Idle Idol – Robert Louis Stevenson
From Idler 2, November 1993
By Robert Hanks
The author of Treasure Island believed extreme busyness to be a symptom of deficient vitality. He expounded his idle views in a seminal essay, An Apology for Idlers, providing succour for all cool persons by the wayside.
The Idler must be conscious that the world at large gazes on him (or her) with disapproving eyes: Satan still finds work for idle hands to do, we are told – although the mischiefs perpetrated by the moguls of industry in recent times suggest that busy hands are not immune to temptation, and as things are currently organised, the busy will generally have more means to effect their impulses. Still they are counted exceptions to the upright rule. The idler, it is muttered, is never upright – indeed he would prefer to remain horizontal, or slouching at best.
As its title suggests, Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay An Apology for Idlers, written in 1876 when he was 25, shows his awareness of this vilification of the toiling classes: “People of all pursuits combine to disparage those who have none”. His greatest service is not to justify idleness but to help the idler to understand the pressures he must cope with.
It is Stevenson’s belief that the basis of opposition to idleness is jealousy: if a person is struggling hard in the fast lane of life, “it is not hard to understand his resentment, when he perceives cool persons in the meadows by the wayside, lying with a handkerchief over their ears and a glass at their elbow”. But on top of this, there is the toiler’s fear that he is being diminished, set at nought by the idler. “It is a sore thing to have laboured along and scaled arduous hilltops, and when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement,” Stevenson observes.
The idler is always a satirist, whether wittingly or not. When we refuse to jump onto the merry-go-round of work – when we, in a word, cannot be arsed – we seem to pass comment on those eager souls, pumping up and down on their gaily painted workhorses to the rasping music of money’s steam organ. There’s no use protesting that you don’t care what the other fellow gets up to, that you’re happy for him to scale Naga Parbat without oxygen or compile his millions on the Stock Exchange if it pleases him. You have devalued him without lifting a finger – the best way of doing anything.
But Stevenson suggests that the resentment of the industrious classes goes deeper even than this: it is not simply their activities that the idler spoofs, but their very being.
Idleness does not, in Stevenson’s view, consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class. This definition implies a new epistemology, a theory of knowledge. Stevenson contrasts “the warm and palpitating facts of life” with the “chill and arid knowledge” gained by education. To the world at large, “a fact is not called a fact, but a piece of gossip, if it does not fall into one of your scholastic categories”. But that is not to say that it is any less of a kind of scholarship: “if a lad does not learn in the streets, it is because he has no faculty of learning”.
The idler knows that what is called ‘useful knowledge’ is rarely that: the knowledge you pick up while truanting will stay with you and sustain you in later years. A proficiency at billiards is the sign of a mis-spent youth, but in later life an aid to unexpected friendship and a means of getting to know the world.
The idler, Stevenson believes, travels by ‘Commonplace Lane to the Belvedere of Commonsense,’ by which Stevenson means that the idler, having picked up his education on the byways, not heading in any special direction, is not open to specialisation, obsession and fanaticism. An idle mind is a questioning, sceptical mind. Hence it is a mind not too bound up with ephemeral things, as the minds of workers are.
The idler, then, is somebody who separates himself from his occupation: there are many people scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Stevenson pities them: “Extreme busyness… is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a Catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity”. The point is not made explicit in the Apology, but the secret of the contempt of the industrious for the idle is this: not to work is a sign of confidence; to work is a sign of fear. And the frightened man likes nothing less than to be told, even if not in words, that he is frightened.
Of course, many who denigrate idleness will justify themselves by saying that work is a duty. Stevenson desposes of that little lie: “Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things. And it is by no means certain that a man’s business is the most important thing that he has to do”.
He points instead, to another calling: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy”. Happiness in others is, unless you are a Scrooge or an Alceste, a joy to us. “A happy man and a happy woman is a better thing to find than a five pound note,” says Stevenson (and remember, five pounds really was five pounds in those days). He adds: “If a person cannot be be happy without remaining idle, idle he should remain”. But we can deduce, further, that the idler has a better chance of happiness than the ordinary man.
Stevenson himself could never be entirely idle, torn always between his romantic, wandering impulses and a Calvinist urge, instilled in him by a childhood nurse, to turn his wanderings to some account. His curriculum vitae is full of writings sprung from his travels and his dreaming, adventurous temperament.
It is sad to report that in the Apology Stevenson reached one false conclusion: he thought that the idler would inhale health. “Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life along with them – by your leave, a different picture. He has had time to take care of his health and spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air”.
He disproved his own theory, dying at 43 after years of illness. But if he could not live to enjoy idleness himself, by writing such masterpieces as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Suicide Club, he has at least provided a means to make it more pleasurable for the rest of us.