On the Nature of Incessant Business

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

Henry David Thoreau ‘Life Without Principle’


Thoreau asks us to ‘consider the way in which we spend our lives’, and goes on to describe our world as ‘a place of business’ – meaning a place of work, bustle, enterprise and industry… He does not suggest that there is anything inherently ‘bad’ about industriousness, but depicts its relentlessness as an unhealthy obsession.

Thoreau postulates that ‘that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business’. He argues that we should place less importance on work and realise the value of leisure, of ‘idleness’. We should evaluate why we work, what we work for, and solve our unhappiness by establishing a healthy balance between work and leisure.


Naturally, this is easier said than done. Bertrand Russell also explores this line of thinking in his essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’. He argues that ‘there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached’.

Russell identifies the desire for efficiency as a destructive attribute: ‘There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake’. His ideal scenario is that we should work astutely for four hours of each day. This amount of work ought to be sufficient to support our lives monetarily, and allow for ‘idle’ time in which to pursue creative impulses and to socialise. If we could attain this ideal we would achieve ‘happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia’.


The concept of idleness as a positive attribute rather than an undesirable, or even evil, one, continues to be explored and discussed by writers and thinkers today. One such writer is Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and author of ‘How to Be Idle’, in which he concludes that ‘The art of living is the art of bringing dreams and reality together’.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Bertrand Russell, and invitation to comment and discuss below…

Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever. Bertrand Russell, ‘In Praise of Idleness’

Originally written for and published on Earth Books.net and can be found here.


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