Spring 2008

The Young and the Restless

A history of busy idleness

Daniel Rosenberg

How pleasant it is at the end of the day,

No follies to have to repent,

But reflect on the past, and be able to say,

My time has been properly spent!­
—Jane Taylor, “The Way to Be Happy”

In 1818, the engraver Jefferys Taylor published a short instructive novel called Harry’s Holiday, or the Doings 
of One Who Had Nothing to Do.[1] This was to be the first of his many juvenile books and one of his best. It also has the distinction of presenting some very odd examples of misbehavior. While other boys in nineteenth-century fiction were off thieving and cavorting and getting into all kinds of canonical mischief, Taylor’s protagonist, Harry Stapleton, was getting into hot water over rarer misdemeanors, among the most curious of which is the unsanctioned hand-copying of a fifty-year-old educational chart, Joseph Priestley’s New Chart of History.[2] Not that Taylor meant anything mysterious in this. As Taylor explains it, Harry made four errors in contriving to copy the chart: the first was willfulness—he had no real reason to want to do it; the second, impatience—he didn’t take the time to do this delicate task properly; the third, lack of perseverance—when he got frustrated, he gave up; fourth, and most interesting of all—in choosing to copy this elaborate engraving by hand, Harry misconstrued the value of labor in an economy of mechanical reproduction.

This was something of which Jefferys Taylor, raised and home-schooled by an engraver, was keenly conscious. And it seems quite likely that Taylor, as a boy, was himself the innovator this peculiar error, and his own father, Isaac Taylor, the model for the fictional father who corrects it. In the story, Harry’s father tries hard to head Harry off at the pass, to dissuade him from even beginning this scribal effort. “It will cost you a great deal of labour and time to copy that neatly from beginning to end,” Harry’s father argues, “ ... and, when done, it would only be another of what we have already; it is something like copying a printed book, which would not be worthwhile, you know, because the time it would take must be more valuable than the money it would cost; and with respect to the operation of copying, I am afraid you will find it very difficult to draw all the lines in that chart without a blot or an error; and I can assure you it will be a very fatiguing task to write in all the names.”[3]

Of course, had Harry been able to carry his project through, his father might have admired his perseverance, and he could probably have been convinced of the instructive merit of immersing oneself in the details of history. Still, that’s not the way the book plays it. In the view of Harry’s father, taking up the chart in the first place is a mistake, and it is only one particularly odd example of the kind of misplaced enthusiasm for which he finds himself correcting his dervish of a child. Harry’s persistent error is not laziness or lack of industry in a simple sense; rather it is a roving attention that renders all of his efforts idle. Interestingly, though, Harry’s Holiday is never quite clear on what we should call this particular problem, and there are very good historical reasons for this. For my own part, I would call it sloth.

Speaking generally, we might identify two different approaches to the history of sloth. For want of better terms, I will call the first approach lazy and the second slothful. The first approach, the lazy approach, would begin with ordinary language: it would ask what sloth means in our language and culture, how it functions in our system of values, and so forth. These are good, legitimate questions which may help to elucidate sloth as it is. A second approach, which I will call slothful (and which I will opt for), would bracket the ordinary meaning of sloth in favor of an antiquated usage that may have some renewed utility today.

To understand sloth in the sense that I propose, it is important to be precise about the meaning of the term. In contemporary English, we are blessed with an abundance of slothish words. A short list might include indolence, idleness, inertia, lethargy, listlessness, sluggishness, inactivity, inaction, torpor, boredom, apathy, deadness, listlessness, paralysis, passivity, dullness, weariness, negligence, dilatoriness, laxness, joylessness, unmindfulness, trifling, time-killing, time-wasting, dilly-dallying, lackadaisicalness, indifference, impassivity, and laziness. However, strictly speaking, sloth is not the same as any single one of these terms. Historically, sloth is a bipolar concept, signifying a kind of dissatisfaction that may be expressed equally through immobility or restlessness. And it was precisely to capture this ambivalence that the term was first adopted in Latin.

Frontispiece of Harry’s Holiday, by Jefferys Taylor (1818). Courtesy Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

In the Western tradition, the first important discussion of the concept of sloth occurs in the works of the fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus.[4] The Latin term that Evagrius uses (which would several hundred years later be translated into English as sloth) is interesting in itself. The term is acedia, from the Greek for lack of care (and not from the Latin acidus or sour, as the early modern etymologists would have had it).[5] Prior to the generation of Evagrius, the term acedia had no usage in Latin. Apparently, Evagrius and his fellow monks found it important to distinguish between a simple, everyday carelessness or laziness for which Latin, like English, had plenty of terms, and a more profound condition of uncaring especially relevant in the monastic context. It is worth pointing out, parenthetically, that in the eighteenth century, a similar kind of borrowing takes place when English writers adopt the French term ennui to designate not just everyday boredom, but a special and powerful kind of boredom equivalent to a psychological or a moral condition.[6] Indeed, in the 1770s, the London Observer remarked ruefully that the English nation had been fortunate until that time to have gotten along without such a word.[7]

In Evagrius, acedia refers to a loss of the joy in God sometimes experienced by the ascetic and to a consequent distraction from contemplative experience. In his discussions, Evagrius is strikingly specific about how acedia, or “the boredom of the cell,” may be felt. For the ascetic, he says, it is a perturbation of the soul that is tightly wrapped up with the temporal regulation of monastic practice. Evagrius writes:

The demon of acedia ... is the most burdensome of all the demons. It besets the monk at about the fourth hour of the morning (10 am), encircling his soul until about the eighth hour (2 pm). First it makes the sun seem to slow down or stop moving, so that the day appears to be fifty hours long. Then it makes the monk keep looking out of his window and forces him to go bounding out of his cell to examine the sun to see how much longer it is to three o’clock, and to look round in all directions in case any of the brethren is there. Then it makes him hate the place and his way of life and his manual work. It makes him ... think that there is no charity left among the brethren; that no one is going to come and visit him.[8]

For Evagrius, acedia was a specifically monastic problem, just as was the regulated time schedule itself. And neither would become a general cultural concern for roughly another millennium. Evagrius related acedia to more mundane feelings such as sadness and apathy and also, as is clear in the passage just quoted, to restlessness, impatience, and even hyperactivity. Throughout the Middle Ages, this constellation of feelings or symptoms was understood to characterize what in Latin was called acedia and what in English was referred to as sloth.

During the late Middle Ages, the concept was finally dissociated from monastic practice and given a scientific explanation based on Aristotelian psychology. Even during this period, however, its typical expressions were still taken to include restlessness, verbosity, and unregulated curiosity.[9] It was not until the Renaissance that the notion of sloth became exclusively associated with inactivity, whether spiritual or secular. This was a radical transformation. All of these characteristics that Evagrius or Aquinas would have immediately associated with sloth—distraction, hyperactivity, and what we still call “idle” curiosity—increasingly seemed like its opposites. In modern English, the term sloth gradually lost its linguistic pride of place and faded into a vague equivalence with the other words previously discussed. Of course, our language never lost its need for bipolar terms. In the Renaissance, some of the semantic slack left by the evacuation of sloth was picked up by the term melancholy.[10] But, in general usage and in the rapidly expanding sphere of moralizing literature of the early modern period, no term ever quite filled the gap. And with the rise of a powerful ideology of productivity in the eighteenth century in Europe, the term sloth itself became equated with simple laziness. From one perspective, this makes perfect sense: unproductiveness was a high vice of the eighteenth century, and clock-watching of various sorts a growing obsession. But as Harry’s Holiday labors to argue, activity and productivity are not the same, and improperly directed activity causes problems that a simple vocabulary of laziness does little to elucidate.

Detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, by Hieronymus Bosch, 1485.

One would of course be forgiven for wondering whether Jefferys Taylor or any of the other Taylors of Ongar actually knew anything about laziness in the first place, whether it ever even occurred to them as a problem worthy of discussion. To say that the Taylors were industrious would understate the case considerably. Each generation of Taylors, beginning with Jefferys Taylor’s grandfather, a notable painter and engraver, and secretary of the English Society of the Arts, bore with great seriousness its moral and intellectual burdens, and above all the responsibility for educating the generation to come. And, if the results are any indication, the Taylor children regarded their part in the enterprise with equal gravity. In the years between 1814 and 1867, the Taylor clan was particularly active, publishing at least seventy-three books, to say nothing of the scores of others for which they created original images. So remarkable was this family that it was cited by Francis Galton as case evidence for the inherited character of genius.[11] It needs to be mentioned, however, that for evidence of nature versus nurture, Galton could certainly have found a less ambiguous case than the education-obsessed Taylors.[12]

Though they published on many subjects, it was in the area of intellectual and moral development that the Taylors were most prolific. They wrote poems and stories, textbooks and homilies, and many other works designed specially for children. Even today, it is probably the rare English speaker who does not know at least one or two verses from the Taylors such as those from the 1806 poem by Jefferys’s sisters, Jane and Ann, that begins, “Twinkle, twinkle little star.”[13] The Taylors were innovators of writing targeted at specific age groups. Indeed, the first modern usage of the word teen was introduced by the father, Isaac Taylor, in his 1818 conduct manual, Advice to the Teens, or Practical Helps Towards the Formation of One’s Own Character.[14] Thus, when Jefferys Taylor set out to write his own book, he was treading on well-known familial ground.

As Harry’s Holiday begins, it is the eleventh birthday of our protagonist Henry Stapleton. Harry, as he is known to his family, is a smart, loyal, educated, imaginative, and energetic boy. But he is also something else, something that Jefferys Taylor has trouble finding a name for. For his birthday, our smart, loyal, educated, imaginative, and energetic protagonist receives two gifts from his parents, reflective of both their affection and their aspirations for their son. From his father, Harry receives a beautiful little pocket watch; from his mother, a copy of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, a philosophical novel about the search for happiness.[15]

This is all well and good, Harry thinks—and a new watch is particularly well and good—but an even better present would be a break from the incredibly well-meaning household of his parents altogether, to be liberated from the demands of schedule that are always so pressing in the Stapleton house. As Harry himself puts it, “I should like to be Robinson Crusoe. Father may doubt it, but I know it. I dare say I know what I should like myself—but he knows nothing about it; he does not want to be any body else, I dare say, because he can do just as he likes; and what is the reason I may not? It is doing as one likes is the thing; it is so disagreeable to be obliged to obey just to a minute, and to be forced to go when that bell rings, let me be about what I will; as if I could not go to my lessons as well afterwards![16]

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Sloth, from “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Engraving in reverse from an original drawing dated 1557.

As things go in children’s books, wishes like Harry’s are usually granted, and usually to terrible but instructive effect, and that is precisely what happens here. On reflection, Harry’s loving, intentional, enlightened, experimentalist, and time-conscious parents find no reason to deny Harry his wish, at least for a period. Indeed, they see every reason in the world to grant it. To them, it appears a perfect opportunity for a lesson in the value of schedule—something, Harry’s father notes, “not easily done by words.”[17] So, Harry and his parents do a deal: Harry will have a holiday of one week with no schedule, letting the chips fall where they may.

It is no great surprise what happens next. Harry gets himself into various illuminating kinds of trouble. In rapid succession, he tries everything he can think of to amuse himself; as soon as he tires of one activity, he moves on to another. Not that garden variety laziness is altogether absent here. In addition to Harry, the book gives us a classically indolent character in Harry’s layabout friend, Edward Vowles, who sulks into the story now and again only to sulk away—all in contrast to Harry who is much too busy to waste his time in sulking. Harry has much better ways to waste his time, and he has lots of them. In the course of his short holiday, he manages to waste his time renovating his rabbit cage, building an electrical machine, painting a wheelbarrow, and rewriting Aesop’s fables in verse.[18] And that’s not all: he engages in optical experiments, plays trap-ball, attends lectures, leads an expedition, flies his kite, and copies a historical chart.

Of course, in the intended terms of the story, all of these activities really are a waste of time, not because they are intrinsically useless, but, as we have seen with the chart, because Harry misunderstands their importance, misapplies his energies, and doesn’t stick with any of them long enough to derive any value. And the very fact that most of these activities could be productive only goes to emphasize the point. Harry loses his rabbits, breaks the electrical equipment, wastes money on unused paint, gets his friends lost in the woods, and plots his chart on an uneven scale. And it’s not as though Harry doesn’t know what’s going on. To the contrary, he finds the whole situation humiliating and saddening. His aim, from the beginning, is not to avoid anything, but to do everything in his own time, or, to quote Harry directly, to “prove … that there is no need for so much bellringing to tell me what to do, or when to do it.”[19]

The issues that concerned Taylor equally concerned the other authors in his family. Advice to the Teens, for example, searches widely for an adequate vocabulary to talk about the specific sorts of distraction faced by an educated, middle-class teenager. In Isaac’s work, the key term is not laziness or indolence but “desultoriness.”[20] Desultory means scattered, disconnected, or lacking a definite plan. Charmingly, it comes from desultor, a circus performer who leaps from horse to horse, which itself derives from the Latin salire, to leap. The key developmental danger for educated middle-class teens, as Isaac Taylor diagnoses it, is not that they may wish to do nothing; it is that, à la Harry Stapleton, they may wish to do everything all at once.

Joseph Priestley’s A New Chart of History (1769). Courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

The same terminological inquiry is continued in a very popular short story by Jane Taylor, the daughter of Isaac and the sister of Jefferys, in 1820, one year after Harry’s Holiday. In the story, called “Busy Idleness,” Jane attempts to finally fix a name for the Harry Stapleton phenomenon.[21] The shape of this story itself doesn’t take much explaining. It reads very much like a girls’ version of Harry’s Holiday. In it, two sisters, Charlotte and Caroline Dawson, are left alone while their mother goes on a trip. When Mrs. Dawson returns, she finds that Caroline has done her homework and chores. Charlotte, on the other hand, has begun dozens of projects—reading William Cowper, learning shorthand, organizing bookshelves, making a quilt—and has completed none of them.[22] Like Harry, she too tries her hand at versifying, attempting a history of England in rhyme, though, as the narrator notes, “the epic stopped short some hundred years before the Norman conquest.”[23] For her behavior, Caroline is rewarded with several gifts, a beautiful little watch chief among them. Since Charlotte has completed nothing, she receives a package of gifts from each of which her parents have cruelly removed some key component. She gets a fan without a fastening pin, a penknife without a blade, and a telescope without a lens. Still, as the narrator says, Charlotte was, “greatly encouraged to discover that the last remaining article was a watch; for as she heard it tick, she felt no doubt that this, at least was complete, but, upon examination, she discovered that there was no hour hand, the minute hand alone pursuing its lonely and useless track.”[24] Jane Taylor had a number of terms for Charlotte’s disposition, but the key term in the story is the beautiful oxymoron announced in its title, “busy idleness.” Just as in the case of Harry Stapleton, what is at issue for Charlotte Dawson is not laziness. Charlotte is always busy. And this makes perfect sense according to the moral scheme laid out by Isaac: those who do not manage their time can never repose.

This moral is, of course, familiar today, as are Harry and Charlotte, characters who in so many ways seem prototypically modern. We live in a moment obsessed with time management and hyper-attention. So much so that it is hardly necessary to point out the feelings of frustration and emptiness, tristitia, to use the Latin from Aquinas, that we are all supposed to be experiencing in our compulsive email checking, web surfing, texting, and the rest of it, nor to emphasize the immense and growing piles of self-help literature aimed at helping us address this condition. For this reason, it is important to notice that the problem of busy idleness is not unique to our time. This is not to say that there is nothing modern about it: the emergence of the question of busy idleness in a secular context during the early part of the modern period represents a significant development, as does the reorientation of our morality toward questions of productivity. And these emerging concerns are clearly registered in the history of our modern languages. In the nineteenth century, English speakers innovated and borrowed like mad, trying to find the right way to talk about restless distraction. And the Taylors’ busy idleness was right in the mix. Though the adjectival combination “busy, idle” existed earlier, this new substantive caught the imagination of many contemporaries and filled a linguistic gap that seems to have been widely perceived. In the middle of the century, for example, Jane’s term became an important weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of social improvement. Florence Nightingale, for instance, uses “busy idleness” as the name for the frenetic and unproductive activity of the new middle-class (and especially female) subject for whom everything is provided. For a time, the term “busy idleness” captured something of the zeitgeist, though it faced able competition from other, more exotic terms such as decadence and ennui.

But busy idleness is not decadence. It is something that, from the perspective of 1818, at once harkens backward and forward historically. The Taylors had no love for the lazy. In Harry’s Holiday, there is no character lower than the sluggard Edward Vowles. But in the universe of the Taylors, garden variety laziness was nothing more than that. For the Taylors, the more pressing problem was something for which an exact name was wanting. For a couple of centuries now, we’ve been improvising on this theme, trying to figure the right way to talk about the restless distraction that, in the period of the Taylors, already seemed epidemic. The Taylors called it busy idleness; today we have a whole new vocabulary of disorders to apply. But, in order to get the thing right, and at the same time not to forget our own rootedness in a longstanding moralizing tradition, we might do well to call it sloth.

  1. Jefferys Taylor, Harry’s Holiday, or the Doings of One Who Had Nothing to Do (London: Rest Fenner, 1818). Citations here to the 1851 edition. Epigraph from Jane Taylor, “The Way to Be Happy,” in Original Poems for Infant Minds (London: Darton and Harvey, 1806), vol. 2, p. 113.
  2. Remembered now for his discovery of oxygen, early in his career Joseph Priestley was best known for A Chart of Biography (London: J. Johnson, 1765) and A New Chart of History (London: J. Johnson, 1769), which revolutionized the graphic representation of history and influenced the development of statistical graphics. See my “Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, no. 36 (2007), pp. 55–104.
  3. Jefferys Taylor, Harry’s Holiday, p. 71.
  4. Sigfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967; Reinhard Clifford Kuhn, The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
  5. “Acedia,” “Accidie,” and “Sloth,” in Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  6. Patricia Ann Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  7. Spacks, p. 32.
  8. Evagrius Ponticus, “Praktikos 12,” trans. Luke Dysinger. Available at www.ldysinger.com/Evagrius/00_Introd/12_var-acedia.htm
  9. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), vol. 35, pp. 21–33.
  10. Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art (London: Nelson, 1964), pp. 300–306.
  11. Francis Galton, English Men of Science (London: Macmillan & Co., 1874); Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius (New York: D. Appleton, 1870).
  12. Christina Duff Stewart, The Taylors of Ongar, An Analytical Bio-bibliography (New York: Garland, 1975); Isaac Taylor, The Family Pen: Memorials Biographical and Literary, of the Taylor Family of Ongar (London: Jackson, Walford and Hodder, 1867); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004–2007).
  13. Jane Taylor and Ann Taylor, Rhymes for the Nursery (London: Darton and Harvey, 1806), pp. 10–11.
  14. Isaac Taylor, Advice to the Teens, or Practical Helps Towards the Formation of One’s Own Character (London: Rest Fenner, 1818). Taylor’s other juvenile titles include The Child’s Birthday (1811), Bunyan Explained to a Child (1825), The Mine (1829), and The Ship (1830).
  15. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1759) also explores questions of boredom and distraction and ends with a “conclusion in which noting is concluded.” The 1851 edition of Harry’s Holiday contains some small changes: in place of Rasselas, Harry receives a book entitled, Boy Kings of the Seven Seas, reminiscent of Jefferys Taylor’s own book, The Young Islanders (1842).
  16. Taylor, Harry’s Holiday, pp. 8–9.
  17. Taylor, Harry’s Holiday, p. 119.
  18. Taylor pokes fun at himself by putting Harry onto one of his own projects. See Jefferys Taylor, Aesop in Rhyme (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1820).
  19. Taylor, Harry’s Holiday, p. 78.
  20. Isaac Taylor, Advice to the Teens, pp. 1–3; 17–18; 40–41.
  21. Jane Taylor, “Busy Idleness,” in The Writings of Jane Taylor (Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1832), vol. 3, pp. 179–189; first published in Youth’s Magazine (May 1820), pp. 146–156.
  22. The reference to William Cowper (1731–1800) in this story is no less motivated than is the reference to Johnson in Harry’s Holiday. Note the resonance with Cowper’s poem “Retirement”: “A mind unnerv’d, or indispos’d to bear/ The weight of subjects worthiest of her care,/ Whatever hopes a change of scene inspires,/ Must change her nature, or in vain retires./ An idler is a watch that wants both hands,/ As useless if it goes as when it stands.”
  23. Jane Taylor, “Busy Idleness,” p. 182.
  24. Jane Taylor, “Busy Idleness,” p. 188.

Daniel Rosenberg is associate professor of history in the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon and editor-at-large of Cabinet.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.