Idleness, as we know, has a bad rap in Western culture, but it can be a philosophical experience in its own right. Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay in praise of it, and Oscar Wilde thought that “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world” as well as the most intellectual. The great, consummate idlers of literature (Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov or Melville’s Bartleby) are figures of metaphysical quest: They exemplify ways of being human with unusual complexity.
Idleness, then, reveals an experience of nothingness. While nothingness tends to occupy a central position in Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism, we in the West typically shun it; after all, one of the most characteristic branches of Western philosophy is ontology, the study of that which exists.
Yet, even if we do not choose to embrace nothingness, nothingness itself may choose to embrace us. It may not be that we don’t have anything to do, or that we’re bored, or that we would rather do it later, but just that we don’t see the point of it all. In our idleness we intuit a cosmic meaninglessness, which comes along with the realization that, with every action, we get only more entangled in the universal farce.