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Tom Hodgkinson: 'Throw away that guilt-inducing clock'


The 18th century is generally seen as as a hard-working epoch, particularly the latter part of it, when the Industrial Revolution was born. This was the time when Victorian prosperity was forged in the smithy of the new work ethic. It was a time when the Protestant attitude finally triumphed over Popery and we were encouraged to abandon the contemplative life in favour of sweat, toil, consumption and social advancement. This was progress. You might say it was a triumph of Whiggery.

And this remains the dominant ethic today. Politicians, by nature, favour industry over contemplation. They tend to be utilitarian philistines. Chancellor Osborne, of the sixth-form triumvirate, recently said that he was "on the side of those who work hard and want to get on".

Well, a new book, The Pursuit of Laziness by French academic Pierre Saint-Amand, points out that in fact the 18th century was less frenetic than often thought, and saw its fair share of loafing philosophers. I read the translation, and it's written in a style that some Brits may view as a tad prétentiueux, the French seeming to love abstraction, paradox and generally confusing the reader with overlong sentences ending in a reference to Roland Barthes.

That aside, there is plenty here of interest to students of idleness in the 18th century. (And I know that there are many of you out there. Idleness in the 18th century is just so hot right now.) Rousseau emerges as one of the great loafers of all time. It was society, says Rousseau, that wrecked the old golden age of sweet indolence: "The extent to which man is naturally lazy is inconceivable," argues Jean-Jacques. "One would say that he lives only in order to sleep, to vegetate, to remain immobile… to do nothing is man's first and strongest passion after that of self-preservation."

Rousseau goes on to argue that even hard work has laziness as its goal: "[I]t is in order to achieve repose that each works; it is still laziness that makes us industrious." And Saint-Amand finds other avatars of idleness. There is Xavier de Maistre's book A Journey Around My Room of 1795, which calls on the lazy to unite: "Buck up, then; we're on our way... let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse." There is also the essayist Marivaux, who wrote a piece called "In Praise of Laziness and of the Lazy" in 1740. And Diderot is praised for his love of his dressing-gown and desire to live like one of the Cynical philosophers of Ancient Athens, dressed in rags and embracing philosophical poverty.

Saint-Amand, though, does not mention the pro-idleness writings that were coming out of the UK at this point. Dr Johnson argued, like Rousseau, that men are naturally lazy. "As peace is the end of war, so to be idle is the ultimate purpose of the busy," he wrote in 1758. The hedge-fund guy works for his leisure, aiming at early retirement, lots of holidays and shooting weekends. The postman works in order to go to the pub. We all feel a powerful will to idleness.

The will to idleness, though, is continually challenged by a will to work. Although Dr Johnson was a self-confessed idler, he also resolved to improve what he called his "refractory habits". It was his custom on New Year's Eve to make resolutions to rise early. By nature a slugabed, he would often lie in bed till 12 or later, and thought that if he resolved to get up at eight, he might actually get up at 10, and that would be an improvement.

My New Year's resolution always used to be to get up early. I then resolved to stop resolving, because my resolve would always crumble, and I would sink soon into my bad old sluggardly ways, only this time I would be full of remorse for having broken my resolution. My girlfriend encouraged me to throw away that guilt-inducing agent of the work ethic, the alarm clock, and demonstrated that you could train yourself to wake up in good time without it. For that I am eternally grateful.

The 18th century had its fierce proponents of the work ethic, to be sure. Like most governments, 18th-century France cracked down on the workshy. Idlers are painted as antisocial. "Society owes to all of its members subsistence or work," read a report from the Committee on Begging from 1790. "Whoever is able to work and refuses to do so is guilty of a crime against society and thus loses all right to subsistence."

But the philosophical reaction against such pronouncements did not lack force. As Saint-Amand concludes, the observations of Rousseau and the rest "embrace a project of slowing down while proclaiming a new order of liberties", and this is precisely what my own worldly bustlings hope to achieve.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'