The Virtue of Doing Less: Bertrand Russell’s Idleness

“We are born once. We cannot be born a second time, and throughout eternity we shall of necessity no longer exist. You have no power over the morrow, and yet you put off your pleasure. Life is ruined by procrastination, and every one of us dies deep in his affairs.”


RESEARCH FROM the Public Religion Research Institute shows that atheists and agnostics are more educated and wealthier than the average American, with 45 percent of atheists and agnostics holding a bachelor’s degree, 11 percent holding a graduate degree and, according to the Pew Center, 38 percent living in a household with income of $75,000 or more per year. While humanists disagree on many things, it seems we can all agree that, rather than wait for a supernatural power to improve our lives or hold out for paradise in the afterlife, we maximize our opportunities to create the good life ourselves.

This is a laudable stance. I want, however, to draw your attention to an idea that should have a place in the humanist perspective, an idea that we overlook in our hurry to climb various ladders of success: the idea that idleness is valuable.

In 1932 the philosopher and staunch humanist Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called “In Praise of Idleness.” He argued for a vast change to the way societies view work and leisure. “Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous,” he wrote. “The road to happiness and prosperity lies in the organized diminution of work.”

According to Russell, our valorization of work stems from conditions prior to the industrial revolution in which the majority of people were engaged in subsistence farming. Elite landowners enjoyed lives of leisure by extracting crops from those working the land. The elite promoted the view that work was in itself valuable in order to mask the unfairness of this arrangement. If work is inherently good, this line of thinking went, then the common people should be grateful to have ample opportunity to exercise their virtue by growing crops and sustaining the landowners. Russell wrote that this “morality of work” was “the morality of slaves” because there is nothing inherently good about working. After all, work is just one of two things, according to Russell: it’s either “altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter” or it’s “telling other people to do so.” Neither one has any value except insofar as it helps us stay alive. The view that work is virtuous “is not adapted to the modern world” because “the modern world has no need of slavery.”

The innovations of the industrial revolution, Russell wrote, would make such an inhumane and extractive social system, and its attendant ideology of work, unnecessary. The efficiency of mechanization would mean that working people could produce the same amount of goods they always produced in a fraction of the time. Since humans only need so much stuff (or so Russell thought), it would make sense to use technology to produce the same amount of stuff in less time, rather than working the same amount of time and producing more stuff. If industrial societies so organized themselves, their citizens would be able to enjoy lives of substantial leisure, working perhaps four hours per day.

Russell was obviously wrong in assuming that, given the efficiencies brought by mechanization and innovation, we would decide as a society to work less and be content with our level of material prosperity. Instead, we decided to keep working long hours and make more stuff. We created marketing departments to convince ourselves we need more stuff than we did before in order to be happy. We built bigger houses in which to stash the ever increasing flood of stuff, and developed technology that allows us to work more hours from various locations.

Most significantly, we retained the view that work is, in itself, morally valuable. We failed to shed Russell’s “morality of slaves.” Instead of being enslaved by the morality of landowners or aristocrats, we have become enslaved by the morality of CEOs and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. We work long hours at insurance companies or tech startups, and believe that we must use our leisure hours to increase our employability by getting MBAs, learning to code software, or staying current with “thought leaders” who dispense frivolous advice. We take on second or even third jobs.

For some people, such feverish work is an economic necessity. They cannot survive or provide for their families without working long and hard. This is an indictment of our economic system—an injustice that must be corrected.

For other people, however, there is little economic need for their overwork. They do it because they want to achieve social status, earn lots of money, or both. Or they do it simply because they have internalized the gospel of work and think that it’s inherently good.

Those who overwork to achieve social status in the form of, say, a prestigious but taxing job or a new luxury car, should reflect upon whether this goal is worthwhile.  Is it worth giving up time with friends and loved ones? Is it worth leaving other interests undeveloped? Think about the end of your life. Facing imminent death—separating from loved ones, from your own consciousness—will you care about your job titles or about the money you made or the things you bought? I think in the end it’s the relationships with others, the love given and received, that will provide comfort against oncoming nothingness.

Attaining social status is a fine goal if it makes you happy. I’m arguing that we should question whether it is really something that makes us happy.

When it comes to making money, it often seems we have no choice but to make more and more. Unless you’re fabulously rich, there never seems to be enough. If you ask people who overwork why they do it, many will say they have no choice. For people who struggle to obtain food, shelter, or clothing, this is true. But for many it’s not. They feel they don’t have enough money because they increase their expenses along with their incomes. Many of us get raises and then buy a new car, with a higher monthly payment, even though our old car worked just fine. Or we get a new job and decide our old suits aren’t good enough, so we go into credit card debt purchasing new clothes. We then need to work more in order to sustain this new level of material wealth.

Living simply and within your means can free you from this cycle of spending more and needing to earn more. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus said, “Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little.” We should learn to be happy with what we have. If we do, we might be able to work less and have more time for friends, family, and hobbies. Even if it doesn’t result in working less, it should prevent us from having to work more. This attitude can free us from the “morality of slaves” and allow us to enjoy what life has to offer.

This is easier said than done. American culture ingrains in us the ideas that work is inherently good, that consumption is how we express ourselves, and that we can all achieve wealth and status if we work hard. As humanists who have skeptically evaluated supernatural claims, we are remiss in not turning our skepticism on the faith in work. For many of us, work remains the unquestioned object of our devotion.

We must challenge this creed of productivity because leisure is crucial for living a good life. Leisure is not just pleasurable. It is necessary for humans to thrive. “Without a considerable amount of leisure,” Russell said, people are “cut off from many of the best things.” Leisure is responsible for numerous human achievements. It “cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations,” wrote Russell, who also pointed out that part of living a full life is doing things that are their own end and not for some practical purpose. An example would be developing an interest in chess, an art, or a sport, without expectation of gaining anything more than enjoyment from it. This is only possible with sufficient leisure time. To the extent that we neglect the cultivation of leisure, we make it correspondingly more difficult to allow human flourishing in its many forms.

As humanists we believe there is only this life. Give yourself time to relax and enjoy it. Have an unproductive day, week, month, or year. Your value as a human being does not depend on your productivity. You are valuable simply because you exist.