Monday, January 27, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Introductory Matter

Introduction and Preface, pages vii-xx, and 9-10

Things get underway with an Introduction by Howard Woodhouse, who indicates that his own opportunity for idleness on an academic sabbatical deepened his appreciation for the “useless” knowledge that he uncovered when re-reading In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. Much of Woodhouse’s Introduction is itself a sort of Reading Bertrand Russell-style summentary of the remainder of the book, so I will offer only a brief outline of the Introduction here. The Introduction suggests to me that the ideas advanced in In Praise of Idleness will largely be familiar Russellian notions, as put forth especially in Proposed Roads to Freedom, Bolshevism and the West, Education and the Good Life, and (subsequent to In Praise of Idleness) Unpopular Essays.

[Note: It appears that Woodhouse’s Introduction is available on the web here, via a portal (that I just learned about) that aims to make Russell’s work accessible to Japanese speakers. This availability will itself reduce the extent of my own summentary on the Introduction; please follow the standard advice accompanying a recommended link by reading the (original) whole thing.]

As the title might suggest, Russell’s recurrent policy proposal of arranging worklives so that idleness and seemingly useless endeavors will be economically and socially viable will feature in In Praise of Idleness. By Russell’s accounting, work as currently arranged possesses an undeserved favorable reputation, despite the lack of enjoyment that work brings to many people. More freedom to follow one’s muse, however trivial or playful that muse might be, would conduce to individual wellbeing. Such freedom also would have the further useful effects of combating dogmatism and opening minds to opinions and ideas that are uncongenial.

Indeed, anti-dogmatism and the promotion of tolerance are themes that permeate the essays of In Praise of Idlenesss [as they later would provide themes for Unpopular Essays.] These virtues would stimulate free speech, and the resulting debate – shades once again of Russell’s godfather – would benefit the world, primarily by enhancing social justice. The acceptance of useless activities and knowledge proves useful after all.

Russell found a striking uniformity of thinking in the US when he visited in 1930, a uniformity that has many negative features – including much overt nationalism – even as it perhaps is requisite for economic dynamism.

Fascism and communism are some popular isms [recall that In Praise of Idleness was published in 1935] that Russell reviles. Fascism is the greater of these twin evils, deplorable both in means and ends. Russell identifies the German nationalistic thinking of Johann Gottlieb Fichte as providing some of the intellectual underpinning of fascism. Industrialists and the military in Germany both viewed Bolshevism as a threat, further preparing the ground for fascist ideology. Russell finds common cause with communism’s goal of social equality, but sees (once again) the Bolshevik revolutionary route to that goal as leading to despotism.

Russell follows up his Bolshevism and the West debate with further thoughts on a peaceful evolution to democratic socialism. There are large economic gains available by reducing both weapons production and nationalist, militaristic thinking. Russell also builds on his proposals to ensure that women have more financial independence and opportunities in the workplace. He envisions the availability of public housing with communal spaces and childcare facilities.

Idleness has to have an expanded role in the education of the young, and teachers are overworked – both of these ideas were expressed by Russell elsewhere. Teachers and parents need to exercise their authority at selected times, in a manner that ultimately promotes the necessary development of voluntary perseverance in the young. The result will be a citizenry that can employ reason to see through the illogic of many a supposed expert.

Russell propounds that a world government, perhaps coercively introduced, is the path to ending nationalism, war, and many other ills, while providing the soil for unfettered thinking to sprout. [Russell’s defense of a coercive introduction of world government is viewed as a mistake (p. xvi) by the Introduction’s author, Howard Woodhouse, a mistake that can be employed as a rationalization for war.]

Russell has been accused of not recognizing the material standard of living decline that would result from shortened workdays. But Russell cares about wellbeing, not material living standards, and sees the potential for betterment when lifestyles are not dominated by work. The information revolution, like previous advances, has not lessened labor’s load. [Recall John Stuart Mill’s observation: “Hitherto [1848] it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being.”] Russell imagines a world in which improvements in technique could be used to free up time for activity that, though quite valuable, is not necessarily economically profitable.

Dr. Woodhouse notes that already in 1923 Karel Capek wrote an essay entitled (in English translation) “In Praise of Idleness.” [The English version is available here, on pages 80-82.] Russell’s teacher and then colleague, Alfred North Whitehead, was another contemporary who has kind words for idleness, and who deplores the extent to which work has undermined the pleasure that people can take from their own craftsmanship; readers of both can see the long-term mutual influences between Russell and Whitehead. [Readers who would like to learn more of Dr. Woodhouse’s thoughts on Russell and idleness can check out his 2001 journal article, non-free version available here. A fun 1983 book reprinted the pro-leisure views of Russell and other luminaries.]

Woodhouse’s Introduction is followed by Russell’s slightly-more-than-one page Preface. Russell mentions a couple of brief essays in the volume that were passed over in Woodhouse’s Introduction, one concerning insects and another (the last in the book) on the soul. “The general thesis which binds the essays together is that the world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided… [p. 9].” We could do instead with some “calm consideration.”

Russell concludes his preface by noting that many of the essays (though neither insects nor souls!) had previously been published elsewhere, and recognizes Peter Spence for her assistance in discussing the material; she (Peter was her nickname) became Bertrand Russell’s third wife the year after In Praise of Idleness was published.

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