Of Idleness (Introducing: Quote of the Week)

It seemed to me I could do my mind no greater favor than to let it entertain itself in full idleness and stay and settle in itself… But I find that… on the contrary… [it] gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

–     Michel de Montaigne, Of Idleness

Post-university, I have certainly been inclined to do my mind the favour of ‘letting it entertain itself in full idleness’. As an English student, I was inclined to do this a fair bit whilst at university as well, but it was at least tempered to an extent by a loose structure of regular tutorials and deadlines. Upon graduating, however, and finding oneself delivered of the constraints and pressures of coursework and finals exams, the natural impulse is of course to indulge one’s idleness to its fullest extent – and quite rightly.

Idleness has had, for the most part, somewhat of a bad press over the years – unjustly, in my opinion. The world is too busy. We find an obligation in work, instead of what it should be, which is an occupation – i.e. just a job and not our entire life, and ultimately only one of many ways that we might choose to occupy ourselves. However, despite my great and enduring enthusiasm for idleness, my purpose here is – sadly – not a defence of it (I will leave that for another time). Rather, I wish today to acknowledge and briefly consider its darker side – the ‘chimeras and fantastic monsters’ that haunt the idle mind.

Idleness today is very different from what it once was. The idling mind of the 16th century French philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne was still at least wont, as he says earlier in his essay Of Idleness, to throw itself about in “the vague field of imagination”; its chimeras and fantastic monsters were its own creation. These days, the idle mind has its chimeras and fantastic monsters ready-made in the form of the internet and digital media, and can quite easily spend any number of distinctly unimaginative hours binge-watching back-to-back episodes on Netflix, or trawling almost mechanically through social media. Idleness has come to entail mindlessness; a monster that we should be more wary of than most of us are, and one whose effects – without the “order or purpose” of structured study – I have certainly found myself increasingly conscious of.

This is where I believe I might take a page out of Montaigne’s book, so to speak. Montaigne’s idleness is nevertheless an active, even prolific, idleness, and (as ‘strange’ and ‘inept’ as they may be) he is able to take the fruits of his idle mind as objects for the sort of amused self-contemplation of his essays, which formed the basis of his entire philosophy. It was a philosophy which had no small part in influencing René Descartes and his declaration that “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), and subsequently the entire trajectory of philosophical and scientific thinking about the nature of the self and the mind. That we have Montaigne’s idle thoughts on such diverse and diverting subjects as ‘Smells’, ‘Drunkenness’, and ‘Thumbs’ (one can imagine he was having a particularly idle afternoon when we wrote that last one) to thank for this, just goes to show that idleness, well-applied, should not be underestimated.

Quote of the Week, then, is my own small attempt to impose upon myself, in Montaigne’s words, some intellectual “order and purpose”, and to find once a week a “definite subject that will bridle and control” my mind in its idle hours – which is by no means to reject or eliminate idleness, but to cultivate an active and healthy engagement with it, and resist succumbing to it as a default in its more brainless forms. Each week, I will take a quote (which will hopefully be interesting enough in and of itself) from whatever I happen to have been reading, and write a short essay in response to it. The result should be that I end up reading a bit more (which I think can only ever be a good thing), and with any luck, that I might come out with something of interest to the odd reader. I am sure Montaigne (and probably the subject of idleness) will continue to make appearances in Quote of the Week, though I hope to draw from an assortment of philosophical and literary sources, and to offer a medley of miscellaneous musings.

Reading List

At the end of each post, I will look to offer a short list of recommended reading; a palette-cleanser, of sorts, to follow whatever I have attempted to cobble together each week…

My first recommendation is, of course, the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. These are available online for free via Gutenberg, but if like me you like actual real-life books that exist physically, the Complete Works published by Everyman, translated by Donald Frame, is the one to go for.

If you want to get a bit more familiar with Montaigne before you give him your hard-earned cash, the School of Life does some pretty decent (and short) introductions. For a more in-depth yet still accessible discussion, see Will Self in conversation with Boyd Tonkin.

For further reading on idleness and the potential fulfilment that is to be derived from it, I recommend The Idler magazine, to which I have recently subscribed.  It is full of illuminating articles and essays on “How to live… How to be free in a world of jobs and debt”. It takes its inspiration and its title from Dr Samuel Johnson’s collection of essays of the same name (which I have yet to read, but intend to eventually). I would also recommend the work of Jerome K. Jerome (contributor to yet another magazine called The Idler), whose Three Men in a Boat is perhaps the most entertaining account of idleness I have ever encountered.


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