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In Praise of Idleness

Jordan Bates, over at his consistently interesting site Refine the Mind, takes a close look at one of the great thinker Bertrand Russell's more provocative essays: In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the virtues of leisure.

As Russell asserts in his essay, leisure time is often tremendously productive, because our work is toward our own ends and interests. Unfortunately, we are convinced to work for others primarily by the construct of duty:

The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.

Bates summarizes Russell's thinking nicely, and asserts that his message is more timely than ever--especially considering the post-scarcity world we rapidly find ourselves moving into.

I find these kinds of arguments particularly compelling because I'm a musician, and making music is arguably one of the least useful and most important activities of human culture.

This contradiction fascinates me, and I have long been amused at the frequency with which musicians have to defend the importance and value of an activity utterly ubiquitous in human culture, and that nearly every human being I've ever met finds significant. Music should be self-evidently valuable, but to many, somehow, this obvious fact about human behavior--that musicing is central to our cultures and selves--is not evident.

This is also true about work. Many people simply deny the obvious importance and centrality of work to human activity. Human beings love to do stuff; we would prefer to do stuff we find interesting and valuable in some way, but even doing boring stuff is satisfying sometimes. This denial asserts that people only work, in any capacity, because they are compelled to by material need. The idea of, for instance, a universal basic income means that everyone will suddenly stop doing stuff and promptly park on their couches for a lifetime of Cheetos and reality TV consumption.

But a clear-eyed look at human behavior will put the lie to this perspective, this fear. My concern is that so much of our current human potential is being squandered on work that is meaningless, uninspired and uninspiring, and not of the worker's choosing in any way. Consider how much of your work each day is toward something you find valuable. How do you think this affects you? How does it affect your family, your community? Jordan's post (and Russell's essay) offer much food for thought.