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A Theory of Idleness

Illustration by Deanna Staffo

Illustration by Deanna Staffo

“My father always called me a ‘useless article,’ ” Chris Davis tells me, driving through Bristol, England. “He said it in a rather nice way, of course.” In the midst of my research I had come up to Bristol from London to meet Davis, and he picked me up at the train station in a tiny, beat-up old sedan that was perhaps once green. I had seen his posts on whywork.org and references to his very elaborate Web site, idletheory.com, in which he lays out his general theory of idleness, a theory that accounts for all phenomena in the universe — physical, biological, social — in terms of idling. He is a slight man, maybe 150 pounds, in jeans, a faded “Galicia” T-shirt and blue windbreaker, topped by a well-worn blue canvas cap. His greenish-grey eyes are the only large things about him, and they beam out of a face that begins wide and tapers into not much of a chin. A slight sag here and there announces that he has perhaps passed fifty, but there isn’t much evidence otherwise. He drives us to a pub, “The George,” just past the edge of town. “I spend an enormous amount of time in pubs just like this,” he says. He doesn’t lock the car, and given its sorry state one can see the wisdom in not making that particular effort. The pub is surrounded by corn fields and stone walls, and except for the cars going past on the macadam, there isn’t much trace of the last couple hundred years.

Inside, we order a couple of pints and some lunch, which he is glad, he says, to let me buy. I make the mistake of ordering the hare, and all the old saws about British cooking waft through my head as I choke down the brown glop, liberally strewn with shattered bone. “I spend a fair amount of time just listening in at places like this,” Davis says. “One thing you never hear people say is, ‘Gee, I can’t wait to get back to work.’ They are all complaining about it.” Davis has spent time as an architect, and as a graduate student and university researcher, but now he gets by with a little freelance computer programming. This requires a small amount of very intense activity for a fairly short amount of time. “And then I just bunk off,” he says. Working as an architect one day he was extremely bored, looked down at his watch, and it said 2:13. “I’m going to be here for another three hours,” he thought, “and I don’t want to do anything.” He looked at his watch. It was still 2:13. He waited, for what seemed a long time, still 2:13. He thought: “I am so bored time has stopped.” He quit. Now, most of his time is his own. “I don’t get up until 11 in the morning,” he says. “And I don’t feel guilty about it.”

Davis was one of the early mainstays of whywork.org, where his essays on idleness are often referred to by those who take part in that site’s ongoing Web forum. The two main organizers of whywork.org were D.J. Swanson, founder of CLAWS, an acronym for Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery, who lives in British Columbia, and Sarah Nelson, like Davis from Bristol and founder of something called the Leisure Party. I ask Davis if that is an actual political party. He laughs. “No, nobody would ever be that energetic!” The whywork forum usually has a number of people on the verge of dropping out of wage slavery looking for advice from people who have already made the plunge. It doesn’t really interest Davis that much. “CLAWS is practical,” he says. “For people who don’t like their jobs, their bosses. I don’t have this problem.” He is, instead, interested in theory.

“Idle theory” is at one level quite simple. “All living creatures have to work to stay alive. Some have to work harder than others. Those creatures that need to do little work to stay alive are more likely to survive periods of difficulty than those that must work harder and longer.” Evolution is thus based, Davis writes on his site, on the “survival of the idlest.” This makes a kind of immediate sense. The more perfectly adapted to its environment, the less an organism would need to struggle. The organisms that are struggling are by definition having trouble with their environment. Human beings have, over their history, gradually struggled less. They developed tools that speed up the work needed to fulfill basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. A knife cuts faster than teeth, a bag or bucket carries more than hands can. This results in a net increase of idle time, time which people can spend in pursuits other than self-maintenance. “It is in this idle time that humans can do as they wish, rather than as they must, and they can think, talk, and play — i.e., act as free moral agents. In Idle Theory, humans are seen as part-time free moral agents, only free to the extent that they are idle.” And idleness is therefore the base of all ethical systems as well. Why is it unethical to steal? Because it decreases the idle time of another, who must now replace that object with more work. Everything that increases idle time is ethically good, everything that decreases it is bad. “The meek shall inherit the earth” is one of the many Biblical aphorisms in favor of idleness; Christ’s “lilies of the field” speech another. Davis finds the prejudice toward idleness in systems of etiquette as well. If two people are walking through a narrow tunnel, wide enough for only one, who backs out? The person closest to his entrance: The option requiring the least effort is the polite solution. Why do we give our seats on the bus to older people? It requires more effort for them to stand.

“We’re still dominated by a small group of thinkers — Marx, Freud, Darwin,” Davis tells me between chips. “Freud isn’t what he was 25 years ago, but Darwin! I just love taking shots at Darwin.” Why? “Because he sees nature as a war. This idea has permeated our whole society and it’s profoundly destructive, divisive, not just because it’s racist — and he is racist — but because the culture is permeated by the idea that skirmishing for survival is natural. The idea is a menace! War is the opposite of everything I’m trying to get to.” The biological sections of Davis’s theory quickly exceed my ability to follow the mathematical models and cellular explanations, but the general point is clear enough: Even at the most primitive level, organisms tend toward idleness. “Just as Freud brought sex to the fore, I’d like to make leisure, idleness, more important. The twentieth century was sex. I’d like the twenty-first to be leisure.”

We have another pint. “It’s very interesting to actually talk to someone about all this,” he says. He had written a long essay on idleness at the university, but it wasn’t written very well, he thinks; the couple of people who read it mistook it for a labor theory of value in the Marxian sense. One friend dismissed it with “you and your stupid ideas!” He used to wake up thinking he was crazy; after all, why should he have found this key if the world’s most renowned thinkers hadn’t, while other revered figures, like Darwin, held the opposite view? The more he looked though, the more he was convinced, and the more he found support among other philosophers and scientists, like Maupertuis, Leibniz, Euler, Fermat, and Feynman. “I’m a dreamer, and ‘Idle Theory’ is the deepest dream I’ve ever had. It’s my El Dorado, like a city I’ve discovered.”

He wrote the main essays in a burst of activity and added essays on politics, aesthetics, economics, the fossil record, Java and Tetra computer simulations of the biological data, and much more. “Yes, you’re right, for someone who believes in Idle Theory, I’ve been quite busy,” he says, smiling. “The theory’s like a tree, it grows up, it branches out a bit. It’s always surprising me. There’s always a new angle. I’ve had lots and lots of theories. This is my best one.” He pushes away his empty plate and brings his pint glass front and center. “Why do you do it?” I ask. “Why don’t you, as your theory urges, remain idle?” He looks at me kindly, as if I am perhaps a bit dimwitted. “This is my idleness. If a pot of money landed on me, I’d keep on with Idle Theory, because I think it’s a great idea.” One shouldn’t confuse idleness with inactivity, he says. The fisherman (an example Davis uses in one of his posted essays) may look like he’s idle as he sits, intent on his line, but at that moment he is constrained, not free. When he isn’t fishing he may go for a walk, and look more active, but he is actually free to do anything at that moment and so is idle in evolutionary terms; his stationary fishing is active, his walking is a form of idleness, which he engages in for pleasure. The artist’s model, sitting still, is theoretically active, the amateur sculptor chiseling away at a block of marble for pleasure is theoretically idle.

“And so it is all about pleasure, then?” I ask. Davis admits this is the least developed part of the theory. “In my imaginary little worlds, my models, I’m not concerned about whether they’re happy. The fisherman: Does he enjoy it fishing? Of course it is always better if one does.” Davis takes a sip from his glass and ponders this. “Perhaps,” he says tentatively, “like sex, there’s an evolutionary advantage in making idleness pleasurable.” He shrugs, thinks. I ask if he has tried to publish his ideas and he laughs. “As science fiction?” he asks. “No, I can’t imagine any publisher being interested.” He works on his Idle Theory, he assures me, for the pure pleasure of it. “There’s a kind of ecstasy in seeing things in a new way,” he says.

What else does he do for pleasure? He answers, in terms many in the long history of slackers from Samuel Johnson to Jack Kerouac and beyond would approve: “I spend massive amounts of time sitting in pubs like this.”

DOING NOTHING: A HISTORY OF LOAFERS, LOUNGERS, SLACKERS, AND BUMS IN AMERICA | By TOM LUTZ | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 384 pages | $25 hardcover