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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Laziness

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; a track like Van Morrison’s 1976 hit Cleaning Windows is the odd one out.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

Some philosophers have been brutally honest. Hannah Arendt (1906-73) was one of them. “I know my own laziness”, she confessed in a famous interview with the German television presenter Günter Gaus in 1964. Many of her colleagues would have been embarrassed to admit this.

“Laziness is the mother of all evil”, Solon (the founder of ancient Athenian democracy) is said to have claimed. This has always been a popular view among moralists, not least men of the cloth. Bishop George Berkeley was an able (and we must assume hard-working) philosopher, who believed that “the Lord conceal(s) Himself from the eyes of … the lazy” (A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, p.151).

Laziness, or ‘sloth’ according to Thomas Aquinas is a sin of omission. He concluded, “it is evil … on two counts, both in itself and in point of its effect” (Summa Theologiae, 2.2). It is always interesting when different cultures reach the same conclusions independently. The Catholic friar was close to thinking the same as the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–c.479 BCE), who said that, “Studying without thinking leads to confusion, thinking without studying leads to laziness.”

Bertrand Russell did not write much about Eastern philosophy, but he delighted in being in opposition to Christian thinkers. He famously wrote a book in tribute to the ‘vice’ of idleness, and in it told the following story:

“Everyone knows the story of the traveller in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (It was before Mussolini), and offered a lire to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveller was on the right lines… I hope that after reading the following pages, the leaders of the Y.M.C.A. will start a campaign to induce good young men [and presumably women and others too] to do nothing”
(In Praise of Idleness, 1935, pp.9-10).

Why? Because, according to Russell, “leisure is essential to civilisation” (Idleness, p.15). This was also the view among the ancient Greeks, for, as Aristotle wrote, “leisure seems itself to contain pleasure and happiness and felicity of life. And this is not possessed by the busy but by the leisured” (Politics 1328a).

The German Romantic writer Friedrich von Schlegel is often quoted as saying, “Laziness is the one divine fragment of a godlike existence left to man from paradise.” Whether he actually said this is questionable, but the sentiment was not foreign to other philosophers. Michel de Montaigne – who was busy writing one of the longest books in the canon of Western thought – nevertheless believed that “the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in complete idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself” (Essays, p.31). I take the hint. I’ll stop now.

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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