Saturday, August 16, 2014


Another email from my dear friend Richard Dietrich - known for his proverbial zeal for work - contains the following Shaw quotation, embellished with a not-very-Shavian background picture:

What really drew my attention - because I need no-one to remind me that leisure is the mother of virtue - is the source of the quotation. I must admit I'm not all that familiar with Shaw's political writings, so the title of this essay? book? escaped me. 

After a little research I found out that the above quotation was initially part of a lecture originally entitled "The Climate and Soil for Labour Culture." It was part of a series of three lectures presented by the Fabian Society in the spring of 1918. The other two speakers were Arthur Henderson and Sidney Webb

The lecture was later published in 1971 as part of Louis Crompton's (ed.) The Road to Equality. Ten Unpublished Lectures and Essays by Bernard Shaw. In this book, the title of the lecture was changed to "Socialism and Culture," and it contains several quotable gems, but not the above fragment. At least, not verbatim. In fact, it is an abridgement of a longer paragraph that reads as follows (the highlighted phrases being those in the picture above): 

"Now no thoughtful person will say that the country is altogether the poorer for this tendency. Leisure, though the propertied classes give its name to their own idleness, is not idleness. It is not even a luxury: it is a necessity, and a necessity of the first importance. Some of the most valuable work done in the world has been done at leisure, and never paid for in cash or kind. Leisure may be described as free activity, labor as compulsory activity. Leisure does what it likes: labor does what it must, the compulsion being that of Nature, which in these latitudes leaves men no choice between labor and starvation."

I think I must agree with Shaw's views on leisure. After all, that's how this blog came into being. However, some may argue there's a contradiction between this vindication of leisure and Shaw's zeal for work. The synthesis of both notions can perhaps be found in the preface to Misalliance ("A Treatise on Parents and Children"): 

"The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation, because occupation means pre-occupation; and the pre-occupied person is neither happy nor unhappy, but simply alive and active, which is pleasanter than any happiness until you are tired of it. That is why it is necessary to happiness that one should be tired. Music after dinner is pleasant: music before breakfast is so unpleasant as to be clearly unnatural. To people who are not overworked holidays are a nuisance. To people who are, and who can afford them, they are a troublesome necessity. A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell."


  1. Leisure and idleness actually have a specifically Irish context. Gregory Dobbins, with whom I was starting grad school at Duke around the same time he was finishing, wrote the book: Lazy Idle Schemers: Irish Modernism and the Cultural Politics of Idleness (Field Day, 2010). Unfortunately for us, his discussion of Shaw is very limited (i.e., less than a page) as it takes place within a broader discussion of "Eimar O'Duffy, Heroic Idleness, and the Leisure State."

    1. Thanks for the reference, Charles. It's funny, because I would instinctively associate the culture of idleness with the worst cases of "landlordism," especially in Catholic countries (the PIGS, as some now call Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). You know, the idea that we are either "fiesta and siesta" or the "dolce far niente," especially among the "idle rich classes"
      Did you hear the one about the Irish guy and the Spaniard who were teaching each other their native language, and one of them asks the other if they have a word for "tomorrow" in his language. The other, of course, answers that he does not think there's a word with such sense of urgency in his mother tongue.
      Not that leisure and idleness have anything in common, of course.