Wednesday, July 22, 2009


The Idler on Idleness

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, No. 31 (Saturday, November 18, 1758):
Many moralists have remarked, that Pride has of all human vices the widest dominion, appears in the greatest multiplicity of forms, and lies hid under the greatest variety of disguises; of disguises, which, like the moon's veil of brightness, are both its lustre and its shade, and betray it to others, tho' they hide it from ourselves.

It is not my intention to degrade Pride from this pre-eminence of mischief; yet I know not whether Idleness may not maintain a very doubtful and obstinate competition.

There are some that profess Idleness in its full dignity, who call themselves the Idle, as Busiris in the play calls himself the Proud; who boast that they do nothing, and thank their stars that they have nothing to do; who sleep every night till they can sleep no longer, and rise only that exercise may enable them to sleep again; who prolong the reign of darkness by double curtains, and never see the sun but to tell him how they hate his beams; whose whole labour is to vary the posture of indolence, and whose day differs from their night but as a couch or chair differs from a bed.

These are the true and open votaries of Idleness, for whom she weaves the garlands of poppies, and into whose cup she pours the waters of oblivion; who exist in a state of unruffled stupidity, forgetting and forgotten; who have long ceased to live, and at whose death the survivors can only say, that they have ceased to breathe.

But Idleness predominates in many lives where it is not suspected; for, being a vice which terminates in itself, it may be enjoyed without injury to others; and it is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property; or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another's inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore nobody is busy to censure or detect it.

As Pride sometimes is hid under humility, Idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry. He that neglects his known duty and real employment, naturally endeavours to crowd his mind with something that may bar out the remembrance of his own folly, and does any thing but what he ought to do with eager diligence, that he may keep himself in his own favour.

Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials, and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of Idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought. I was once told by a great master, that no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours.

There are others to whom Idleness dictates another expedient, by which life may be passed unprofitably away without the tediousness of many vacant hours. The art is, to fill the day with petty business, to have always something in hand which may raise curiosity, but not solicitude, and keep the mind in a state of action, but not of labour.
The third paragraph, with the phrase "never see the sun but to tell him how they hate his beams," reminds me of the tribe of daylight-shunners, as described, for example, by Seneca Rhetor, Controversiae 3.1:
So it happens, where men spend the greater part of their life in darkness, that they end up disliking the sun, as something superfluous.

sic fit, ubi homines maiorem vitae partem in tenebris agunt, ut novissime solem quasi supervacuum fastidiant.
See:Chapter 5 (pp. 153-177) of Sarah Jordan, The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2003) is entitled "Driving on the System of Life": Samuel Johnson and Idleness.

Pieter van der Heyden, Desidia (Sloth), after Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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