In Praise of Idleness : And Other Essays, Paperback

In Praise of Idleness : And Other Essays Paperback

Part of the Routledge Classics series

3 out of 5 (2 ratings)


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.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 200 pages, black & white illustrations
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: History of Western philosophy
  • ISBN: 9780415325066



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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 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.

Review by

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 in need in this era of global "war on terror"!) The wit and clarity of Russell's writing shine troughout. Definitely a worthwhile reading.

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