Date finished: July 7th 2016
Sometimes you pick up a book and you can tell it’s not the author’s best work. It’s a je ne sais quoi inkling whereby you can tell that greater things are out there: earlier work with more heart, later work with more wisdom; there’s the spark of something more than what you’re reading, and you have to return to their work and see if your predictions will be validated.
Such is the case for Bertrand Russell, whose work The Conquest of Happiness I read having come across a copy tucked away in the recesses of my house. It was a good book, not life-changing, but charming enough to keep me interested. If Russell on happiness could be engaging, I was sure Russell on social, political and philosophical issues could be even better.
It just so happened that I had a friend who owned a copy of In Praise of Idleness. And so here we are now. In Praise of Idleness is a collection of short essays by Russell on various topics: education, politics, philosophy and social issues. From the title essay that outlines the possibilities of a four-hour work day, to the homogeneity of western culture, the essays are linked by the overarching themes that always preoccupied Russell: the dangers of political extremism, the desire for progress, and the primacy of peace.
There’s a lot on offer – political analysis which, despite its age, remains worryingly relevant to our modern dilemmas, meditations on how we can better organise our society, less tangible ponderings on the soul – it’s a surfeit of pre-war ideas with something to enlighten everyone. Amazingly, despite being published in 1935, In Praise of Idleness still contains ideas that seem daring and radical and Russell argues well enough for one to want to try to implement them.
There’s no denying that Russell was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century, and though some of the essays fall a little flat, there’s a great deal of reasonable, intelligent thought within these pages. As a society, we need a new Russell to look at our present situation and offer hope and solutions. But failing that, Bertrand’s old writings will do just fine for now.