely study and debate. In Russell’s view, what he proudly called “laziness” promoted a virtuous habit of mind that encouraged deliberative discourse and guarded against extremism.

Yet as the 20th century progressed, productivity again became a status symbol. Long work hours and a packed calendar conveyed status – even virtue – when judged by capitalist values.

Should You Do Nothing?

Underlying this divided conception of idleness is the paradox at its heart. By definition, it is nonaction, unlikely to influence the world.

Yet escaping the hamster wheel of productivity can spark the ideas that change the world. Real thought and insight require time away from “negotium.” A Reddit forum celebrates the shower thoughts that happen when the mind wanders, and Silicon Valley companies grant sabbaticals to encourage innovation. But it’s hard to tell from the outside whether idleness is hedonistic or edifying.

If today’s surge of interest in idleness promotes itself as a panacea for a peculiarly modern condition stemming from lockdown ennui and the omnipresence of technology, it has sometimes failed to grapple with the political implications of its prescriptions.

Extra sleep, time for hobbies and retreat from mundane cares restore the body and mind and promote creativity. Yet too often, the wellness movement’s treatment of idleness – which rebrands the medieval sin of sloth as a virtue – reinforces its privileges.

At its worst, it curates rarefied products and experiences – from eye pillows to expensive anti-burnout retreats – for those with the means and the time, further isolating them from society.

Everyone needs rest, and it’s easy to feel the attraction of disengagement. But idleness has too often been a resource unequally allocated to the haves and moralized as sloth among the have-nots.

So, should you do nothing?

Whatever choice you make, you should know that personal idleness has a different function from civic-minded idleness. Personal idleness restores and renews but can also lead to antisocial or exploitative behavior. Civic-minded idleness acknowledges our connection with society even as we withdraw from it, giving us space to explore, play and discover. Ultimately, this should lead to a more equitable society.

Both kinds of idleness can be a social good. But the more opportunities people have to be idle, the better off everyone is.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Andreas

    At the art school I attended, the painter Philip Guston would occasionally come to give critiques.
    Guston (who I never really liked much, either the man or most his work) often had scathing comments for unprepared students.

    At one of these sessions, Guston, evaluating a student’s work said,

    Just because your wrist is moving doesn’t mean that you’re painting…

    An emotionally crushing comment, the student’s complexion went ashen.
    After a few seconds of silence in the room, Guston turned his head, looked up and down the row of students, and with a sly smile continued,

    …and just because your wrist isn’t moving doesn’t mean you’re not painting.

    I came away from that day, with an appreciation of Guston’s understanding of the creative process.

    It seems to me that much of the real work one does happens below our conscious processes. Whether one calls it intuition or the organizational powers of the unconscious, something goes on in our brains.

    One may not feel like you got good at the work-a-day stuff from home, but maybe we’ve got things forming in your minds that will/can only appear later.

    1. LifelongLib

      One reason I liked computer programming was that looking out the window could be productive labor. Someone who thinks for an hour or two and writes 20 lines of good code is more helpful than someone who uses the same time writing 100 lines of junk.

      1. Basil Pesto

        Dovetailing with these comments and this piece a bit, Enrique Vila-Matas’ “Bartleby & Co” comes highly recommended, though when he discusses “writers of the ‘No’” I’m not sure it’s necessarily about idleness per se. Anyway, if nothing else, by reading it you will get about 20 excellent recommendations for further reading.

    1. Maritimer

      Kelly, you have put it very simply. Most Americans never have enough. So, they just keep slogging on that treadmill letting the media and the marketers tell them what they need rather than decide for themselves. It is amazing how few of the millions of Americans who could do so do not simplify their lives.

      Thoreau, the great American philosopher and economist gave the blueprint in his work, Walden.

      “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Orion Magazine once ran an article called The Gospel Of Consumption, about how limited consumption used to be a given, and when mechanization first showed the real likelihood of mass producing vast amounts of things and stuff, people who thought about “issues and futures” wondered whether we should use mechanization to maximize for more things . . . or more time. The paleo- bernaysians of that day saw more time as a threat to more profits, so they worked through all media of the day to sell Americans on the concept of Infinite Consumptionism. Here is the link.

        If a hundred millions Americans went on a stealth consumption slowdown, would the system feel it?

        1. cnchal

          Any let up in the rate of increase of debt, and the system seems to go haywire. Its like a ponzi scheme of the ages. If only a few million people started refusing to consume, the system would be in crisis.

          What might a consumption strike look like? Although it doesn’t matter anymore, I am eternally grateful for the inumeracy of the majority, and their penchant for believing a new car confers status, otherwise there wouldn’t be all these great used cars around that one can enjoy for used go kart money. To spend $50,000 on a car means you have to earn a hundred. Seems kind of nuts to me.

          I’m with Keynes on this. Automation ought to be used to create moar free time instead of always moar money.

          The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
          – – – – –
          For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

  2. diptherio

    Classic Veblen, to declare “government, warfare, [and] religious observances” harmful forms of elitist leisure. lol. Best political economist evah.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I really need a copy of Veblen’s book, preferably an old used one. I’ve been looking for it in dusty old used bookstores for years hoping to get lucky but to no avail if anyone knows of a reliable online source not controlled by Amazon to find vintage books like this, I’m all ears. I’ve bought new from before but not used but maybe they’re OK?

      1. KLG (I think still independent, or at least not a Bezos subsidiary like ABE Books, which is Bezos). I just received a copy of a collection of Veblen essays (Transaction) from a book dealer in California for $10, total. Most other experience with Alibris has been good.

      2. Sue inSoCal

        I’ve been using Powell’s or I don’t think Bezos has bought either of them…Cheers!

  3. km

    If Thorsten Veblen (and Paul Fussell) are to be believed, one thing that the “spurious aristocracy” of the lowest classes have in common with the highest classes is that both live off the efforts of others.

  4. Cat Burglar

    Work, abolishing it, and better uses of time, was a big topic of discussion among anarchists during the 1980s. Most of the ideas in academic papers about work and leisure since then seem derivative from that time, but don’t acknowledge it.

    The classic statement of the case was made in The Abolition Of Work by Bob Black, the wittiest malcontent this country has produced.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I’ll 2nd that recommendation – picked that book up on a whim never having heard of Black before, and he has quite clearly practiced a lot of otium – a lot of reading and research went into that civic-minded book, and it is funny to boot.

  5. Alternate Delegate

    It has often seemed to me that the health of the commons of ideas actively requires individuals to wander from the herd – the further the better – but then also requires them to return, and communicate what they have learned.

    And also, I have found that when I have been away too long, it can become very, very difficult to communicate what I have learned. There seems to be some necessary measure for both the participation in, and the withdrawal from, the crowd.

  6. Brunches with Cats

    As part of the political divide here in rural red Upstate NY, the conversation seems to lean toward Protestant work ethic (or some version thereof) versus “lazy welfare recipients.”

    A few years back, a conversation with my brother in which I mentioned Naked Capitalism and MMT turned so ugly that we’ve barely spoken since. His parting shot: “I have to get up at 5 a.m. to feed my family, I don’t have time to spend all day on the Internet.” (Double insult, accusing me not only of being lazy, but of stealing his hard-earned income by living on Disability.)

    That did reinforce a question in my mind, though: Does spending several hours a week reading/commenting on political websites serve a “civic engagement” purpose, or is it an advanced form of vain idleness?

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      “Does spending several hours a week reading/commenting on political websites serve a “civic engagement” purpose, or is it an advanced form of vain idleness?”

      without NC, I’d have a much poorer intellectual life.
      not a lot of feral philosophers or deep thinkers out here(you might be surprised, though).
      brain muscles would likely atrophy without this particular stimulus.
      now that the pandemic is over(scoffs, glares side-eyed at dan patrick’s image on the dartboard), I’m back to the pre-pandemic norm of being alone out here on the farm for 10-14 hours per day.
      nothing has really changed with my works and days from during the pandemic, save that i have no helpers.
      I still hafta remind myself to consciously do nothing every once in a while…but usually find myself doing something, nevertheless.
      “walk by and get it done” is something i inherited from both grandad’s, and it’s hard to shake…especially since almost none of it is something i consider “work”…
      –saturday, for instance, i awoke at 3:45, made coffee, read the weather while rolling a hogleg, went at 6 to the Library/Bar Environs to smoke it and drink more coffee…lit a paper trash fire, turned into burning some brush that had collected from fence building, which turned into(before dawn, mind you) hanging 3 windows in and framing in the rest of the west wall of the bar porch.
      looked up when it was done, and almost 7 hours had passed(and i was blazed,lol).
      resulting midnight charliehorses forced me to do notadamnedthang all day yesterday.
      My pseudopuritain mother doesn’t believe in days off…so we just don’t answer the phone all day when we decide it’s in our interest….lest she harsh our mellow.
      and nowadays, now that i have access , again, i’ll go back on the mountain, no cell service, and wander around looking at things—end up picking up flat rocks or firewood or whatever,lol—because a mind and body and soul need a break from it all….just my breaks tend to be indistinguishable from my leisure.
      I’d feel differently if i had a bullshit job, i’m sure.

      1. Brunches with Cats

        Amfortas, how ironic that you were the first one to respond to my comment. I actually was thinking of you when I wrote that, as you have described on many occasions your strategy of planting seditious thoughts with the locals. I hope I don’t presume too much in reckoning that some of the subject matter was discussed on NC, both in links and articles and from the commentariat. That, in my mind, is a perfect example of time spent on the Internet contributing to civic engagement.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          this is my main outlet for such subversion…aside from my boys’ buddies.
          the rest is sort of ad hoc….feedstore guy wondering why i want him to locate vetch seed in bulk, or why i want to scrape up and run off with the loose, rotting hay in the haybarn that they just push into the creek…
          or the propane/pipe store folks, wide eyed at my experiments in gravity fed drip irrigation or picking their brains about gashandling for a methane digestor…or wanting a tankless waterheater(20 years ago, when no one had ever heard of such a thing)
          or my efforts in food….at least 3 local eateries wouldn’t have been possible out here without my radical specials at the various places i cooked…making it OK to try something other than greasy chicken fried steak.
          and i’m almost legendary for extreme recycling…carrying more out of the landfill than i bring in, and people get wind of my crazy practices…look askance, chuckle…and after 20+ years,now i’m not alone picking through the metal pile.
          it’s hard, sometimes, since people hate what they fear, and fear what they do not understand….they’re used to me out here, now, but the fear in the eyes…as well as the tacit threat such fear entails…was difficult.(“Men fear thought…”)
          NC….and before it, LATOC…is a place i can ramble on without worrying about pitchforks and torches, and where so many smart folks gather.

      2. Brunches with Cats

        P. S. The women in my family never watched TV without their knitting baskets, the continual message being “idle hands are the Devil’s playmate.”

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Are your hours spent on the Internet depriving the Class Enemy of money you would have made and spent otherwise? If they are, then why not consider them a form of economic combat?

  7. JohnB

    The primary way to discipline workers seems to be to place demands on their time, not their labour. Western economies today seem to be defined by wealth and far higher quality of living, but with the bar for sustainably holding this all together financially at an individual level, being nudged further and further beyond the average persons reach as costs of living and costs of economic rents increase faster than we can keep up.

    People who don’t have the idle/downtime to study and learn about political/economic issues, and who are growing more and more atomized in society and in work, are less able to form an effective political resistance to how the economy is run.

    In my view, we need to start moving towards a slowed down ‘leisure economy’, where 20 hour weeks are the norm for many – with the cost of living and accommodation etc. allowing people to sustainably live their lives this way.

    This is the pace I’m used to myself (although I am horrible at managing my own time, which plays a part in that) – and I can’t imagine working a full time job, not sure I am capable of it – and if I had always been working full time, I’m pretty sure I would not have had the time to learn what I know about economics/politics from here and elsewhere – yet today/now I feel I could give any economist a run for their money, and quickly/effectively destroy any narrative opposing MMT-style economics and a Job Guarantee.

    Right now I may be facing a push into full time “take it or leave it” drop dead situation, for work I’ve been doing perfectly well part time for the last decade (I’m not certain this is the case yet, just being appropriately cynical :)) – and yea, I’m very ‘on guard’ about any potential changes/conditions being placed on how I’ve worked up to now – very strongly want to resist any such changes to how I’ve been working.

    1. deplorado

      Thank you for the insightful comment. And I wish you to be able to avoid being pushed into a full time drudgery. Totally agree about leisure being crucial in allowing the time to grow one’s horizons – civic and personal.

      Keynes expected the future level of productivity to result in a shorter work week. The productivity part of his prediction came true, but not the other part…

  8. lordkoos

    So-called primitive humans had much more free time than modern “civilized” people. That was how discoveries were made, as people had plenty of time to observe the natural world. I feel very lucky to have spent much idle time in my life.

  9. lyman alpha blob

    Personally I’ll take idleness over ambition any day. The need of some sociopaths to get rich and lord it over others is surely the root cause of many of our current existential crises. I will never regret not doing more work, but I may regret not having sampled enough botanical aroma.

    Very nice essay Lambert – my only quibble is you left out my hero, Diogenes! Anyone who tells an emperor to pound sound to his face is all right with me. In the end, all human striving is μαλακίες anyway and we’re all worm food.

    1. ddt

      Diogenes also said he wished he could satisfy his hunger the same way he satisfied his sexual urges through a good μαλακία…

  10. deplorado

    Can a conversation of idleness be complete without the beautiful contemplation of Tsurezuregusa?

    My blood pressure normalizes just reading about it.

    “Tsurezuregusa (徒然草, Essays in Idleness, also known as The Harvest of Leisure) is a collection of essays written by the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenkō between 1330 and 1332.”

    Thank you, Lambert, for humbly and kindly reminding us of the gift of the examined life, continuously. Far too little is done about that in our productivity-addled society.

  11. Arizona Slim

    While my father was still alive and well, he had a habit of retreating into the living room, turning off all the lights, and just sitting in his chair, thinking.

    Mom and I were not to bother him.

    Many were the times when I ventured into the living room. Oops. Dad’s in there. Thinking.

    [Slim beats a hasty retreat.]

    What did I learn? Well, I learned that a life of the mind is important.

    I also like to make time for thinking while showering, bicycling, walking, gardening, and what-have-you. I’m not much for sitting still.

  12. Hepativore

    This is why I disagree with some of the critiques of a basic or universal income that you see from some on this website as opposed to a job guarantee. I think a hybrid system of both would probably be the best approach, as in people can enroll in the job program if they want a job, but they should also be free to live on a universal basic wage if they want to. This is because having just a job guarantee without a basic income might pave the way for companies to simply use the people in it as low-paid, poorly treated “rent-a-serfs” just like there is the danger of a universal income letting companies dump their “undesirables” onto it. There have to be federal safeguards against corporate malfeasance no matter what.

    Anyway, as for the fear that a universal income would lead to malaise and idleness without work, I think we should expand on what the definition of what “work” is…without a job, people have greater freedom to tend to their hobbies, build relationships, look after their children, etc. which while may not be “work” in the traditional sense, will allow people to make use of their time however they see fit. I doubt many people would become mere layabouts if they had a source of income even without a “job”.

    Finally, perhaps a jobs program could be a transitional step to a universal income system. The notion that the value of a person is defined by his job has been drilled into our heads for so long that I think it will take time to “deprogram” people, especially here in the US. I think that people really should have the ability to define for themselves what gives their lives meaning on an individual level and that they do not necessarily need taskmasters to do it for them.

  13. John Wright

    This may be viewed as an interesting quote from an important 20th century figure who laid important foundations to much of the high tech society we have now:

    “I’ve always pursued my interests without much regard for financial value or value to the world,” Shannon said cheerfully. “I’ve spent lots of time on totally useless things.”

    This quote is from Claude Shannon, who produced two famous research papers on digital design (boolean logic to model relay switching networks) and information theory.

  14. Synoia

    Is the concept of “Idle” a product of the Overseer, Slave and Worker (Hierarchical) cultures?

    I believe there is no such concept in hunter gatherers, primitive societies, if there is enough food. If there is not enough food, then the group or tribe is equally suffering.

    The invention of “Chief” or “King” appears to introduce the concept of “idle.”

  15. John
    Wu Wei is one of the great gifts of Chinese traditional culture.
    I have spent the better part of my life figuring out how to practice it more fully.
    The wisdom of “do nothing” arises in all cultures.
    The busy-ness of business is perceived as terrible affliction by those who understand.
    Out busy-ness is literally killing us.
    And I no longer do Calvinist concern trolling for the “hedonists” and “time wasters” unless they want to be too greedy with the material wealth of our planet. Doing nothing is good.
    Three years forced servitude in the US military 50 years ago jumped me off the busy track.
    The famous “hurry up and wait” did its job.

  16. chuck roast

    Along mid-coast Maine the lobstermen call it “loungin'”. When you see these guys in action during high-bug season would never begrudge them their lazy-boys.

  17. John Siman

    Alix Marnin writes of the need for well-spent leisure or otium: “free time dedicated to study and reflection … as the necessary condition for all action, distinct from agitation and busyness, which is neg-otium. The accomplished man does not distinguish action from contemplation, and has the will to develop himself intellectually.”

    So in the lexicons:
    the Latin otium = leisure, time for any thing; esp. for literary occupation,
    just as the Greek σχολή = that in which leisure is employed; esp. learned discussion

  18. vegasmike

    A job that requires 30 hours of work per week, even though a little tedious, might provide structure, income, a small amount of purpose, social relationships, a chance to exercise skill. The same job if required 55 hours of work would become very oppressive. Many boogie people believe that work should require a kind of passionate commitment. Passion is a dangerous thing. It does sometime lead to very destructive behavior

    1. Arizona Slim

      I’m inclined to agree with Mike Rowe, of the late, great “Dirty Jobs” TV show. The patron saint of all work that gets you muddy, greasy, and just plumb wore out advises against following your passion. Instead, bring your passion.

  19. Foy

    “Be still and know that I am God.”

    Seems they’ve been talking about being still (doing nothing) for a long while. Must be something in it. We are human beings and not human doings after all.

  20. Lee

    My idleness is enforced by ME/CFS. Fortunately, I came down with it after having secured a pension and enough savings to see me through the remainder of my earthly tenure. Also, quite fortunately, my symptoms are not as severe as is the case for some so that I do get out and about a bit, can perform most daily household tasks, and my cognitive functioning is not too badly impaired in the early part of most days.

    I do sometimes “look before and after and pine for what is not”. For example, I experience at times deep regret that my plan to become a wolf watching guide in Yellowstone will never come to pass. OTOH, if I had not been stuck where I am and instead had moved to Gardiner, Montana, it is likely that my relationship with my son might never have been repaired and that would have been the greater loss. And I must confess, based on my priors, that I am at least somewhat grateful to these years of enforced idleness when I consider what manner of mischief I might have otherwise got up to had I been blessed with better health.

  21. Gulag

    In our modern hyper-competitive capitalism a life of leisure is primarily available to only those who have inherited significant wealth. Withdrawals from such an environment are possible but will probably remain relatively rare.

    I would submit that it is impossible to convince sufficiently large numbers of people in the West to withdraw and give up on the amenities of commercialization and accept a much lower standard of living.

    Most modern societies are structured to glorify success and power primarily expressed through money and that money tends to be made through work, ownership of assets and corruption of various kinds–yes the future is probably more commoditization and atomization–not less.

    Please convince me I am wrong!

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It may depend on which Western country one considers. In America, National CanadaCare for all Americans would set some Americans to feel free to do less work and have less stuff, because they would not be sentenced to sickness-death by not having a full time job with benefits. Or enough a job to pay for a crappy Obama bronze plan anyway.

      I believe in some health-covered countries like Finland, people have close to half the Standard of Consumptionism that Americans have, for example.

  22. Daniel Raphael

    ‘Idleness’ in capitalist USA is de facto understood as not performing labor that can be exploited and transformed into more precious zeros for the ruling parasites. We need capitalism to go, so that idleness can assume its utopian content, which is called “freedom.” The point of society is to work less…and be/feel human more.

  23. akaPaulLafargue

    There’s a British publication that advocates Idleness and the pleasures of a leisurely pursuit of knowledge. And no discussion of idleness can be complete without mentioning the most famous “Marxist” essay: “The Right to Be Lazy” by Karl’s mixed race son-in-law, Paul Lafargue

  24. Kfish

    Max Weber tracks the Protestant work ethic back to the Calvinists and their division between the pre-determined ‘elect’ and ‘damned’. In order to prove you weren’t going to hell, you needed to work constantly, and God would reward you with material wealth to confirm that you weren’t going to hell.

    Martin Luther equated manual work with the work of priests in order to elevate the position of peasants, but inadvertently elevated work for work’s sake as good, a position that had not previously been part of the Catholic teachings.

    The Calvinist ideology, despite making people miserable and intolerable to their neighbours, turned out to be a fantastic way of turning natural resources into capital. Like an aggressive virus, it grew fat on the natural resources of North America and then infected the world.

  25. The Rev Kev

    I am surprised that Jerome K. Jerome, a true master of idleness, has not been mentioned. He was a man who truly appreciated idleness and thought a lot about it. He understood it as shown by the following quote-

    ‘It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.’

  26. Charles Peterson

    The correct principle is that of least action. Cats do this well. Say No to Negotium. It’s all that extra work we do, as a whole, that’s destroying us.

  27. shtove

    Accidie gets the full treatment in the Institutes of John Cassian. He describes it as a sin peculiar to contemplatives, who grow weary in their cells during spiritual work and, instead of resisting, find relief outside by busying themselves with other people’s business, gazing at the sun “as if it was too slow in setting”, and slumbering to excess. He then goes on a Pauline rant about the idle not deserving to eat.
    Plenty of counter-currents to the capitalist notion of idleness, not least in the praise of spiritual work and criticism of busyness, or bullsh*t jobs. Overall, though, an assertion of hierarchy and ‘know thy place’.
    p.s. pronounced with the first c hard, the second soft.

  28. Sound of the Suburbs

    Making money doing nothing.
    What are the options?
    Well, there are quite a few options available; we’ve got rent, dividends and interest and there is the globalisation favourite, capital gains on property.

    With a BTL portfolio, I can get the capital gains on a number of properties and extract the hard earned income of generation rent at the same time.
    That sounds good.
    What is there not to like?

    This is the best thing about capitalism.
    You can make money without doing any work.
    I hate work, I love capitalism.
    It’s great, isn’t it?

    That’s why I like economic liberalism.
    You’ve just got to sniff out the easy money.
    All that hard work involved in setting up a company yourself, and building it up.
    Why bother?
    Asset strip firms other people have built up, that’s easy money.

    In 1984, for the first time in American history, “unearned” income exceeded “earned” income.
    Everyone is trying to sniff out the easy money.

    Making money and creating wealth are two different things.
    Since we got confused between making money and creating wealth everyone has been looking for the easy options.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If somebody grows a tomato and then eats it, and no cash registers ring, did it ever even happen?

  29. James Simpson

    My personal idleness in the forms of unemployment and not taking any active role in my community since 2010 is an unavoidable consequence of spending a period of time inside several of Her Majesty’s less salubrious establishments. Once that’s on someone’s CV, there’s no way to erase it and it tends to dissuade even the most liberal employer from offering an interview. I suspect that most of the hard-line semi-fascists in the UK hadn’t thought of this particular consequence: their taxes pay for me to be idle. I don’t mind, I have plenty of creative activities to please myself with, being a former musician, and my experience of British workplaces is not one to tempt me back. I must keep the DWP happy with daily applications for jobs whose content includes filling containers with water, moving heavy things around and pushing a brush. Thankfully, no employer would want me on their premises if I paid them.

  30. Patrick

    Sometimes idleness is a desperate, last ditch act of defiance indulged in by the recently impoverished. It’s perhaps ill advised, self defeating and certainly not an indulgence in the festive sense. Nevertheless it can be fun and refreshing while it lasts. A phyrric victory is better than none.

  31. Ralph Johansen

    Best is by JohnB: “People who don’t have the idle/downtime to study and
    learn about political/economic issues, and who are growing more and more
    atomized in society and in work, are less able to form an effective
    political resistance to how the economy is run.”

    This statement hews closer to the concept of class, when we consider
    social options. Idleness for whom? I shouldn’t have to elaborate on a
    list like this as to where that goes.

    To me, the greatest challenge we have as a species is overcoming the
    obstacles, built into our way of producing our needs and wants, by the
    imperatives of capital accumulation. I mean by that the ineluctable
    pursuit of the highest return on each successive increment of capital,
    on pain of falling out of the race for competitive survival and
    expansion – all requiring lowest-cost production at the expense of the
    wage-and-salary-earner, whose share of the commons is diminishing
    rapidly, and whose dumbing down, passivity and lack of comprehension are
    predicates for the effective management of capital accumulation.

    I think also of all my middle class friends, young and old, hung up on
    mindless computer games, which I’m sure is most pleasing to those who
    would rule without effective organization of dissent.

    The primary objective behind this striving to overcome this system of
    savage capitalist competition is to come to the point where production
    of our needs does not entail stunting what is most unique to our
    species: the capacity or potential for seemingly unlimited innovation
    and discovery, in cooperation and standing on each others’ shoulders, in
    keeping with harmonious relations with the rest of our environment and
    the mitigation of the deleterious environmental consequences of our
    activities so far.

    The difference implicit in this discussion between work and idleness
    then becomes, under very possible and most essential circumstances,
    meaningless and obfuscating.

  32. drumlin woodchuckles

    What if quietly subversive gamers were to design games about economic combat, silent lower class sabotage and underminement, etc.? Maybe give false names to hide them in plain sight and find a way to spread them around virally? Etc.?

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