The urge to be idle

by Emrys Westacott

Here is a hardy perennial: Are human beings naturally indolent? From sagacious students of human nature there is no shortage of opinions.

The fact that sloth was counted by the Catholic church as one of the seven deadly sins back in the 6th century suggests that it is, at the very least, a widespread trait that we all need to vigilantly oppose. Samuel Johnson, writing about the varieties of idleness in The Idler (where else?), considers it perhaps the most common vice of all, more widespread even than pride. “Every man,” he writes, “is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” According to Voltaire, “all men are born with [among other things] ….much taste for idleness.” Consequently, “the farm labourer and the worker need to be kept in a state of necessity in order to work.” And Adam Smith famously observes that “it is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can” (although “ease” here could perhaps be interpreted to mean comfortably rather than idly).

Some recent scientific research that analyses the way people walk, run, and move around is said to support the notion that an instinct for avoiding unnecessary effort runs deep. It’s presumably the same instinct that causes people to spend two minutes driving around a parking lot looking for a space that will reduce their walk to the store entrance by thirty seconds. To the impatient passenger, this habit can be most annoying. But it has a plausible evolutionary explanation. Finding enough food to survive by means of hunting and gathering can use up many calories, so we are naturally programmed to conserve energy whenever we can.

The anecdotal and introspective evidence is quite convincing as well. We all know the type who resolves to exercise more, buys new trainers and a gym membership, and then chooses to stay at home on the couch, burning a calorie or two a day looking for the TV remote. The person in question may even be disappointingly close to us. Which of us is unacquainted with the tussle between knowledge (“It’s good for you!”) and instinct “Don’t wanna!”)?

Even so, the proposition that all human beings are inherently lazy is implausible on the face of it. Workaholics are a familiar sight in the contemporary landscape. Of course, one may argue, as Johnson does, that busyness can be a kind of laziness, a way of filling the day with “petty business” in order to “keep the mind in a state of action, but not of labour”[1]–that is, to avoid tackling important matters, putting intentions into effect, cultivating one’s talents, and stretching one’s faculties. But this is clearly not always the case. Like the claim that all human actions are essentially egoistic, the proposition that we are all essentially lazy runs up against obvious counterexamples. And to insist that, in every case, behind the altruism lurks self-interest, and behind the workaholic hides a slacker, is to turn the claims into unfalsifiable dogmas.

A variation on the universal claim is the thesis that not all humans are inherently lazy, just certain racial types. Carl Linnaeus, for instance, the father of modern taxonomy, saw laziness as a characteristic trait of Africans. And European colonialists, from the seventeenth century on, made much of the contrast they perceived between European industriousness and aboriginal indolence–the main evidence for the latter being a marked reluctance on the part of enslaved, dominated, and exploited native populations to work themselves to death for the enrichment of their conquerors.

A further variation that was often heard during the same period concerned class differences. Here the contrast drawn was typically between decent, responsible, working people and the shiftless, indolent lower orders. Thus Daniel Defoe , in 1704, identifies sloth (along with luxury and pride) as a primary cause of poverty, and writes:

“there is a general Taint of Slothfulness upon our Poor….there is nothing more frequent than for an Englishman to Work till he has got his Pocket full of Money, and then go and be idle, or perhaps drunk, till ’tis all gone….”[2]

According to Defoe, the reason there are so many beggars is that there is too much charity. This ensures that beggars “can live so well with the pretence of wanting Work, they would be mad to leave it and Work in earnest.”

Complaints by the upper classes regarding the inherent laziness of the lower classes became especially loud following the industrial revolution as displaced peasants and artisans were forced unwillingly into factories and mills to toil for long hours in appalling conditions. And just as colonialist accounts of aboriginal laziness served to bolster the conqueror’s sense of superiority while ignoring the obvious reasons for people wanting to avoid enslavement and exploitation, so does lower class indolence as an explanation of poverty have the advantage that it doesn’t reflect badly on the rich who have, in fact, loaded into their coffers most of the nation’s wealth.

Updated versions of Defoe’s complaints about the “sturdy beggar”, like racist explanations of inequalities in wealth and income, are still with us, of course, peddled on a daily basis by right-wing media.

Another possibility that one encounters is that industriousness or indolence are characteristics of certain cultures. The cause needn’t be some intrinsic trait of the people but could lie elsewhere in such factors as climate, or religion, which establish a certain trajectory for a culture. The traits that emerge will then possibly be self-reinforcing. It is along these lines, for instance, that Northern European protestants have been known to view Southern European Catholics as less disciplined and hard-working. Max Weber lends support to this view in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and despite plenty of evidence to the contrary it remains alive and well. Only last year, the right-wing Dutch magazine Elsevier, opposing a rescue package being proposed by European governments to deal with the crisis produced by the covid pandemic, ran the headline “Not a cent more for Southern Europe,” and accompanied this with an illustration that quite crudely contrasts hard-working Aryans with leisured Latins.

That does not mean, though, that there is nothing to the idea that cultures (and sub-cultures) can differ in the way they view work and leisure. I think there obviously are such differences, and that these are best explained as the result of multiple geographical, historical, and circumstantial contingencies. The work ethic is not a fiction. Cultures do differ in the prevailing attitudes toward work, leisure, efficiency, productivity, pleasure, money, and time.

Within any culture, of course, there will be plenty of individual variation; and it would be surprising to find one that lacked any word that meant something like “slacker.” Still, the truth in the original proposition–that human beings are inherently lazy–is presumably that we are all naturally alert to finding less toilsome ways of doing things. Paradoxically, this kind of laziness can itself be a source of productivity, a point made by that embodiment of the work ethic, Ben Franklin, who said about himself, “I am the laziest man in the world. I invented all those things to save myself from toil.” The novelist Robert Heinlein makes a similar point. “Progress isn’t made by early risers,” he writes. “It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”

Happily for these work-averse inventor types, our innate lazy streak means that there is a vast market for labour-saving devices. Many of these one can only be grateful for: think washing machines. Many we could live without quite happily……until we get used to using them, and then we can’t: think TV-remote; electronic car window winders. And some are just hilarious: a self-stirring coffee mug; a gadget for slicing bananas; a motorized ice cream holder which rotates the cone so all you have to do is stick out your tongue.

The constant development and consumption of labour-saving machines for both commercial and personal use, presents a further, more profound paradox. On the one hand, we welcome them. We like the cheaper commodities that result from workplace automation; and through our buying habits we encourage the production of gadgets and devices that further reduce the calories we have to expend in the course of the day. Think leaf blowers, automatic garage door openers, bread makers, electric staplers, voice-controlled sound systems…… On the other hand, decreased drudgery and inconvenience can also bring with it a vague sense of being further distanced from the world, a feeling of being unhealthily insulated from life, a concern that increased physical comfort is accompanied by, for want of a better term, increased alienation.

This is the central theme of Kurt Vonnegurt’s brilliant first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. It describes an America in which machines do most of the work that was previously done by human beings. The result is that society is divided into an elite class of scientists, engineers, and managers, who run everything, and the great majority of working class people who no longer have anything useful to contribute since there is no longer any need for the kind of work they used to do. This majority live in moderate comfort; but they suffer from feeling useless.

In one scene, when a manager’s car breaks down, a former worker correctly diagnoses the problem and ingeniously improvises an 0n-the-spot repair, exhibiting the sort of practical know-how that the manager utterly lacks and which the worker would desperately love to exercise once again–but for which there is no longer any demand. In another scene, a visitor from a less developed country is shown how an ordinary American house is full of appliances that do all the necessary household chores in a matter of seconds. When he asks the woman of the house what she does with herself, she replies, disconsolately, that she watches television.

Vonnegurt’s novel explores how the impulse to eliminate work, driven by the notion that work is drudgery and leisure is pleasant, threatens to leave people living lives that are more leisured but lacking in meaning and purpose. This problem arises both for individuals at home, no longer doing chores that may have brought satisfaction and been the occasion for fellowship, and also for society as a whole. The most poignantly ironic scne in Player Piano comes at the end. After a failed rebellion, the people start to enthusiastically mend machines that have been broken, enjoying the opportunity to do something useful for a change, even though what they are doing is to reconstruct precisely the order that gave rise to the insurrection. The need to feel useful and the drive to minimize the expenditure of effort resume their struggle.

[1] Samuel Johnson, On Idleness, The Idler, No. 31, Nov. 18, 1758.

[2] Daniel Defoe, Giving Alms no Charity, and Employing the Poor A Grievance to the Nation