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. Read more »