Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Idle Hands

"Labors [are] valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good." - Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

Bertrand Russell was a brilliant man. If you can give this kind of writing your sustained attention, read the article linked above. His argument is insightful on a worldly level, but I wonder how much more robust and nuanced his view would be if he were committed to the Biblical assertion that man was created for royalty and not slavery. Russell divides work into two categories. The first is what the Bible calls toil: "altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter." I can attest that this is not what I feel I was made for, and yet it is often a necessary occupation of my life (though not nearly as much as my feudal ancestors'). On the other end of the spectrum, which Russell calls "the second kind," is the concept of lordship. This work is having dominion over lesser creatures with responsibility for their care. It is a kind of royalty. Adam's initial work was of this second kind, and part of the curse was his participation in the first.

Russell's intuition is that our praise of toil as a virtue is vestigial of a feudal mentality and ought to be abandoned in favor of a more civilized ethic. This is his argument: a) Idleness is more pleasurable than work. b) technology and philosophy are such now that hard work is less and less necessary for survival. c) therefore, we ought to reorganize our society so that we work less and play more.

Of course, his argument falls flat for me because of his a priori commitment to hedonism.  Unfortunately, if the chief end of man is merely to enjoy himself forever, then the system will always lean toward those with power, thus perpetuating the unsavory proportion of the few lords over the many workers. (Not to mention that I reject the hedonistic notion that all pleasure is qualitatively neutral and the only concern is to maximize its quantity and equity.) His intuition may be right, but his worldview is powerless to provide a sufficient argument to get him there.

If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then toil may be a necessary means to His glorious ends. One of these ends is that we might be transformed with ever increasing glory into His royal image, having become lords of all creation who will enjoy God's Sabbath rest forever. (See the New Testament, particularly 2 Corinthians and Hebrews). I fear for those who would repeat the Babel Heresy by attempting to circumvent God's means to arrive at a cheap substitution for His ends. For now, we ought both to work and rest with equal vigor, knowing that the Day is near.

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