Why it’s time to quit being good
A great deal of harm is being done these days by a sinister program to promote putative virtues among the young and innocent. Popular books like Golden Rules: The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children by business writer Wayne Dosick and William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues for Young People argue that society’s ills can be cured by brainwashing—excuse me—teaching the “moral sciences” to children. The real agenda behind this campaign, it seems to me, is to control people and limit their freedom.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some paranoid libertarian. What troubles me is how completely lacking in fun this short-sighted and spiritually empty project is. This irritating man Bennett, for instance, writes that “the kind and number of friends you have will depend on your own virtues.” In other words, You’d better follow these rules, kid, or no one will like you—except losers. By trumpeting “reputation” as the first reason for being virtuous, Bennett engages in moral blackmail and drains the virtuous life of any transcendent purpose. His idea of schooling young people in the so-called virtues takes away self-responsibility and reduces them to mouselike, resentful underachievers.
This sort of thing isn’t new, of course. Benjamin Franklin—the well-known work-obsessed lunatic who coined the guilt-inducing rhyme “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” —is credited with making modern capitalism possible. And in England the Victorian writer Samuel Smiles’ best-seller Self-Help encouraged weary proletarians to think it was their duty to God to work 12 hours a day in the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution. Someone needs to hold the line against this insidious tendency.
That’s why we launched The Idler magazine in August 1993: to return dignity to the art of doing nothing. Idlers persistently question the status quo and the misguided notion that hard work is holy. We are heirs to a tradition that includes such vaunted layabouts as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Louis Stevenson—all of whom lived to loaf and loafed to live.
Here, then, is an idler’s guide to the seven deadly virtues.
1. SO-CALLED VIRTUE: VIGILANCE
Vigilance is but one step away from paranoia. Vigilant people notice that you’ve taken an extra 10 minutes for lunch and report you to the boss. Vigilant people sniff marijuana in your backyard and call the authorities. Since they have no life of their own, they delight in ruining the lives of others.
IDLER’S VIRTUE: LAXITY
Blaise Pascal, the great 17th century French writer, was of the opinion that the only reason people ever do anything is to avoid thinking—and thus avoid facing up to the human condition, which is characterized by “inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.” Lying around in a state of inertia and letting the world take its course is, therefore, usually a far more appropriate response to the pressures of the world than—God forbid—trying to do something about it. For many artists and writers, the creative act is a way of avoiding getting out of bed in the morning or, worse, holding down a job. The great idler Samuel Johnson, for instance, rarely rose before midday, and Mark Twain did most of his best writing in bed.
2. SO-CALLED VIRTUE: SILENCE
“Silence is golden,” goes the old saying. Personally, I’ve never understood what that meant. But I do know that people who sit quietly in the corner are unlikely to get what they want. Encouraging children to be silent is to deny them their true nature. How many times have you read that a convicted serial killer was “such a quiet boy”?
IDLER’S VIRTUE: GOOD CHEER
When they’re not sleeping, idlers love to shout, sing, laugh heartily, and raise hell. They would rather crank up the Bad Brains than sit around the family dinner table listening to cutlery chinking against crockery. Noise is communal and joyful, a release from everyday struggle. Anti-noise measures are another form of government control, as we in England discovered recently when the authorities cracked down on rave culture.
3. SO-CALLED VIRTUE: ORDER
The abominable lust for order serves only to make the majority of the human race—which has no such obsession—feel guilty. The orderly type in the office is always organizing meetings but never comes up with any new ideas. Her desk is an acre of white space, her files pristine shrines. We need to have these sorts around, I guess, but do you really want to be one of them? And here’s the most maddening part: Even though they’ve failed to make the world any more rational, they’re so well organized that they can maneuver themselves into positions of power, from which they can order the rest of us around.
IDLER’S VIRTUE: CHAOS
Science has recently demonstrated that the fundamental organizing principle of the universe is chaos. This is not news to the idling set. We have always recognized that embracing chaos is the best route to a fulfilling life. A cluttered desk is the sign of a truly liberated mind.
4. SO-CALLED VIRTUE : CONSISTENCY
In a world that reinvents itself every nanosecond, it’s damn near impossible to be consistent. People who advertise themselves as such, particularly moralistic politicians, are invariably hoisted by their own petards when their secret vices are exposed.
IDLER’S VIRTUE: INCONSISTENCY
Inconsistency frees the mind. You don’t, for example, have to be stuck with some nasty remark you made while you were drunk over the weekend. Inconsistency means being able to say you’re sorry, and mean it. As Aldous Huxley puts it, “The only completely consistent people are the dead.”
5. SO-CALLED VIRTUE: RESOLUTION
A life spent being resolute can only lead to feelings of deep frustration and guilt. Resolute types have let their intellect rule their emotions and their spirit. They stick with dumb projects even when it’s clear that they’re causing more harm than good. Anti-abortion activists and military leaders definitely fit in this category.
IDLER’S VIRTUE : PROCRASTINATION
Historian J.B. Priestley said it best when he wrote, “If, in July of 1914, everybody had been smitten with an intense desire to do nothing, just to hang about in the sunshine and consume tobacco, then we all should have been much better off than we are now.”
6. SO-CALLED VIRTUE: MODERATION
Being told to be moderate when the media celebrates excess—in war, big business, politics, and other pursuits—is a tall order. Excessive behavior is often the only way to wind down in a society that expects us to hurl ourselves unthinkingly into our work. We drink to forget.
IDLER’S VIRTUE: EXCESS
William Blake’s favored aphorism “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” is the idler’s anthem. Excess is an expression of individuality, a fitting response to those who would limit our appetites in the name of self-improvement. The body has its own way of punishing us for overdoing it. We don’t need the virtue elite to do that job for us.
7. SO-CALLED VIRTUE: INDUSTRY
This is probably the most misleading of all the so-called virtues. Hard work, we are told, will bring peace and prosperity. Put the hours in, and you will be rewarded. Wrong. The only thing that “putting in the hours” leads to is a lifetime of underpaid servitude and, if you’re lucky, five stars on your McDonald’s uniform. (Nietzsche wrote that “living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretense and overreaching and anticipating others.”) Industrious people are the ones who would rather sit at their desk doing nothing all day than take the afternoon off. You know who I’m talking about.
IDLER’S VIRTUE: IDLENESS
Endorsed by everyone from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi, this is the greatest and most holy of the vices. Idleness means having the courage to do what you want to do. Although idlers are opposed to industriousness as a moral precept, they are in fact capable of hard work when the mood strikes. They simply insist on controlling their own time, rather than giving in to the powers that be and becoming their plaything.
I’ll leave the last word on the subject of vices and virtues to the ancient Taoist wisdom of Chuang Tzu, who counsels: “Rest in the position of doing nothing, and things will take care of themselves. Relax your body, spit out your intelligence, forget about principles and things. Cast yourself into the ocean of existence, unshackle your mind, free your spirit.” In other words, the only person who makes the rules is you.
Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler, England’s leading anti-work magazine, and a member of the development department at the Manchester Guardian. His book The Idler’s Companion (Fourth Estate), an anthology of lazy literature, was released in October 1997.