Defending Uselessness: Rousseau’s Harmless and Happy Idleness

Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/10659129211035835
Idleness is morally and politically problematic. Even if
we wish for more free time, it is a conflicted wish. Idle
hands are the devil’s workshop, and working, as Judith
Shklar argues, is a central duty for democratic citizens
(Shklar 1991, 63). In liberal societies at least, working
and contributing to the economy is a form of citizenship.
At the same time, there seems to be a growing demand for
idleness and leisure, and not just from critics of liberal-
ism, but even from the liberals themselves. For instance,
Rose argues that we are owed, as a right or entitlement,
hours for “what we will” (Rose 2016). But what benefit is
there to “free time”? And is it coherent with our duty to be
productive? Arguably, no one explains and highlights the
conflicts and tensions in the human soul better than
Rousseau, and this includes the tensions in the desire for
idleness. As Todorov asserts, Rousseau offers three dis-
tinct, and potentially contradictory, lives to lead in
response to the challenges of human life created by civi-
lization: the citizen, the moral individual, and, most rele-
vant here, the solitary individual who lives a life of
idleness (Todorov 2001, 18).1 Closely reading Rousseau,
therefore, offers us a way to explain our desire for idle-
ness and the promises that may be fulfilled in it, but also
helps us recognize, and perhaps resolve, its tensions, such
as the tension between idleness and the duties of the citi-
zen and moral individual. Despite these tensions,
Rousseau finds idleness defensible, but only if certain
conditions hold; and as we will see, those conditions set a
high bar for idleness to be both morally defensible and
capable of delivering its promises for human happiness. I
address those conditions and promises by interpreting
Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker.2 Rousseau’s
final writing should be of interest to us here, as Rousseau
there describes his highest happiness comprised of an idle
floating in Lake Bienne (Rousseau 1992, 64),3 and
amongst his descriptions of that idleness, also gives a
moral and political argument as to its legitimacy.
Though he discusses Rousseau’s idleness at some
length, Todorov concludes that it is not the solitary indi-
vidual, but the moral individual, that Rousseau “recom-
mends without hesitation” (Todorov 2001, 65–66).
Though Todorov is justifiably quick to qualify the hap-
piness of the moral individual as “frail,” it is still a curi-
ous claim, as the two prominent examples of such a path
in Rousseau’s corpus, Emile and Julie, are hardly rec-
ommended “without hesitation.” As impressive as the
two characters are, Emile still requires governing at the
end of his education, and in the Solitaires, we see that
Emile’s life cannot summarily be called happy. Similarly,
Julie’s happiness is conflicted, and she dies, most likely
willingly (see also Okin 1979, 175–76; Slonina 2020,
10). Though the happiness of the idler is also “frail,”
35835PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211035835Political Research QuarterlySnyder
1Dalton State College, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jacob T. Snyder, Assistant Professor of Political Science and
Philosophy, Dalton State College, 650 College Drive, Dalton, GA
30720, USA.
Defending Uselessness: Rousseau’s
Harmless and Happy Idleness
Jacob T. Snyder1
While also valuing useful citizenship, Rousseau offers what is perhaps the most substantive modern account and
defense of idleness. According to Rousseau, idleness’ attraction lies in its relation to human nature and its capacity for
producing our highest happiness. However, Rousseau is also careful to show that most existing forms of idleness are
false, and true idleness is a difficult achievement. The happiness available in idleness can only be attained when free
from vanity, obligation, and foresight. This specific form of idleness is also the only form that is morally and politically
defensible. Though Rousseau argues, in the First Discourse, that the useless are pernicious, this is only true of the falsely
idle that seek to undermine common morality and political attachment. True idleness, while still useless, satisfies
Rousseau’s core moral principle to not harm.
Rousseau, idleness, leisure, happiness
2022, Vol. 75(3) 906–917

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