In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell

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I made the mistake of bringing this book out with me one day- being seated across people on the bus inevitably means being uncomfortably scrutinized by the brash auntie, the self-righteous uncle, or even the occasional pony-tailed student (albeit more discreetly). The usually surreptitious glances evolved into somewhat tactless gapes and frowns, which confused me- most bus rides are met with stony faces and perhaps sheepish floor-gazers, but never disapproving glares. It became harder and harder to enjoy the book as I became more and more conscious over whether I had spilt iced tea over myself or whether there was something wrong about my sense of style (yes, movie-watching calls for long, comfy yoga pants and sweatshirt; I dress comfortably) and then I realized they were frowning at the title.

In Praise of Idleness!

It took me the limits of my self control not to burst out guffawing.

Don’t judge a book by the cover, indeed! I must admit that I took a glance at the frowns (frowning does require more muscles than smiling, did you know that?) and judged that they were judging me (judge-ception, anybody?), committing the same atrocity I assumed they were committing when they glared me down.

Idleness is probably the ultimate sin in the Singaporean society- in any fast-paced, modern society, in fact. I admit (being the filthy hypocrite that I am) to shamelessly criticizing my sister for laying about idle- I’m not one to praise idleness. But as I read on, I realized idleness, in Russell’s definition, was not staring at a TV bleary-eyed or lazing languidly on a couch but more of brain-stimulating hobbies like chess or academic pursuits- which then made me realize that this was a book pretty much only applicable to the 20th century, since their definition of idleness is now our definition of scholarly.


You’d be delighted to know that this book is a collection of essays.

I know, how like me to read essays during the holiday- but these really were rather entertaining. I still don’t know where I stand- I’d start chuckling at the ridiculous notions Russell put forth, but the next moment I’d be furiously nodding my head in agreement.

The notion that desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are working; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely being frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Seeing there are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd!


Tomorrow I’m going to withdraw what little pittance I have in my bank account and buy myself a truckload of bread- it should be enough to last me a lifetime! And what a good deed that would be, can you imagine how many bakers and livelihoods that would feed? Spending is good, spending is brilliant- the misers are the ones committing crimes against humanity! All that money, lying somewhere in the safe- what a waste! The lack of spending is the greatest crime!

I’m kidding. It would pain me to part with eight dollars for chicken rice.

Though you have to admit Russell does have a point there. We shouldn’t criticize (or humorously mock) people who spend vast amounts on Ferraris and the sort- they feed people with their spendthrift ways. But we can’t condemn people who save either, at any rate banks (assuming that the majority of people keep their savings in them) don’t keep money tucked away somewhere in the corner of the universe- they invest it. Oh, and look at what a predicament over-spending has caused Greece and many other nations. It’s rather laughable to think of spending as a good thing, but it’s not a bad thing either. It’s always a matter of striking a balance, isn’t it?

The next essay was titled ‘Useless’ Knowledge, but in a time where most knowledge is well regarded, the essay has become more of an ancient testimony to the (once) waning interest in non-applicational academia.

Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant.

I concur.


And perhaps I should end the review on that; school starts in two days and I fervently hope that my curiosity for learning will be well fed. Can’t wait for IB to start (until the exams and stress come rolling in!)

Rating: 5.5/7 (Interesting and thought-provoking, but not exactly relevant in these times)

The rest of the book comprised of essays that sought to undermine political systems and argue over the various aspects of good government- topics that are of intrigue but perhaps a little out of my grasp considering my lack of proficiency in historical knowledge and ancient governments.

Well, not ancient.

But history has a knack for repeating itself so in time this would go on my ‘To Read’ list again.

Hopefully, not very soon though. At times like these I’m glad I wasn’t born in the 19th Century- but then again, that’s how they felt about the 17th Century.

Published by ruruhoong

Part-time economist, writer, tanguera. Full time glutton.

6 thoughts on “In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell

  1. Sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve never heard of anything remotely similar to that before! This review has officially forwarded it book into my ‘to read’ list :)
    Good review btw. Very succinct and absorbing. Can’t wait for your next one!

  2. Very important to allow long period of times for idleness and freedom, that is how our awareness can grow and expand… The concept of work and productivity were just invented by those who wanted to make big profits out of others… Paul Léon Fargue also wrote a very interesting book about that.

  3. Very important to allow long periods of time for idleness and freedom, that is how our awareness can grow and expand… The concept of work and productivity was just invented by those who wanted to make big profits out of others… Paul Léon Fargue also wrote a very interesting book about that.

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