Monday, May 18, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Full Time

While the first half of In Praise of Idleness centers on a critique of the profit motive under industrial capitalism, the second half moves away from the economics sphere. The movement away is only partial, however, in that the effects of the rise of science and industry (largely in the advanced capitalist countries) dominate the second-half subject matter.

Science and industry, for Russell, are the hallmarks of Western civilisation. Technological advances in warfare require the cooperation of huge swaths of people, prompting the government to seek ways – including promulgating propaganda – to develop political cohesion. (Though cooperation is necessary, achieving it through appeals to a fervent nationalism is a mistake, and one that makes other countries wary.) US-style industrialization brings about a cultural and political homogeneity that contributes to political cohesion, though possibly at the cost of an intolerance of difference and a decline in individualism. [Russell’s view of the narrow political spectrum in the US still seems right to me, but the notion that US politics are somehow less contentious doesn't seem to hold – perhaps Russell overlooked Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”?] The comfort that comes with high living standards, political cohesion, and freedom leads to a cynicism in intelligent youth, who have little recourse except to serve ignorant but wealthy masters.

The problem of cynicism can be overcome if the masters are not so ignorant; thus, a broad education is key, and not just for the masters. The general goal of education is to promote civilisation, which involves knowledge but also an array of individual and social virtues, including openness to novel ideas and people. This goal is best served through a considerable degree of freedom for schoolchildren, when they are in the hands of teachers who should not be overtaxed, and who enjoy their company.

The world is full of harm, and this is a reality that cannot and should not be kept from children. Dangers (such as death) should be acknowledged but not dwelt upon, sometimes diluted even to the point of missing opportunities to reduce the probability of harm. The encouragement (through education) of broad, other-regarding interests can help avoid a fixation on potential disasters. No one would develop self-control in the face of danger if they were always shielded from danger; but an avoidance of excessive coddling should not be used to open the door to sadism and cruelty on the part of teachers and parents. A young person who is attracted to a valuable goal will discipline him or herself in an effort to achieve that goal.

Our species is doomed, though that doom is temporally remote (assuming the insects don’t get us), and therefore we do not exhaust psychic energy in worrying about it. This is the message that we should send to children curious about their own deaths, too: inevitable but quite distant, and no cause for brooding. Our commitment to truth-telling to children rules out that we tell them that the soul is eternal. Broad interests forge a connection to the human past and future, even to a future in which one’s body and one’s mind, or one’s soul, are no longer present. As Russell wrote elsewhere, our lives are like a river joining a larger sea.

As a whole, the essays that comprise In Praise of Idleness are an impressive achievement [MRDA]. The idleness essay itself is part of a wider “idleness” discourse that was unknown to me until I read Professor Woodhouse’s Introduction and Woodhouse's mention of Karel Capek’s much different essay. (One of the better pre-Russell contributions comes from Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, writing in 1880 (republished with revisions in 1883). Lafargue goes Russell one better, calling not for a four-hour workday but a three-hour one: "If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her.") But I was most struck by the extent of the overlap between Russell’s ideas and those of William Morris. The four essays by Morris that are reprinted in this short collection presage the first three chapters of In Praise of Idleness, including thoughts on the non-necessity of long working days – especially if war were rationally avoided – and on the importance of architecture. Morris also presents, as Russell does in Chapter 7, a case for socialism.

Incidentally, the Russellian case for socialism, as a rational response to the conditions brought about by industrialization, seems quite convincing to me; I prefer it to more recent (even identically named) treatments. The Russell version avoids both envy of the rich and warm feelings for the Bolsheviks.

Russell’s faith in the social healing power of architecture seems a bit extreme, but his analysis seems to run in the right direction. In the recent book Happy City, Charles Montgomery notes (p. 90) the excesses of the architecture-as-cure crowd: “The messianic certainty of the high modernists of the last century makes it easy to pick on them.” But Montgomery also verifies (p. 55) Russell’s contention, that suburban life breeds unhappiness and undermines social and political activity.

The reference to Montgomery’s 2013 book is itself a nod towards Russell’s continuing relevance. The essays that make up In Praise of Idleness were written more than 80 years ago, but they are dense with useful information (or useless information, that’s fine), and that informational richness is combined with a writing style that makes them easy to digest. This Russell fellow has a promising future ahead of him.

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