The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment

The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment

The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment

The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment


We think of the Enlightenment as an era dominated by ideas of progress, production, and industry--not an era that favored the lax and indolent individual. But was the Enlightenment only about the unceasing improvement of self and society? The Pursuit of Laziness examines moral, political, and economic treatises of the period, and reveals that crucial eighteenth-century texts did find value in idleness and nonproductivity. Fleshing out Enlightenment thinking in the works of Denis Diderot, Joseph Joubert, Pierre de Marivaux, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jean-Siméon Chardin, this book explores idleness in all its guises, and illustrates that laziness existed, not as a vice of the wretched, but as an exemplar of modernity and a resistance to beliefs about virtue and utility.

Whether in the dawdlings of Marivaux's journalist who delayed and procrastinated or in the subjects of Chardin's paintings who delighted in suspended, playful time, Pierre Saint-Amand shows how eighteenth-century works provided a strong argument for laziness. Rousseau abandoned his previous defense of labor to pursue reverie and botanical walks, Diderot emphasized a parasitic strategy of resisting work in order to liberate time, and Joubert's little-known posthumous Notebooks radically opposed the central philosophy of the Enlightenment in a quest to infinitely postpone work.

Unsettling the stubborn view of the eighteenth century as an age of frenetic industriousness and labor, The Pursuit of Laziness plumbs the texts and images of the time and uncovers deliberate yearnings for slowness and recreation.


“Ours is the century of laziness,” announces Louis-Sébastien Mercier in Mon bonnet de nuit (My Nightcap, 1784). Looking back upon the literary production of the eighteenth century, he nostalgically observes the waning of the grand intellectual projects. The age of massive tomes of philosophy, of erudite abstraction, is past; the century has now discovered the trifle, the trivial. Mercier laments the impatience of authors and readers alike. It is as if the time of work has been compressed, interrupted by the futile. He would like to restore this time to the artist, so that creation could be reclaimed through action. Mercier concludes with a morality based on usefulness and fecundity, for a proper culture of “enlightenment.”

This despondent view of the century, in particular of intellectual work, might divert us from the image of a century known for bringing about a massive systematization of work, a valorization of labor that culminated in the birth of industrial capitalism. Indeed, the eighteenth century was the century of industry; as such it trumpeted the cause of action and energy. Severe measures aimed at repressing idlers remained in place for the duration of the century, alongside new strategies for economic emancipation. Such repression sought justification through various discourses, beginning with the religious. One text that exerted an influence throughout the eighteenth century (as many as four editions were published in 1743) was Antoine de Courtin’s Traité de la paresse (Treatise on Laziness), in which he condemns laziness in the harsh-

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