Do you sometimes have sweet dreams of doing nothing at all? Of lounging lazily in the sunshine, of never working again, of eternal idleness? The summer is really the best time for this - after all, the hottest months of the year are predestined for holidays and laziness. Still, it isn’t easy to do nothing at all, since work now determines a person’s worth and social status. Those who don’t work will soon find themselves on the fringes of society, unless they belong to the category of “rich heir” or “brilliant artist”. The devil finds work for idle hands, so the saying goes, and this means that being lazy can only be really justified on holiday or after the workday ends.
It was not always like this, however. From a cultural history perspective, the meaning of idleness has changed significantly over the past centuries. During antiquity, leisure was associated with freedom; idleness was seen as the optimal lifestyle and a path to knowledge. "Work and virtue are mutually exclusive", Aristotle postulated, while letting slaves carry out the physical work.
One of the most fascinating idle characters in world history also lived in antiquity - namely Diogenes of Sinope, a cultural critic and "dog" (in his own words). Lying in a barrel, he preached easy living, opposed societal conventions and, by demonstratively doing nothing, mocked his restless contemporaries who were striving for ever more luxury. According to Diogenes, true happiness cannot be found in prosperity - only if a person’s soul is calm and cheerful can he really be satisfied. His words to Alexander the Great, "Stand out of my light", were legendary - they were actually a brazen insult from the philosopher to the monarch when the latter asked him about his wishes. However, Alexander immediately forgave the philosopher. Apparently the emperor even said: "But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes." That was his way of bowing before the idler.
Until the late Middle Ages, the contemplative state of doing nothing was considered a privilege that not many could afford, but one that was also a completely accepted and even respected way to pass the time. Of course "doing nothing" is a state that can be seen in a variety of ways: although the nobility was not working according to today’s strict sense of the word, its members were engaged in social affairs and culture. Many people in the upper classes were idle, but that did not make them deadbeats. During the Reformation, the positive attitude towards idleness changed: man is born to work, Luther said, like a bird is to fly - only those who work can be sure of being in God’s good graces. This turns work into a Christian and moral duty, while laziness and idleness become "the root of all evil".
Work as an agony and nuisance, yet pleasing to God - this idea is not just part of the Christian mindset. Even Greek and Roman myths describe the fall of the human race from the golden age into a laborious existence full of torment (which also includes work).
Everything must have been so nice in the beginning: in fabulous Arcadia - at least according to legend - it was still possible to enjoy a carefree existence. Although the Arcadian shepherds were busy, their work was carried out easily. They completed their tasks slowly when they felt like it and still had enough time and leisure to sing their songs and lament about lost loves. In other words, they enjoyed that after hours feeling all day long. But this state of pure bliss did not last forever: the golden age is followed by a silver one, a brass and finally iron one - as ever more evil and suffering come into the world. To punish Prometheus’s unauthorised theft of the divine flame, Zeus, the quick-tempered god, finally sends Pandora down to earth - and one of the things that escapes from her famous box is labour. From then on humans had to provide food and make their living from the earth "by the sweat of their brows", accepting the yoke of labour to avoid angering the gods.
Whether labour came from Pandora’s box or not - by the late Middle Ages, it finally becomes a duty, and slowly but surely people lose the habit of idleness. The only place where one never toils is the land of milk and honey. There is good reason why folk tales from the late Middle Ages recount lush fantasies of a place where milk and honey flow freely and the scent of roasted meat drifts through the air. Pleasure reigns in this inverted world, there is excess and exuberance, and it is probably the only place - even if it is utopian - where doing nothing is rewarded and industriousness is punished.
By the 19th century, labour occupies a crucial position in western society. In the industrial age, the everyday work that was once seen as a necessary evil assumes the highest social and moral value that determines an individual’s place in the community. This certainly has rational and economic reasons as well: the capitalist economy focused on maximisation, which strives to produce as much as possible, can only function if the entire work force is mobilised.
As a result of these "Protestant" morals, the culture starts being dominated by a strict work ethic and a shared sense of duty: humans are morally obligated to be active. At the same time, the respect for an idle lifestyle rapidly disappears: Those who were not working aroused suspicion, since they refused to contribute to the betterment of society. From now on, doing nothing was equated with a refusal to apply oneself, which was no longer socially acceptable.
The more industrialisation progressed, the more heavily forms of work were rationalised and regulated. The strict, Taylorist definition of production steps and processes was accompanied by a clear delineation of work hours. From that point on, people’s lives were rigidly divided into work and "time off". Idleness was justifiable only during the time in which one wasn’t engaged in one’s occupation - in fact, now it was actually desirable to spend one’s time off doing nothing, since it helped store up energy for the next workday. Doing nothing is legitimate as soon as it becomes a recuperation from work.
However, hardly anyone can afford to really recuperate from work. There is good reason why the German term "Urlaub" (holiday) has its etymological roots in the Old German "urloup", which simply means "permission". This permission to take a holiday was very rare in 19th century factories: employees worked an average of fifteen hours per day and had hardly any days off. Only the clerks fared better. They were the only group to be privileged with holidays lasting several weeks, since they performed "mental" work. It was not until the early 20th century that unions were able to introduce a few legally required days off each year for labourers - and only in the 1970s, thanks to increasing mobilisation and a higher standard of living, do holidays appear as a mass phenomenon.
Even if people of leisure have it a bit harder now in real life - they still enjoy their place in the sun when it comes to many literary and/or philosophical thought experiments.
In his early writings, even Karl Marx was dreaming of a society where all classes were freed from work and everyone could do as they pleased, fishing in the afternoon, tending to livestock in the evenings, and philosophising now and then. Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, a Cuban physician and one of the first communists, offered an especially appealing Marxist defence of idleness. In his pamphlet "The Right to be Lazy" (1883), Lafargue complains that work has turned into a religion - hardly anyone could escape the lunatic addiction to labour. According to Lafargue, however, work should not be obligatory; instead it should only be required so as to "spice up the joy of laziness" and be minimised as much as possible. Lafargue’s suggestion: work about three hours per day and dedicate the rest of the day to developing your personality.
These ideas aren’t bad, but socialism as it was actually put into practice quickly dismissed these hedonistic thought experiments as "romantic utopias". In the Soviet Union, Lafargue’s text was accused of being heretical as well as bourgeois, and it was prohibited.
The undisputed king of shirker can be found in literature: Oblomov, the hero of Ivan Goncharov’s novel of the same title, spends day after day in his bed, his soft and plump body enveloped by his beloved oriental robe. Although the young estate owner sometimes torments himself by thinking of the work that he absolutely has to get done, and he often comes close to getting up - he actually just continues to lie there and be waited upon by his cranky, no less lazy servant. On the surface, this novel is a satirical criticism of the non-working Russian noble class. "Oblomovism", a word that originated with literary critics’ engagement with the book, even became a synonym for deep-seated apathy and laziness. Lenin considered Oblomovism symptomatic for the Russian population and a formidable obstacle on the path to true socialism - only if the "inner Oblomov" could be eliminated would the revolution be able to succeed.
Nonetheless, the idle Oblomov is not a purely negative character. Over the course of the narrative, a variety of constantly working representatives of "active" society visit the sleepy estate owner to lure him away from the comfortable folds of his robe, but they are unable to really convince the protagonist or reader of the need to get up. Oblomov continues to be likeable, even if he is lazy and sluggish - his pure soul is also free of the corruption, financial greed and depravity of the "real world".
Even if it is sometimes hard, work is not always the equivalent of torment or expending great effort, of course. The humanists already distinguished between senseless, monotonous activity and creativity that can lead individuals to realise their true selves. Marx also thought it was the ability of humans to perform deliberate and creative work that distinguished their true character.
This creative activity does not always take place behind a workbench or desk - many artists are most absorbed by their work when it seems from the outside as if they are doing "absolutely nothing". Beethoven reputedly composed in his head during walks, and every fan of Sherlock Holmes knows that the detective can solve his mysteries best while lost in thought in front of his own fireplace. Descartes is one thinker who proves that physical laziness does not necessarily equal mental sloth. During his studies at the Jesuit monastery, the young man was unable to get out of bed in the mornings. After the monks had repeatedly tried to rouse him with buckets of cold water (to no avail), they bowed to the obvious genius and allowed him the privilege of rising late.
The 20th century in particular has seen a great amount of criticism regarding the superiority of work in society. Bertrand Russell’s text "In praise of idleness", in which he demands an organised limitation of work for everyone, is famous. After all, the march of progress has now make it possible even for individuals outside of a small social class to enjoy leisure and time off. Another proponent of idleness is Tom Hodgkinson, whose magazine "The Idler" enjoys a cult status in Great Britain. In his books, Hodgkinson - who lives with his family on a small farm near London - explains the art of idleness. Even simple activities such as an extended lunch, a comfortable stroll in the afternoons or the boycott of coffee to go (one of the great evils of our time, according to Hodgkinson) can considerably improve the quality of life.
Although we sometimes long for having absolutely "nothing" that we must get done, an active, busy life in which quiet phases alternate with tense ones seems to be a basic element of happiness. What would be nice about having to turn off the alarm if you didn’t have to be anywhere? It is an anarchistic pleasure, on the other hand, to switch off the evil, noisy device and continue to doze when one should actually be in the office already... Doing nothing is no fun when there is actually nothing to do - the temptation of laziness is to recuperate from work.
Hodgkinson also appreciates idleness, but certainly does not promote laziness. Instead he wants people to learn how to make do with less, that (one’s own) production eliminates excessive consumption, that life slows down again and becomes less dependent on governmental, bourgeois and conservative structures.
Work in itself should not be eliminated, even if Hodgkinson argues that it should be reduced to its minimum. Those who have the opportunity to do so should do the types of jobs and work that makes them happiest - because if you do something you love, the boundary between work and time off will disappear on its own. And there will still be more than enough time to be idle.