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The virtue of idleness

It is a sad fact that from early childhood so many of us are tyrannised by the moral myth that it is right, proper and good to wake at the crack of dawn and immediately leap out of bed in order to set about some useful work as quickly and cheerfully as possible. Parents begin the brainwashing process and then school works yet harder to indoctrinate young people with the necessity of early rising.

The culture has its aphorisms and sayings, and well-meaning parents, teachers and guardians are quick to use them to prick the conscience of the idle:

“The early bird catches the worm.” (Anonymous)

"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," (Benjamin Franklin, 1757)

“The Devil will find work for idle hands to do.”

The propaganda against oversleeping goes back a very long way, more than 2,000 years, to the Bible. In the Old Testament ( Proverbs, chapter 6) we read:

“Go to the ant, you slothful people; consider her ways, and become wise: though having no guide, overseer, or ruler, she provides her meat in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest."

(Question: was it really a good idea to hold up the ant as an example of how to live? The ant system is an exploitative aristocracy based on the unthinking toil of millions of workers and the complete inactivity of a single queen and a handful of drones.)

A famous Christian preacher, John Wesley, who himself rose every morning at 4am, was fond of preaching the dignity of labour. In 1786 he wrote a sermon called “The Duty And Advantage of Early Rising” in which he claimed that lying in bed was physically unhealthy, comically using quasi-scientific terms to drive home his argument: "By soaking so long between warm sheets, the flesh becomes soft and flabby, and the nerves, in the meantime, become less taut."

One well-known literary figure from 18th century London, Dr Johnson, repeatedly criticised himself for his lazy ways. In his diary at the age of 29 he wrote, “O Lord, save me from sloth.” Twenty years later, things haven't improved, and he resolves "to rise early. Not later than six if I can." The following year, realising that he cannot rise at six, he makes a new resolution: "I propose to rise at eight because though this will not be early it will be much earlier than I now rise, for I often lie till two."

Although the moralising tradition is the one most popular with parents, teachers and preachers, there is a counter tradition which is keen to sing the praises of getting up late. Some have been quick to point out that God himself set a good example. In the book “Right To Be Lazy” Paul Lafargue reminds us that God, after working for six days, rests for all eternity.

There was no work in the garden of Eden. Work is a curse brought on by jealousy and material desire. It is the jealousy of Cain that leads God to decree that “You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” If work is a curse, how did it become a virtue? And if we feel we are beyond jealousy and a desire for ever more material things, why should we feel condemned to toil in this way?

For some, greatness and late rising are natural bedfellows. Late rising is for the independent of mind, the individual who refuses to become a slave to work, money, ambition. In his youth, the great poet of loafing, Walt Whitman, would arrive at the offices of the newspaper where he worked at around 11.30am, and leave at 12.30 for a two-hour lunch break. Another hour's work after lunch and then it was time to hit the town.

The lie-in - by which I mean lying in bed awake - is not a selfish indulgence but something essential to the art of living. As that famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes knew. Reclining in his smoking jacket, puffing his pipe, Holmes would sit and ponder for hours on a tricky case. In one superb story, The Man With The Twisted Lip, Holmes solves yet another case with ease. An incredulous policeman comments: "I wish I knew how you reach your results," to which Holmes replies: "I reached this one by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of tobacco."

Every child obliged to get up early for school every weekday knows the joy of idleness on those delightful days when they fall ill. You can lie in bed all day, avoid work and be looked after. What a different world from the everyday one of assemblies, lessons, tests and the threat of punishment. Suddenly everyone is very nice to you.

Idleness as a waste of time is a damaging notion put about by the enemies of the intellect. The idle are prone to think, and thinking could be dangerous. The English writer Will Self puts it like this: the Protestant work ethic which demands that people shouldn't be idle is really a taboo on thinking. Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a clear image of our fragmented and dissonant world.


This article is based on extracts from How To Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson, published by Hamish Hamilton.