Brian O’Connor on Idleness: A Philosophical Essay

idleFor millennia, idleness and laziness have been regarded as vices. We’re all expected to work to survive and get ahead, and devoting energy to anything but labor and self-improvement can seem like a luxury or a moral failure. Far from questioning this conventional wisdom, modern philosophers have worked hard to develop new reasons to denigrate idleness. In Idleness, the first book to challenge modern philosophy’s portrayal of inactivity, Brian O’Connor argues that the case against an indifference to work and effort is flawed—and that idle aimlessness may instead allow for the highest form of freedom. A thought-provoking reconsideration of productivity for the twenty-first century, Idleness shows that, from now on, no theory of what it means to have a free mind can exclude idleness from the conversation.

Could we start by asking you to tell us what you mean by idleness? Which sense of the word is important for your book?

Yes—that’s really key to appreciating what I’m interested in exploring. I actually don’t mean anything that’s at all obscure. The sense of idleness at the center of the book is that of doing little or nothing that’s considered productive, of feeling free of the pressures of caring about what one is supposed to make of oneself. An idle person is not pinned down by any plan that shapes their future. It’s a kind of way of being that, in the context of life today, amounts to a disavowal of those inclinations that make us into effective social agents, like being useful, busy, or competitive.

What gave you the idea of writing a book on philosophical criticisms of idleness?

Many years ago I was struck by Kant’s claim that no rational being—that is to say, a properly functioning moral person—would ever believe it proper to live according to the rule of idleness. This was no throwaway remark. It was backed up by some quite complex reasoning. Nevertheless, I found myself completely unimpressed by his position. What Kant was trying to convince us of in that claim just didn’t resonate with me personally. I noticed a number of other philosophers from around and soon after Kant’s time devising their own original ways of denigrating idleness. Eventually, I thought it was time to react. The book is my effort to expose the problems and assumptions within those philosophies which tell us that idleness is an unworthy way of life.

Why did you feel motivated to react with that critical attitude?

There’s a philosophical interest in identifying and exposing arguments that seem to serve as apologies or defenses of some kind of the basic practices of life in the modern world. I just happen to be drawn to the longstanding practice of unsettling philosophy’s complicity with the troubling and often destructive burdens social structures place on human beings.

But there’s also a sense that lives pursued through an obsession with reputational and material advance bring a significant amount of harm to our world. We seem to be driven to see a large part of who we are in terms of how much we can accomplish. It’s a precarious and anxious way to live. Although I don’t develop that point in the book, it’s held in mind throughout.

Does your book argue, then, that we need to work less and do more to enjoy our free time?

No. I make no positive proposals for any alternative lifestyle. The philosopher as guru is not a happy spectacle. What I do try to do—and different lessons might be drawn from this—is show that some of the most ingenious arguments against idleness developed by some exceptionally influential philosophers turn out to be justifications of our anxious world. What’s more broadly intriguing about those arguments is that they express sentiments that have become increasingly common outside philosophy. At the core of them is this idea, that a life worth living is one of effort and recognized achievement. If we can successfully criticize that idea perhaps it contributes in some small way to reflection on the power it ought to hold over us.

You mentioned that you look at particular philosophers opposed to idleness. Which ones and why?

I’ve already noted Kant’s austere perspective. And added to his formal argument are quite a few condescending dismissals of lives that seem to be quite free of any effort to achieve social worth, in Kant’s sense of that idea. There’s a similar move found in Hegel who values the process of turning us into autonomous self-perpetuating workers. As we work we serve a system whose power over us Hegel doesn’t find troubling. He too sees nothing impressive in cultures that seem to survive quite happily in near idleness. And then there’s Marx who famously designs a picture of utopian co-operation in which the fullest freedom and self-realization might be found in even the most arduous forms of labor. He has no interest in the kinds of freedom that might be enjoyed in the absence of labor.

Your book also looks at the question of boredom. How does that fit with the topic of idleness?

It’s virtually inevitable to experience boredom when we have nothing to do. And when we reflect for a moment on that experience we might want to conclude that idleness, as a state of doing nothing in particular, could actually be a cause of boredom. If so, then what’s the point in trying to rescue idleness from its hostile characterizations? The most ambitious philosophical expression of a deep connection between boredom and idleness is found in Schopenhauer. I raise questions about whether Schopenhauer mistakes our socialization for facts of nature. He’s certainly no advocate of the modern world, yet he doesn’t quite see the degree to which the experiences he describes are peculiar to that world.

A more difficult question is posed when looking at de Beauvoir’s notion of the idle woman. She compellingly outlines the circumstances which, in her time, encouraged women to invest little in developing skills and to dream instead of idleness. But the reality was often lives crushed by boredom since the group she describes had only really been encouraged to develop what would turn out to be an impaired ability to keep themselves occupied.

Bertrand Russell praised idleness and noted that human beings have forgotten how to play. Do you think the idea of play is close to what you mean by idleness?

Yes it is. I give quite a lot of space to exploring two major theories of how play might be considered as an alternative to the grueling processes of ceaseless industry and the discipline it imposes on us. I’m quite sympathetic to those theories—they belong to Schiller and Marcuse. Play means living without seriousness, with a readiness to respond rather than impose, an openness rather than a strictness about what one might do next. I do tease out some of the difficulties in the formulations of those theories while trying to keep their importance as sources of resistance to the anti-idlers firmly in view.

In reply to some of these questions “freedom” seems to be a significant feature of idleness. How does that sense of freedom compare with senses more familiar from moral and political theory?

At first it looks like idle freedom belongs to some space that’s beneath any kind of philosophical interest. That, at least, is what some of the philosophers I examine would like us to believe. I try to show that idle freedom—a positive experience of freedom from social expectation, and indifference to life plans and so on—may actually come closer to what we expect freedom to be than the very influential yet often philosophically artificial idea of autonomy. Too often autonomy—supposedly the highest freedom—has been tied to social participation under the conditions of the modern world. It also frankly endorses the idea that freedom can be a burden, but that’s just how it is. I hope some of the ideas I’ve conveyed in this Q&A will give you a sense of why those features of autonomy at least—core features—seem less defensible than the notion of idle freedom in terms of their respective appreciation of what ordinarily matters about freedom.

Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. He is the author of Adorno and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic.