Friday, April 29, 2011

An Apology to Idlers

Lesson learned, with thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson:

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold mill....

When nature is “so careless of the single life,”1 why should we coddle ourselves into the fancy that our own is of exceptional importance? Suppose Shakespeare had been knocked on the head some dark night in Sir Thomas Lucy’s preserves, the world would have wagged on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any the wiser of the loss. There are not many works extant, if you look the alternative all over, which are worth the price of a pound of tobacco to a man of limited means. This is a sober reflection for the proudest of our earthly vanities....

1 See Tennyson’s In Memoriam, LV, where the poet discusses the pessimism caused by regarding the apparent indifference of nature to the happiness of the individual.

“Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.”

From An Apology to Idlers, by Robert Louis Stevenson, taken from Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, selected and edited with an introduction by William Lyon Phelps, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons (1906).

Essay first printed in the Cornhill Magazine, July 1877, Vol. XXXVI, pp. 80-86. Note on Tennyson by William Lyon Phelps.

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