BA English – In praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

In praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

Comprehension questions:

1. What was the saying that the author was brought up on? What was its effect on him?

Ans: It was a practice in those days to implore youngsters to eschew indolence by citing the saying: ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’ It meant that children who chose to be idle developed a propensity for mischief. The caution inculcated a love for hard work in the author quite early in his life. The habit remained with him till late in his life.

2. What is the anecdote the author draws in the story? Why do you think he does that?

Ans: The anecdote sys how 12 beggars in Naples were lying lazy n the Mediterranean sunshine when the visitor saw them. He offered a lira to the one who was the laziest among them. Seeing this, eleven of his friends sprang to their feet to claim the amount. The visitor noticed that the twelfth beggar was too lazy to get up. So, he gave a lira to him as reward for his lazy habit.

3. What according to you is the basic argument of the essay?

Ans: The basic argument that the author advances in the essay is that the world is an hyperactive place where humans do much more work than what is necessary. Bereft of the frenzy and the hustle and bustle of our everyday life, the world will be a better place to live.  

4. What is the author’s opinion about people’s economical habits?

Ans: A working person spends part of his earning and in the process helps to provide bread to others who receive the money. A person who saves his entire income does not do anyone any good. Such money becomes stagnant and does not help to generate employment.

5. What does the author say about investing money in industrial enterprises?

Ans: Investing in industrial enterprises is a good idea, but it must be done with due diligence. Investing in companies who fail to market their products obviously will lead to their collapse and wiping out of the investor’s money. Similar risk is there while investing in infrastructure companies that are executed with no proper demand survey. Such companies are doomed from the very beginning, and investing in them would be a foolish idea.

6. How does the author define work?

Ans: Work involves changing he place of some mater on the surface of or somewhat inside the earth. Those who control these activities are also said to do work.

7. Who are the three classes of workers segregated by the author?

Ans: Work is of two or even three kinds. The first type entails, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid. The second type is not at all arduous as the first type. In fact, it’s pleasant and highly paid. This type of work can be stretched indefinitely. Only a small number of people may actually give orders, but a vast array of advisors could be there to give them advice, often of radically different kinds. The advisors of either group can be said to be of a particular political dispensation. This is politics. To be a good political worker, one need not be an expert in economics, or social science, or mathematics etc. All that is required is the ability to speak so well that the listeners are swayed to your side easily. In other words, it’s called ‘persuasive speaking’ or ‘advertising’.

The third type of work is the system of slavery where vast numbers of people work for the comfort and wellbeing of their single owner. The latter does little work, but enjoys the fruits of the work done by others.

8. Which is the third class of workers? Why is this class respected more?

Ans: These people are of the feudal class who live off the earnings of others. They can be rich people living in Europe and Russia and even in the East or even the slave owners who existed in America. . Using their power and authority, they can make the peasants part with lion’s share of their produce. With the wealth so garnered, they lead a luxurious and idle lie.

9. What according to the author is the source of the whole gospel of work?

Ans: The activity a person has to indulge in is intended to meet his needs. Others in power and position demand and secure a part of the fruit of other’s labour. Without doing work, existence of the individual becomes difficult. The gospel of workflows from this.

10. What is the system that persisted since the beginning of civilization which the author talks about? How does the author trace its evolution in different countries?

Ans: From the dawn of civilization, poor and powerless people were forced to work with their own hands with virtually no machine or labor-saving devices. Their family members contributed to the effort. With so much input, they could barely produce goods in quantities marginally in excess of their own consumption needs.  The warriors, priests, others in power took away the excess from the toiling classes who produced the goods. At times of crop failure or any such calamity, the poor falks received no mercy, and has to give away their paltry stock even if they had to eventually die of hunger.

In the United States, such forced labour took the form of slavery where black people had to work in hundreds and thousands in their owners’ farms. For their work, they got only their bare food needs and no money.

In Europe, the feudal class owned lands and hired peasants to cultivate them. The landlords took away major chunk of their produce. The landlords used idly and luxuriously at the cost of the peasants.

11. What according to the author is the origin of the concept of duty?

Ans: The king and the administrative apparatus had to be created and  maintained to give a shape to the ‘state’. All such arrangements cost money. The army, the bureaucracy and royalty, obviously, could not be expected to toil in the fields. It fell upon ordinary citizens to work in the fields to generate wealth so that the ‘state’ could be maintained. In due course of time, common folks felt it was there ‘duty’ to work for the state. The concept of ‘duty’ was born. 

12. What is the source of much of our economic confusion according to the essay?

Ans: In modern day economics, workers must ideally work in conditions where the quantity of items demanded by the market surpass marginally the quantity they produce in an eight-hour shift. This mismatch puts pressure on them to be more productive and willing to put in longer hours of work without complaining. When demand falls or excess capacity is created, the workers will be required to work lesser number of hours and devote the extra time to leisure. This is truly a welfare scenario which the society and the industrialists must willingly accept. However, it does not happen this way. When demand falls or excess capacity gets created, extra workers are thrown out of their jobs. They lose their source of livelihood.

We are not reconciled to give longer leisure hours to our workers. This is the tragedy of modern day economics that creates so much confusion.

13. What are the author’s insights about the ethics of work?

Ans: It is a fact that we all consume small parts of the various items like food, clothing, medicines etc. that we produce during the course of our lives through our labor. If we assume that doing work is not a very pleasant experience, we should logically produce only that much which we need for our own sustenance only. Some like the banker or the doctor can offer to provide services rather than do manual labour. He can claim items for his board and lodging in lieu of his services. To this extent, the duty of work must be admitted, but to this extent only.

14. What is the solution to the problem of unemployment that the author arrives at in his praise of idleness?

Ans: A possible solution to fight mass unemployment is to reduce the average shift time to just eight hours, and absorb more workers to fill up the slots so created. This idea will, of course, be met with stiff opposition from ‘workaholics’ who work far beyond the normal hours and avoid spending time on leisure. We can side step their opposition by treating them as workaholics.

Allowing workers to have leisure time is a noble thing. With the progress of civilization, humans learnt how to use their free time for gainful and creative pursuits. The world became richer through their contributions. So, the world will gain by allowing workers to have more time for leisure. Thus, it can be argued that making people spend long hours in their jobs deprives them of their chance to donate the fruits of their creativity to the world. Keeping them tied to work is a form of deprivation. Thus, reducing the shift hours can reduce unemployment.

14. What is the solution to the problem of unemployment that the author arrives at in his praise of idleness? 

Ans: A possible solution to fight mass unemployment is to reduce the average shift time to just eight hours, and absorb more workers to fill up the slots so created. This idea will, of course, be met with stiff opposition from ‘workaholics’ who work far beyond the normal hours and avoid spending time on leisure. We can side step their opposition by treating them as workaholics. 

Allowing workers to have leisure time is a noble thing. With the progress of civilization, humans learnt how to use their free time for gainful and creative pursuits. The world became richer through their contributions. So, the world will gain by allowing workers to have more time for leisure. Thus, it can be argued that making people spend long hours in their jobs deprives them of their chance to donate the fruits of their creativity to the world. Keeping them tied to work is a form of deprivation. Thus, reducing the shift hours can reduce unemployment.

15. What according to the author came to be known as ‘Dialectic materialism’?

Ans : Russian communists adopted Karl Marx’s philosophy and practices in to to on coming to power. Although they did away with many of Russia’s old systems quite summarily, they retained the idea that manual work was honourable, and working hard without complaining was a virtue. Demanding adequate compensation was deemed to be disloyal and greedy practice. Absolute obedience to the authority was preached as a noble virtue, because they said the authority drew its power from the ‘Ruler of the Universe’. Such an idea was known as Dialectical Materialism’.

16. What is the parallel that the author draws between proletariat Russia and feminism?

Ans: Russian proletariat wanted to assuage the female population’s grievances against the male sax by saying that the women could give birth to a child that man couldn’t. Such power bestows on them some degree of saintliness. So even if they are physically inferior to the males, their saintliness made them equal with men. But, when it came to giving the females voting right, the Europeans sulked where as the Communists eagerly gave equal status to women. In this way, Russian proletariats differed from feminists elsewhere.

17. When according to the essayist is the virtue of ‘honest toil’ necessary and when does it become obsolete?

Ans: Ans: The feudal class in Europe needed people to toil in their fields and do many other types of manual labour to ensure comfort, affluence and prestige for the rich class. So, it suited them to encourage thinkers who sang the praise of the humble peasant, the ‘honest’ labour and the uncomplaining workers. These simple folks were made to believe that they would easily go to heaven because they have unwaveringly done physical work in the world. Thus, ‘manual work’ remained a virtuous trait. In Russia, however, the communist government needed willing workers in large numbers to do unpleasant works for the society and the government. This necessity to have an army of willing people to do manual work resulted in this practice being treated as a noble virtue.

18. How does ‘hard work’ affect production? What are the consequences?

Ans: ‘Hard work’ does increase production and, consequently, the wealth of the employer. However, it robs the worker of his essential spare hours to indulge in activities like further education, producing music and art pieces and discovering new philosophical ideas. Thus, working shifts of more than fiur hours will deprive the worker to enjoy his hobby, and in the process, producing something worthwhile for mankind. This, however, might lead to people spending their time wastefully, or engaging in worthless hobbies like fox haunting etc.

19. What is the recent plan arrived at by Russia to sacrifice present leisure to future productivity that the essayist talks about?

Ans: In Russia, economic justice is given paramount importance, and production is centrally controlled. In such a situation, the author suggests that the production machinery must drastically slow down as soon as the needs of the people in terms of goods and services are met. No over production should be allowed. This can be done by reducing the number of work hours per shift.  The popular opinion as to whether to produce still more or allow leisure to workers can be ascertained through a vote. But, when work is considered sacred, such an idea for leisure may not prove acceptable. Confronted with such a situation, the authorities might find continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity. I

20. What are the two reasons for overemphasis on hard work according to the essayist? What is the underlying irony in it?

Ans: In the feudal system that existed in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, the rich cleverly sang the praise of overwork, so that the poor folks under them worked very hard to produce goods and services for their comfort. In the Communist system, the mammoth production set up had to be run in full gear to produce national wealth. So, overwork was praised. Thus, communism and feudalism being the opposite of each other thought alike when the issue of overwork came up.

21. What according to the essayist is the real stance of a worker towards hard work?

Ans: The ordinary work naturally detests long hours of work, but seldom knows how to make use of leisure if made available to them. They tend to waste it through frivolous activities like drinking, gambling, haunting etc.

22. What is the imbalance of relation between production and consumption that the essayist critiques in the essay?

Ans: Most countries including those in the Communist bloc, feel tempted to produce far more goods and services, than is necessary to meet the needs of the citizens. Such an approach leads to overwork on the part of the workers, and robs them of utilizing their time in other pursuits. The author is opposed to such thinking because it amounts to exploitation of the workers, and forcing them to their right to leisure hours.

23. What is the one important suggestion that the author gives about spending one’s leisure? What does it tell you about his view about the present approach towards entertainment and recreation?

Ans: A person with leisure hours in hand must engage himself doing something that adds value to his life and that of others. He may indulge himself in scientific discoveries, literature, arts etc. Even playing games and sports does him great good. On the contrary, indulgence in drinks, gambling, etc. degrades his soul and life. These should be avoided.

24. What is the contribution of the leisure class that the essayist points at?

Ans: The feudal class and the royals who live off others’ toil, at times, prove to be great philosophers, thinkers and writers. They make immensely valuable contribution to mankind.

25. What is the gap between the academic milieu and people in general that the essay talks about?

Ans: People belonging to academic milieu seldom waste their time in indolence, and frivolity. They relentlessly think and work in the field of their interest. In contrast many among common folks choose to just idle away their time in pubs, or bars engaging in very immoral things. They waste their leisure and their lives.

26. Why does the essayist say that the academic institutions live within walls?

Ans: Academic institutions, the author feels, get too engrossed in serious study that leaves them with no mental space to worry about society’s other problems.

27. Write a note on the virtues of leisure that the author points out at the end of the essay.

Ans: When leisure hours are spent gainfully, life will become full, vibrant, and healthy, instead of degenerating and falling prey to mental and physical sicknesses. Life will be smooth and never be exhausted beyond the limits of tolerance.  Since people will never be too tired, their need for drinks, watching TV etc. will be much less. At least a small minority of people will plunge into activities that are lofty, and wholesome. Bereft of bread and butter worries, they can really create wonderful things in the fields of arts and science.  These people will tend to be compassionate, honest and principled. War will not enter the domain of the society. Modern methods of production have given made our life easier, and financially secured. The world will be a better place to live in.

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