Philosophers are not known for their practical skills and thinkers like Plato and Aristotle had little to say about their toiling contemporaries, be they free artisans or slave labourers. Over the centuries, many philosophers have tried to exert some influence on the ruler of the day, most often in vain, such as Plato with Dionysus II of Syracuse or Voltaire with Frederick II of Prussia. It is in the nineteenth century that philosophers went back to the drawing board and seriously considered the possibility of alternative socio-political systems meant to reflect the economic transformations affecting the lives of millions. Marx, Mill, Fourier and Comte all conceived their own version of a socialist utopia in which the timeless aspirations of mankind such as freedom and happiness, would not only be protected and preserved but given genuine opportunities to be fully nurtured and cultivated. A life dedicated to the tedium of exhausting labour was to be surprisingly alleviated, if not definitely abolished, by free access to knowledge and the promise of a modicum of happiness.
Philosophy requires free time and preferably private means if wisdom, its ultimate reward, is to be achieved. The right to hedonism or the pursuit of pleasure has fortunately been revived and reclaimed by worthy successors of Democritus and Epicurus. Nietzsche’s ‘new philosopher’ is not a stuffy old scholar entrenched in his library but a carefree lover of Nature finding his inspiration in his long Alpine walks. The twentieth century further established the importance of idleness as a healthy counterbalance to the impossible demands of ‘performance’ and ‘productivity’ expected at the work place. The long accepted dogma that man has to labour to earn his living has been under siege for well over a century and a half, a struggle first instigated by Marx himself who never envisaged the abolition of work as such but saw in the necessary improvements of current working conditions the desirable emergence of spare time to be dedicated to freely chosen pleasurable activities. Never shying away from expressing his radical views, Bertrand Russell candidly declared in his 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness, ‘I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous … and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work … to four hours a day.’