An Apology for Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson

an apology for idlers

Idle Hours (1895) by Henry Siddons Mowbray ~ source Wikimedia Commons

In An Apology for Idlers, Stevenson takes up the call to support and promote idlers, however not idlers in the common sense.  Idleness “does not consist of doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class …”  There is a great deal in favour of diligence but there is also something to be said against it; Stevenson has picked up his pen to do so.

Stevenson first targets school, saying that books are all well and good in their place but “they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life”.  The streets give just as good an education, as Dickens and Balzac discovered, as you can learn to see things from a new perspective.

an apology for idlers

Idle Afternoon (c.1874) by Gillett Holdredge ~ source Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

He then introduces Worldly Wiseman who questions a young rascal who wants to learn from life. While Wiseman advocates knowledge, Stevenson says you can acquire such knowledge if you simply experience life. In fact, an idler is better off because “he has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind …” and he has yet gained an even more precious advantage ….. wisdom.

Extreme busyness breeds men who have no curiosity, are deficient in vitality, take no pleasure in using their brains for their own sake, and are almost like a creature dead-alive.  It is no use trying to talk to them as they pass their leisure in a type of coma.  They do not know how to use idleness to their advantage.

Not only does the busy person suffer, but those around him also suffer.  A single-minded devotion to being busy can only be had by neglecting people and tasks around him.  In contrast, idlers are usually joyful and happiness sows seeds wherever it goes.  The benefits of happiness are so great they cannot be measured.  If one is always hurrying, he is either absent from fellowship or passes people swiftly and bitterly by.  No single individual is indispensable yet we work ourselves to death as if the world depends on us.

“The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches, they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.”

an apology for idlers

Idle Hours by Rupert Bunny ~ source Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Coming from an era and society that works WAY too much, I tend to agree with Stevenson in a general sense.  But he’s comparing two extremes and choosing the best whereas to me there should be some sort of happy-medium.  Work and leisure should be balanced and, in leisure, you will have time to explore and appreciate nature and experience life as Stevenson terms it.

Not one to be idle himself, Stevenson wanted to be a writer in Byronic fashion from youth but conformed to his father’s wishes for a period of time, earning a position as an advocate (lawyer) from which it is unclear if he even put into use.  He cultivated his writing and fell in love with a woman, a Mrs. Osborne, who was estranged from her husband, eventually following her to California where they married.  He reconciled with his father, failed to cure his tuberculosis, then set sail in a sloop for the Tropics, eventually landing in Samoa where he and his family settled.  He devoted the last years of his life to helping others and upon his death, the natives bore his body up a trail to the summit of Vailima where he is buried with his own epitaph:

“Under the wise and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie;

Glad did I live and gladly die

And I lay me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea

And the hunter home from the hill.”


Deal Me In Challenge – Nine of Spades

an apology for idlers

30 thoughts on “An Apology for Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson

    • Yes, balance is something that we humans aren’t very good at. Stevenson is a great author for any list. Glad to see you around, Tim!

  1. Hmmm, sounds like Ghandi subscribed to this same philosophy. He forbad his sons from getting a formal education (even though he had gotten some of the best during his growing up times) because he wanted them to learn “from life”. It is probably a direct correlation to their anonymity and the success that Ghandi had with getting his way in this regards.

    There is no excuse for being stupid and ignorant.

    • Really? He obviously was rejecting the status quo and probably felt education was part of the status quo. I believe people have a wrong idea of education in that knowledge is learning things and then those things are stuck in your mind, but I believe education should be focused on teaching people how to think. If you do that you can circumvent many problems the former can cause. I would have thought Ghandi smart enough to pick up on the distinction.

      Yes, down with stupid and ignorant, lol! 😉

      • I read his autobiography 6 or 7 years ago. Destroyed any romantic ideas that I held about him. He might have accomplished great things for his country, but he destroyed his family in the process. I pretty much lost all respect I had for him.
        I was sad…

        • I pulled up that section on the internet …. it seems he refused initially to send them to school because they were in Durban and the only schools were European; there were no Indian ones and the rest of the Indians refused to send their children to those schools. Reading further, it sounds like Gandhi did not like the TYPE of education available, not that he was against education per se. And he did not want to send them away … to have them be separated from their family, which I think is laudable. And with the help of a governess, he did try to teach them himself but was not regularly available. He, himself, regretted the outcome but he did what he thought was right under the circumstances. From what I read, it was hard to make a judgement without knowing more of the circumstances. As a post-homeschooler I think I can understand what he communicates about his dilemma. He wasn’t against formal education, just the formal education offered in the circumstances he was in. I would offer a speculation that the outcome of his sons’ resentment was not the lack of their education but the fact that Gandhi appeared to be unavailable to them because of his political activities. With a formal education or without, I would imagine his absence would have had a negative effect on them and damaged their relationships. Many respected leaders sacrifice family relationships behind the scenes because of the time and effort put into their work. It’s indeed sad. I guess the question for each individual would be if the positive effects of their work on the masses outweigh the negative effects in their personal relationships. It would be a hard question to answer …

          • All dead now; the eldest was estranged from his family but the other three staged protests and went to jail like their father but obviously none of them had his charisma.

  2. Well, man has certainly not changed. I know what he is saying, and he speaks truth. : (

    But I wouldn’t give up reading books. You know why, already. Reading helps us to live in other people’s shoes that we might not otherwise ever know or takes us to places we may never go.

    • I wouldn’t give up reading books either and it’s so funny he would have that idea of books because he WROTE them! The man sure had an interesting life though. I have to make a note to read a biography on him at some point.

  3. Well, I am definitely adding this to my reading list and discussing it with others. It’s strange discussing books anymore … I know very few in real-life that read anything besides best sellers, if they read books at all. Then there are the people who will argue with me about every point that the author or I might make (but only out of knee-jerk reactions). Lastly, there will be those who just ignore attempts at discussion and maybe judge what they think is a time-waster. This is my current experience of reaction to books, especially historical facts or advice that doesn’t come behind some trumped career title … it is sad and I am seeking out new people to read with in 2019.

    • I do wish for a face-to-face classic book club but I haven’t been able to find one and until then, this blog and Goodreads will have to suffice. It is hard to find people who want to have good, in-depth and unprejudiced discussion. However, after many years of book blogging I have a number of readers here who are insightful and post many thoughtful and intelligent comments, all of which are much appreciated. I have had some posts which gets some great discussion going. All the best to you for finding some readers who value a good discussion. And you are very welcome here whenever you like! 🙂

  4. My initial reaction is oh! come on! Idleness does not necessarily mean learning from life or observing or even thinking! It can simply be inertia, or worse an excuse to do nothing. I agree with you that in our times, there is just too much rush, too much business and too much pressure in “accomplishing” things. But I simply cannot accept the continuous “leisure” philosophy. I agree with you that a happy medium is the key, though, I think finding that balance is harder than we think! Excellent thought provoking post as always!

    • You just have to look at Stevenson’s life to know he was one who went against the grain and travelled all over. You couldn’t have a set job and do that. However, he was often sick and perhaps his sickness forced leisure time on him early in life and caused him to see the world in a different way. Perhaps he learned to appreciate things that we haven’t even discovered because we are so locked into the capitalist dream. On one hand, I agree with you, but on another, I wonder …..

      Thanks, Cirtnecce!

      • I see what you mean, but maybe, it’s not something I can personally relate too….but I do agree that we often forget the simpler, easier and more joyful pleasures, in our chase of capitalist dreams!

  5. i read this once along with some other essays he wrote and i had the opinion (still do) that he was waffling about searching for something to write about that would sell… education teaches one to think, ideally, and there’s no substitute for that. a whole life of observation would provide an intelligent person with a certain amount of sophisticated conclusion, but deep understanding requires effort and concentration, imo, and for that, there’s no substitution for training of some sort…

    • I agree for the most part. However, I’ve seen homeschoolers who have only read to their children (lots, mind you), did some informal teaching (math, etc.) and then unexpectedly had to put them back into school. I would have bet money the children would have struggled but every time they’ve flourished. Which perhaps refers to my point with Bookstooge …. parent involvement in learning (and character-growth, etc.) is probably as important as the education itself.

      • agree pretty much… i think that the climate fostered by parents is critically important to a child’s attitude toward life and learning… i read once that most of a person’s character is formed before he/she is six… from my observation i think that has some validity…

  6. I quite like R.L. Stevenson’s concept of idleness. It has a lot going for it. A good message for moderation in our busy day and age, perhaps. But how funny to get the lesson not to overestimate book learning from a book 🙂 He certainly left a wide range of interesting written work behind.

    • Nick also drew the 9 of spades for week one. It’s getting weird. I “just missed” with the 9 of clubs. Id Deal Me In trying to tell us something??

    • It always amazes me that people can get so busy in smaller towns. But busyness can come from responsibilities, duties, choice or other things. I hope things slow down for you soon!

  7. How interesting–this sounds like an essay that might be written today–with the addition of the internet/social media as a busyness time suck that doesn’t necessarily add value to our idleness. Which is what I struggle with: it’s easy to make a leisure activity something “busy,” too, and I find I often don’t leave enough blank space in my life.

    • I don’t have enough blank space either but I think that happens to people who have many interests. And, of course, what Stevenson pointed out, that work has become all consuming and the expectation around it is often ridiculous.

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