Diligent Indolence

The English lexicographer and essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) presents some species of idleness (laziness, indolence). [My comments interspersed; all underlining and paragraphing mine.]

“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.

Unless the idleness sleepwalks its way into the sphere of bridge-building, levy-repairing, plumbing, electrical work, etc., then the consequences of this slothful slipshoddery will raise no small censure by those whom it affects. While there may be some instances of “harmlessly” terminating in itself, there are many times when the externalities of idleness  are inescapable. Those who are remiss, lazy, slack, or slothful in their work are brothers to a master of destruction (cf. Proverbs 18:9). In those cases of “harmless” self-termination the idler in isolation folds his arms together and consumes his own flesh.

The fool folds his hands together and eats his own flesh. Better [is] a hand filled [with] rest, than two fists [with] labor and striving [after] wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6).

More from Johnson:

“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 anything but what he ought to do with eager diligence that he may keep himself in his own favour.”

Let’s call his known duty and real employment, “x.” And let us label as “y,” anything but what he ought to be doing. “X” = Making sure necessary repairs are done on the house. “Y” = Planting raspberries and tinkering around with an old pickup truck (out of which some of the raspberries are growing).

“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 forever 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.”

To use the previous example of seeing that necessary repairs on the house are started and completed. This person would NEVER get started. Perhaps his “perfectionism” prevents him from locating the “perfect” tool or drawing up the best blueprint. Of course, this alleged “perfectionism” does not keep him from doing other things that he may find more agreeable (like growing raspberries, for instance).

“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. This art has for many years been practised by my old friend Sober with wonderful success. Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have however so much power that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest; and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself. Mr. Sober’s chief pleasure is conversation:

there is no end of his talk or his attention; to speak or to hear is equally pleasing; for he still fancies that he is teaching or learning something and is free for the time from his own reproaches.

But there is one time at night when he must go home that his friends may sleep; and another time in the morning when all the world agrees to shut out interruption. These are the moments of which poor Sober trembles at the thought. But the misery of these tiresome intervals he has many means of alleviating.

He has persuaded himself that the manual arts are undeservedly overlooked; he has observed in many trades the effects of close thought and just ratiocination. From speculation he proceeded to practice and supplied himself with the tools of a carpenter with which he mended his coal-box very successfully and which he still continues to employ as he finds occasion. He has attempted at other times the crafts of shoemaker, tinman, plumber, and potter; in all these arts he has failed and resolves to qualify himself for them by better information.

But his daily amusement is chemistry. He has a small furnace which he employs in distillation and which has long been the solace of his life. He draws oils and waters and essences and spirits which he knows to be of no use; sits and counts the drops as they come from his retort and forgets that, whilst a drop is falling, a moment flies away. Poor Sober! I have often teased him with reproof and he has often promised reformation; for no man is so much open to conviction as the Idler, but there is none on whom it operates so little. What will be the effect of this paper I know not; perhaps he will read it and laugh and light the fire in his furnace; but my hope is that he will quit his trifles and betake himself to rational and useful diligence” (Samuel Johnson, Essays).

Clearly strenuous activity, hard work, and much labor may go into creatively varying the posture of one’s indolence. As the heretic G.K. Chesterton pointed out, there is such a thing as the “bustle of indolence.” Let true Christians learn from the Scriptures and be wise to discern and distinguish between useful diligence and diligent indolence.

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: ​[who–CD] ​provideth her meat in the summer, ​[​and​]​ gathereth her food in the harvest​. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?” (Proverbs 6:6, 8-9)​

“As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so [is] the sluggard to them that send him” (Proverbs 10:26).

“The soul of the sluggard desireth, and [hath] nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat” (Proverbs 13:4).

“The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; [therefore] shall he beg in harvest, and [have] nothing” (Proverbs 20:4)

“The sluggard [is] wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason” (Proverbs 26:16).

“The slothful [man] saith, [There is] a lion in the way; a lion [is] in the streets. [As] the door turneth upon his hinges, so [doth] the slothful upon his bed. The slothful hideth his hand in [his] bosom; it grieveth him to bring it again to his mouth” (Proverbs 26:13-15).

“The slothful [man] roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man [is] precious” (Proverbs 12:27).

“The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city” (Ecclesiastes 10:15).