IdleTheory Freedom and Constraint

In Idle Theory, all life alternates between being busy and being idle. The busy period is devoted to self-maintenance activities, and the idle period may be given over to any activity, or no activity at all.

In human life, the busy period corresponds to working for a living. This work always entails restricting activity to a small subset of the total possible range of activities. Someone who earns a living farming is constrained to perform farming activities - ploughing, sowing, weeding, watering, harvesting, threshing, and so on -. Someone who earns a living writing books is constrained to a set of writing activities - typing, editing, spellchecking, and so on -.

The restricted range of activities during busy time may include a great many different tasks, or very few. A factory worker may be constrained to simply feed a sheet of metal into a press, and then take out the finished article.

The Fisherman as Part-time Free Agent.

fisherman A simple example of constraint to a single activity can be imagined in the case of a fisherman who catches fish to eat using hook and line. The activity of the fisherman consists in putting bait onto the hook, casting out the line, and then waiting for a fish to take the bait, at which point the fisherman must jerk the line so as to hook the fish. Almost all of the fisherman's time is given over to sitting motionless, holding the line, intently waiting for the slight tug that means that a fish is taking the bait. Occasionally, he pulls up the line, and replaces the bait. But the activity to which he is almost entirely constrained is one of sitting still and attentively feeling the line. If he lets his attention wander, a fish may take the bait without him noticing. So this fisherman cannot watch the horizon, or the birds overhead, or the waves: he must focus his attention on the line he holds in his hand.

If fish are plentiful, and eagerly take the bait, such a fisherman might catch all the fish he needs within a few minutes, pulling one fish out of the water after another in quick succession. But if fish are scarce, or not eager to take the bait, then it may take many hours to catch the amount of fish he needs to live.

When enough fish have been caught, and catching fish is all that he must do to maintain himself, then the remainder of his time can be given over to other activities. In this idle time, he can do as he pleases. He is not constrained to a single activity. Instead, an infinite number of activities lie open to him. He can walk along the beach. He can swim. He can watch the birds. He can study the sky, He can collect seashells.

Thus this fisherman alternates between being busy attentively fishing, and idly doing whatever spontaneously engages his interest. Busy and idle time means alternation between one activity and many possible activities. If fish are scarce, he may spend most of his time fishing, with brief idle interludes.

If fish are abundant, he may spend little time fishing, with most of his time available for other activities.

Fishing, for this fisherman, is not an optional take-it-or-leave-it activity. If he doesn't go fishing, he catches no fish, starves and dies. He is constrained to keep catching fish, or die. He must choose every day to go fishing, or never choose again.

1 From Latin, ne-='not', cessare='to be idle': necessity is lack of idleness. So lack of idleness is the mother of invention.

The time that he must on average busy himself fishing each day is time that is already spoken for, assigned to a particular activity. That amount of time is time that is not available for him to dispose as he pleases, but must be devoted to fishing. It is only during unassigned idle time that he can do as he pleases. Thus idle and busy states are not simply times in which an individual does different things, but are rather states of freedom and constraint. During the busy state, the individual is constrained (on pain of death) to a narrow range of necessary1 activities. During the idle state, the individual is free to engage in an actually infinite range of possible activities.

2 Apparently doing two things at once can only be achieved by swapping attention between two activities, neither of which requires complete attention.

The busy state always entails focusing attention on some activity. Such absorption in a task entails obliviousness to anything else that may be happening. The attentive fisherman does not see passing ships, or clouds or birds. His entire attention is given to the fishing line he holds. He doesn't notice, or pay attention to, anything else. The fisherman cannot do two things at once.2 If he is able to talk while he is fishing, he is simply alternating attention between fishing and talking - and while he is talking or listening he is not fishing.


The idle state may involve focusing attention on some activity, or shifting attention from one matter to another, or not being attentive at all. It is only during his idle time that the fisherman can see the shore on which he stands, the waves breaking on the beach, the seabirds wheeling overhead, the clouds drifting above, ships passing on the horizon. It is only during this idle time that he can widen his attention to take in the world around him. When he is busy, it is closed off from him, as his attention narrows to the single thread held between his fingers.

Thus the human experience of life, of the diversity of sounds and shapes and odours and textures, is the experience of idle time, not of busy working time. All the fullness and richness of life is the experience of idle time, and oblivion the experience of busy time. When idleness falls to the point where an individual is continuously busy, oblivion is total. And, in Idle Theory, zero idleness means death.

Human life is only free to the extent it is idle. A life of perfect idleness - were it attainable - would be a life of complete freedom. A life of zero idleness is a life of complete constraint. Human life is mostly lived somewhere between these two extremes, and human beings are part-time free agents.

In Idle Theory, idleness means life, and work means death. These are not subjective associations, but are explicit within the Idle Life model, in which zero idleness is the threshold of physical death.

This idea of incomplete or partial freedom, of human beings as part time free agents, underpins the entire approach of Idle Theory to human life, and distinguishes it from a conventional wisdom that assumes human freedom to be the datum of human life - something that comes automatically bundled with being alive.

Life At Gunpoint.

It might be objected that the fisherman is free to choose what to do, at all times. He can stop fishing at any time, and do something else. He is his own master. In this formal sense he is free.

But however the fisherman arranges his time, he must always put in some amount of time fishing, on pain of death - after which he will cease to choose to do anything. The fisherman has to choose to spend some amount of time fishing. In doing so, he is choosing to go on choosing. If he chooses not to do any fishing, he has chosen to stop choosing, chosen to die.

Human life is not different from living under the barrel of a gun, under the threat "Do this, or die." Of course, anyone faced with such a threat can choose to refuse to do what is asked of them - and pay with their lives, if whoever holds the gun to them is not bluffing. The only difference from everyday life is that necessity only periodically holds a gun to a human and says: "Find and eat food, or die." - and it never bluffs. That such necessity is not actually a person, and does not hold a actual gun, makes no difference to the reality of the threat.

Where human life is very idle, nature only holds that gun to the head for a few minutes each day. Where human life is very busy, nature holds that gun to the head almost all day long.

While someone living at gunpoint remains free to choose whether to do what is demanded of them or not, and is in this sense formally "free", such a condition is not ordinarily held to be a condition of freedom. Where people are captured and held at gunpoint, they are usually regarded as unfree, and are only regarded as free when they escape or overcome their captors. They are no more free than slaves who are threatened with beatings, and perhaps death, if they do not perform their masters' will. When such slaves are freed, they are freed from their tyrannical masters. But the free life they thereafter live is not itself wholly free. Living under the lash, or at the point of a gun, is not a wholly different condition from the ordinary life to which freed persons return. Ordinary life, if it is relatively idle, is simply a milder experience of the same, as if lived under a slaveowner who seldom required his slaves to do anything.

A slave, if he is not being continually worked by his master, is also a part-time free agent. He does what his master requires, but when there is nothing to do, he does what he himself chooses to do. The emancipation of slaves does not actually set them free. At best it makes them more free. At worst, where an easy-going master frees a slave to live a life where he must work far harder than he ever did as a slave, emancipation entails a decrease in freedom.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 3 Oct 1998