Idleness, Brian O’Connor promises, allows us to act “in accordance with values that we take to be our own,” rather than those of the larger society. But even if such claims for idleness are true, is this a good way for a person to live?

Slim, sleek and gently irreverent, Brian O’Connor’s Idleness: A Philosophical Essay is a celebration of the human tendency to passivity and a catalogue of the supposedly wise men (and, with Simone de Beauvoir, one woman) who have opposed it. It is a book that belongs to a controversial tradition that includes such works as William Gass’s On Being Blue and Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit: philosophy as highbrow entertainment.

O’Connor, a professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, defines idleness as an “activity that operates according to no guiding purpose … a feeling of noncompulsion and drift.” This lack of purpose is where idleness’s revolutionary potential lies. Idleness, as he sees it, involves a rebellious rejection of the social norms that press us to be busy and productive. It points us toward a superior form of human freedom, defined by an absence of compulsion.

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