The Asian Voice

In defence of idleness: The Statesman columnist

Office workers at Raffles Place.
Office workers at Raffles Place. PHOTO: ST FILE

Abhik Roy

The Statesman/Asia News Network

Everywhere I look, I see people in a frenzied hurry to get to their jobs and other activities.

It makes me wonder if idleness has become a lost art. How often do we sit serenely without busying ourselves in mundane activities? How frequently do we engage in walks with no fixed agenda or planned destination but remain mindful of the present moment?

How often do we have our heads not buried in a laptop or our eyes and ears not glued to our smart phone but simply enjoy the sights and sounds of nature? This obsession with "doing" is so compulsive that many seem to have a need to fill their daily lives with as many activities as possible, blotting out even the most remote chance for reverie. It's this religious-like pursuit of activity-filled life that has given idling a bad name almost to the point of making it sinful.  

Numerous scholars have indicated that advocates of capitalism have ruthlessly propagated the message that it's a sin to be slothful. The path to salvation lies only in hard work and discipline.

Several eminent personalities such as Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison, to name a few, caused enormous damage to the art of idling by vigorously upholding the dignity and romance of hard work.

Carlyle believed that "man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream" and "every idle moment is a treason".

Thus, it became our patriotic duty to work hard which Sir Bertrand Russell noted in his essay "In Praise of Idleness", was particularly convenient for the wealthy, who "preach[ED] the dignity of labour, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect".  

The virtue of toil and the vice of sloth were propagated so vigorously that many experienced a profound sense of guilt if they engaged in idling.

For example, Dr Samuel Johnson, who certainly had everything to be proud of as far as his literary output was concerned, berated himself for his indolent habits: "O Lord, enable me... in redeeming the time I have spent in Sloth."  

If we were to read about his life, we would know how much Johnson, who was a deeply religious man, was ashamed of his indolence.  Like Johnson, there are countless others who were and still are mortified today if they find themselves to be lazing around.  

The critics of idling from time immemorial have propagated indolence as a sin and a waste of time, even in India. As I was growing up, I often heard "idle mind is devil's workshop" and Nehru's dictum "Aram Haram Hai".

The fact that idling can be enormously productive and it is essential for a life of happiness and contentment was rarely, if ever, promoted. Robert Louis Stevenson explains in his essay, "An Apology for Idlers", the nature of idleness: "Idleness... does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class."

For Stevenson, "extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity".

In his famous essay on laziness, Christopher Morley writes:  "Laziness is always dignified, it is always reposeful. Philosophical laziness, we mean. The kind of laziness that is based upon a carefully reasoned analysis of experience."

Far from idleness being a shortcoming, it functions as the home base for our soul. In the contemplative mode, our idle mind is awake and unconstrained. Contemplation during such idling often leads one to see the vision of "truth" about our lives in our mundane world. 

John Keats extolled the virtue of indolence in a letter to a friend: "I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner - let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy ... and let him wander with it, muse upon it, and reflect from it... dream upon it... How happy such a voyage of conception, what delicious diligent indolence!"

What a brilliant phrase, "delicious diligent indolence", did Keats create, which aptly describes the pleasure of doing nothing. 

One may wonder what idlers do while they enjoy their serenity of idleness.  Jerome K. Jerome shares with his readers that "[HE] would lie out in the garden in a hammock and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the books should fall from [HIS]listless hand, and [HE]should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds floating like white-sailed ships across its depths, and listening to the joyous song of the birds and the low rustling of the trees".  

Similarly, J.B. Priestley informs us that he spent his idle time "looking up at the sky or gazing dreamily at the distant horizon".

Instead of having a full-time job, Walt Whitman decided to wander around and observe people and nature. We also know that Henry David Thoreau turned his back on the hectic, materialistic world, deciding to seek freedom and solace in the woods. 

Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to Be Idle, states "there is no purer form of idleness than meditation.  It is where doing absolutely nothing for hours on end is elevated to the level of spiritual quest". Simply put, idlers are individuals who contemplate, meditate, appreciate, create, feel a sense of peace and calm, follow their dreams, gaze at the moon and the stars and a whole lot more. 

It is just plain ignorance to assume that idling has no place in society.  One can find quintessential idlers in the annals of history who practiced a life of glorified idleness and yet had the energy to produce immortal works for posterity.

For instance, Sir Walter Scott, who described himself as one born with a "determined indolence" and "aversion to labour", was actually one of the most productive writers.

Similarly, Dr Samuel Johnson's love for lying on the bed for long hours didn't take away his creative energy to produce great literary works.  He once told his friend: "The happiest part of a man's life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning." 

Samuel Coleridge, yet another idler, spent a large part of his life procrastinating and often failing to show up at lectures for which his audiences were waiting.  

But one look at Coleridge's complete works tells us how busy a life he must have had. In spite of their penchant for idleness, Thomas Gray and William Wordsworth created works of unparalleled quality.

Certainly, these writers of genius would have been socially acceptable if their lives were filled with activities, but is doubtful if they could have produced anything more than a penciled-in calendar of activities.

Hodgkinson provides an impressive roster of thinkers who were also inveterate idlers: Cicero, Horace, Milton, Jonathan Swift, Rousseau, Voltaire, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain, Whitman, Thoreau, Proust, and Pascal - the list goes on. 

JB Priestley believes that the evil deeds in this his world are perpetrated mostly by overly active people "who are always up and doing, but do not know when they ought to be up nor what they ought to be doing".  

For Priestley, there are a lot of misdirected energies that have contributed to the turmoil in this world.  Similarly, Oscar Wilde reminds us in his famous essay "The Critic as Artist" that action is not always beneficial because it is often a product of lack of imagination. Action becomes "unlimited and absolute only when it is arrived at in repose.

According to Wilde, the "contemplative life, that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming - this is what the critical spirit can give us. The gods live thus..."

Wilde, then, restores the status of an idler from a good-for-nothing fellow, who is a useless source of irritation to society, to something godlike.  Idlers, far from being sinners or burdens on society, are in fact visionaries and apostles. 

It may not be such a bad idea after all to emulate idleness the way the great minds practiced it. It could provide us all an opportunity to pause and take stock of ourselves. And who knows?

Out of all this idling, we may produce a few contemplatives who would have otherwise gone on with their lives a little too fast and a little too planned-out to appreciate the world in its splendor. 


The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.