The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment

September 22, 2011

I had so much to do last weekend. Apart from the usual domestic chores, there was my next book to work on, a conference paper to complete, and new lectures to think about. And there was this review to write. Not a moment to spare. Never mind: work is good for you. Or at least that, according to Pierre Saint-Amand, is what we have been told since the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Industry, labour, energy and utility were the Enlightenment's watchwords, and there was to be no room for indolence and idleness, no place for the beggar or leisured aristocrat in the progressive (and disciplined) world of the philosophes.

Immanuel Kant, it seems, regarded laziness as the most despicable of all vices and as being antithetical to a life of moral autonomy. It was a form of cowardice. Diderot's Encyclopédie spoke of "the despair of wasted time". Others simply saw idleness as a disease leading to depression, madness and decadent effeminacy.

This intriguing little book, therefore, is billed as "an invitation to examine the flip side" of the laborious 18th century.

It self-consciously does not set out to offer a history of idleness (too much work involved, presumably). Rather it provides a number of fragmentary portraits of Homo otiosus. Each is designed to show idleness in a positive light and each illustrates a contestation of the call to work and functionality.

The result is never less than insightful and unfamiliar.

Who then are Saint-Amand's idlers? The sketch writer Pierre Carlet de Marivaux; the painter of soap bubbles, Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin; the solitary walker of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Rêveries; the reprobate figure of Rameau described by Diderot; and, finally, the little-known (and very unproductive) Joseph Joubert.

Taken as a group, they displayed a spirit of levity. Each was liberated from the constraints of time - witness Rousseau's famous gesture of getting rid of his watch - and saw the suspension from work as a moment of creation. They lived randomly, embraced the ephemeral, scorned nothing that was amusing, savoured the surprises of the fleeting moment, and rejoiced in the contingent and the undisciplined. None was methodical, preferring what was minimal, unfinished, scribbled, and all scorned the system builders and disdained piling up idea upon idea in big weighty volumes.

There was, however, more to this posture than a life of idle amusement. For Saint-Amand, the heroes of his book are figures of resistance. In their non-productivity, they provide a glimpse of a new ethics of freedom that runs counter to the demands of the bourgeois capitalist order.

He ends therefore with a description of moderation in the form of the French revolutionary, Georges-Jacques Danton. It was laziness, Saint-Amand argues, that set Danton against Robespierre and the tide of Jacobin Terror. His thunder was tempered by indulgence: his desire for repose derided the mechanical efficiency of the revolution and the guillotine. Politics and laziness, Saint-Amand concludes, are incompatible.

It is hard not to be seduced by this argument. I broke off writing this review and went for a leisurely walk in the afternoon sunshine. There, quite by chance, I came across two ornate coal-fired barges on the Regent's Canal, each floating lightly and silently through the still water. I had never seen anything like them before. It was a moment of extraordinary beauty.

But I paused only for a few brief seconds. The next book clamouring for my attention is Jonathan Israel's Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution and Human Rights 1750-1790. At more than 1,000 pages, it's a real doorstopper.

So much to do, and not a moment to spare.

The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment

By Pierre Saint-Amand. Princeton University Press. 176pp, £29.95. ISBN 97806911491. Published 22 July 2011

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