In Praise of Idleness: And Other Essays

by Bertrand Russell

Paperback, 1985



Call number

CI 6604 P898



Routledge (1985), 192 pages


Intolerance and bigotry lie at the heart of all human suffering. So claims Bertrand Russell at the outset of In Praise of Idleness, a collection of essays in which he espouses the virtues of cool reflection and free enquiry; a voice of calm in a world of maddening unreason. From a devastating critique of the ancestry of fascism to a vehement defence of 'useless' knowledge, with consideration given to everything from insect pests to the human soul, this is a tour de force that only Bertrand Russell could perform.

User reviews

LibraryThing member KevinCK
I like reading the works of Bertrand Russell. He is a crisp and thoughtful writer, and a penetrating and skilled philosopher. But we can't be great at everything and unfortunately, "In Praise of Idleness" highlights Dr. Russell's naivete when it comes to social and political commentary.

And more
Show More
unfortunate still, the most naive essay of all is the title essay. In it, Dr. Russell outlines a vision whereby all able-bodied individuals would need only to work for four hours a day. Russell abhors work, and true to his upper-cust raisings, cannot see why it is really all that necessary. What he does not realize is that the beauty of the capitalism he so detests is that it allows the individual - rather than a majority vote or a dictator - choose how much work they will do based on how much "reward" they want. Should they want high reward, they can choose to work more and harder. Should they want less financial reward, they can choose a less stressful job. (Russell also misses the fact that, while many of us do detest work, they would detest it more if they did not own the fruits of their labor via wages in a capitalistic system. After all, many people work only because there is a financial motivator.)

His essay extolling the usefulness of useless knowledge is actually quite good. Rather than arguing - as its title might suggest - against a pragmatic view of knowledge (that only "useful" knowledge is worth anything), Russell argues to expand the definition of "useful." Knowledge that contributes to an individuals mental well-being, knowledge that is interesting, and knowledge that is just plain fun to think about, is every bit as useful to individuals as knowlege that helps us dig ditches, structure economies, etc. (To be useful, knowledge need not always be SOCIALLY useful.)

Much of the rest of Russell's naivete comes from offering good criticisms of fascism and communism only to forget that these criticisms may be applied to the socialism that Russell champions. The fact that centralizing power, for instance, in a dictator is a reason to jettison fascism and Marxism is every bit a reason to be wary of any attempts at political centralization - even socialist ones! To put it bluntly, Russell is so interested in his utopian vision of socialism in the abstract that he forgets to think about what socialism actually looks like in practice. (In Russell's mind, for instance, socialism somehow avoids consolidating power in an omnipotent central government. But doesn't planning need planners and delegators? And how do they differ from dictators?)

To be honest, I think Bertrand Russell shows evidence in this book of a huge blindspot. As an upper-cruster, he is appalled that people have to do such dastardly things as work and contract their labor. As an upper-cruster, he thinks that a decent way of life is possible without the type of industry that requires people to work more than four hours per day. And as an upper-cruster, he believes that everyone should be guaranteed a certain level of income regardless of what they accomplish.

In other words, Russell is simply not as penetrating as a social theorist as he is as a philosopher. This book is as clearly written and entertaining as other books by Russell, but he is clearly out of his element.
Show Less
LibraryThing member FPdC
An invaluable collection of articles by the renowned british philosopher. Reflections abour social and political issues written in the 1920s and 1930s but still relevant today since their main import is a fierce defence of free enquire, calm reflection, and a call to reason (all of them very much
Show More
in need in this era of global "war on terror"!) The wit and clarity of Russell's writing shine troughout. Definitely a worthwhile reading.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jezzaboogie
A collection of essays written between around 1928 and 1932. Title essay is all about how a 4 hour working day for all is the path to a better society. Other ports of call include a praise of "useless" knowledge (exemplified by the eptymology of "apricot"); bettering architecture for social
Show More
puposes; fascism (cross) vs. communism (cross) vs. socialism (tick); the historical cause of cynicism in the educated English speaking youth; a call for the conquest of hopeless, self-dementing man by the insects; and irrelevance/ill-definition of the "soul".

Although I agree with pretty much each and every argument in all the essays and love the polemic styling, I struggle with the cocksure armchair philostophizing. Posturing about how people "should" conduct their home life and how educators "should" deal with adolescents tend to come off as stinky academic arrogance. Although, having said that, this stuff was written 70+ years ago and all of it is relevant relevant relevant spot on spot on spot on for the beginning of the 21st century (+ 7).

I meant to include this quote in the above comments, but forgot or was too busy to do it. None of these essays are about physics, and there was plenty of quotable moments but I just liked this little rant one so much that the page number stuck in my head. Here it comes...

Bertrand Russell, What is the Soul? wrote:

This is all very well, but the physicist comes along and shows that you never bump into anything: even when you run your head against a stone wall, you do not really touch it. When you think you touch a thing, there are certain electrons and protons, forming part of your body, which are attracted and repelled by certain electrons and protons in the thing you think you are touching, but there is no actual contact. The electrons and protons in you body, becoming agitated by nearness to the other electrons and protons are distrubed, and transmit a distrubance along you nerves to the brain; the effect in the brain is what is necessary to your sensation of contact, and by suitable experiments this sensation can be made quite deeptive. The elecetrons and protons themselves, however, are only a crude first approximation, a way of collecting into a bundle either trains of waves or the statistical probabilites of various different kinds of events. Thus matter has become althogether too ghostly to be used as an adquate stick with which to beat the mind. Matter in motion, which used to seem so unquestionable, turns out to be a concept quite inadequate for the needs of physics.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Gail.C.Bull
I stumbled across this book quite by accident at the public library, and I now wish I had just ignored it. The title is highly provocative, but that's the only thing Russel seems to have put any thought into. His arguments are driven by emotion rather than reason, and he makes challenging statement
Show More
which sound interesting but doesn't bother to explain his reasoning. Without explanation, his readers have no way of testing his theories, and so can't contradict or agree with him. He doesn't have the courage to open himself to criticism, and so as a work of philosophy, this book is a complete failure.
Show Less
LibraryThing member dmturner
This large-print, small-footprint gift book contains a slim Russell essay sandwiched between an industriously humorous introduction and a set of equally industriously humorous footnotes and illustrated in a peculiar quasi-Victorian manner (the illustration on p. 104 is unfortunate and
Show More
characteristic). I chose it because I felt like having an easy read and it didn't disappoint on that account. Would make a nice impersonal Christmas present for that philosophy major on your list, just to convey the impression that you care about them without inviting the recipient to engage you in actual conversation about the topic.

Some judicious quotes:

From the introduction by Greive: "even in the most flattering photographs the great philosopher often resembles a bewigged ferret squinting into a hot wind." (13)

The rest of the quotes are Russell verbatim:

"a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work." (38)

"The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery." (43)

"The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich." (49)

"We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork." (58)

"the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect." (61)

"Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad." (63)
Show Less
LibraryThing member bdgamer
In Praise of Idleness has become one of those life-changing books for me. I’d heard and read a lot about Bertrand Russell’s genius and intellect, but the book really blew me away. The collection of essays here offer a treasure trove of ideas and makes eerily accurate predictions about society
Show More
and humanity.

There were a number of ideas that will stay with me. For example, Russell, while discussing education, hypothesizes that it is the uneducated that bully and lynch others because the assertion of dominance is a source of self-respect for them. He also notes that education is extremely important for the populace of a nation as it offers them the chance to form intelligent opinions on matters of governance and finance. These are simple, almost basic ideas that are taken to their full potential in Russell’s essays.

He also writes about death and offers some words on how to broach the subject with kids. He advises parents to talk about death with their children but not to let them get too absorbed with it because it will reduce their all-round development. He also notes that children should be deterred from taking on a religious point of view regarding death, pointing out that death should not be made less terrible than what it is. His argument is to persuade the importance of the cause to which the person has given his/her life towards rather than the act of death itself.

In another essay he writes about designing arguments. He says we should focus our ideas towards like-minded people and not for opponents. Why? It’s due to the fact that the appeal to reason becomes difficult when there’s a large group because we have fewer assumptions to begin from. When the assumptions aren’t found, men begin to rely on intuition which leads to strife in power.

Further along, in another essay Russell contends that people use reason to persuade a group that is sympathetic to their cause. The person using that reason believes in it wholly but has trouble demonstrating it to those who question it. He adds that there has to be some universal assumptions for reason to survive; otherwise, it only leads to strife and power play, which we can see in the world around us right now.
Having said all this, some of the essays are insignificant. A few offer socially dated ideas—women staying behind to work in the house isn’t acceptable by modern standards, among other things. Despite all this, the essays themselves are straightforward in their language and presentation, discussing philosophical and social topics in a way that even laymen can perceive.

There are a lot more interesting concepts and opinions within the book. Many of these have become reality for our current society and some have fallen flat. I strongly suggest picking this book up if you’re looking to expand your view of the world. I had a most excellent time with this.
Show Less


Original publication date


Physical description

192 p.; 8 inches


0415109248 / 9780415109246
Page: 0.3845 seconds