The devil’s workshop

By anyone’s standards, I think it would be fair to say that I am a busy person. What with 22 hours of class per week (and at least the same amount of time spent preparing for class), 8-10 hours of work (and about the same amount of time spent writing), 4 hours of choir rehearsal and vocal lessons, and several meetings and social events, my weeks are packed pretty full. Add in grocery shopping and meal preparation and church and cleaning and editing for friends and walking almost everywhere I go, and some days I’m asleep almost before my head hits the pillow. If you work full-time (or more than full-time) and/or have a family, then you’re probably busier still.

So you know what I mean when I say that some days hardly leave time to think!

I’ve taken to writing down little reminders to myself in a book I carry with me because I know that if I don’t, I’ll never remember. I keep my calendar digitally, and it’s very organized (including a timed to-do list), but I know that if I ever lost it, I might not even know where to show up the next day. I frequently get the feeling that my mind, which used to be able to memorize phone numbers and long sections of music and even my schedule for the day, has developed major holes in key areas—or, to use a different metaphor, the steel trap has rusted shut.

Yes, busyness has its drawbacks.

This is why some of my friends are always so surprised when I add another commitment. “You’re going to do what? How will you find the time?” Of course, I realize that there are only so many hours in the day (24, the last time I checked). But I like to be busy. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s because busyness has its benefits, too.

I’m a strong believer in the old phrase, Idleness is the devil’s workshop. People have been saying this for a very long time (in fact, much longer than I originally thought, as I’ll explain in a minute), and, like most things that people repeat for several generations, it has the ring of truth to it. (Sometime I’d love to talk about why simply repeating something for hundreds of years seems to make it more believable, but that’s a question for another day.)

Growing up, I know that my parents believed in the value of this phrase. It was always a dangerous thing to tell my mother that I was bored; her immediate response would be, “Oh? Well, I can think of a few things for you to do!” and it would be off to the broom closet or kitchen sink for me. Perhaps you remember a similar parental response. We learned in a hurry to keep ourselves busy!

Now, I had always imagined (without really knowing one way or the other) that this phrase came from Poor Richard’s Almanack, the book of pithy sayings and other information compiled anonymously by Benjamin Franklin beginning in 1732. However, although Poor Richard gave us many familiar sayings, the closest statement I could find on point was “Trouble springs from idleness, and grievous toil from needless ease”—a true statement, to be sure, but not quite the phrase we’re looking for.

Going back a bit further, we find Isaac Watts (1674–1748), an English hymnodist who in 1715 wrote a pamphlet entitled Divine Songs for Children. One of the poems was called “Against Idleness and Mischief,” and includes the lines, “For Satan finds some mischief still / For idle hands to do.” (For lovers of British fiction, this poem begins with the lines, “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour…” and is the basis for Lewis Carroll’s parody in Alice in Wonderland, which begins, “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail…”) We’re getting a bit closer now, but are not nearly there yet.

Both Franklin and Watts were probably thinking of John Bunyan (1628–1688), who wrote the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress probably beginning around 1675 (the year after Watts was born). To him is attributed the phrase, “An idle man’s brain is the Devil’s workshop,” but I’m unable to find exactly where he said this—it’s not in Pilgrim’s Progress. It has been attributed to him by Dr. William Alcott (uncle of Louisa May; he used the phrase in a pamphlet condemning the use of tobacco) and Dr. Benjamin Rush (also, interestingly, in condemning tobacco use), but neither of them had the courtesy to cite their source.

However, even Bunyan must have had some inspiration. Going back to a much earlier English author, it turns out that Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400) included a series of similar sayings in The Canterbury Tales (which was, interestingly enough, about pilgrims). In “The Tale of Melibee,” he writes:

Thou shalt in alle wise flee ydelnesse. For Salomon seith that “ydelnesse techeth a man to do manye yveles.” … And therfore seith Seint Jerome, “dooth somme goode dedes that the devel, which is oure enemy, ne fynde yow nat unocupied.” For the devel ne taketh nat lightly unto his werkynge swiche as he fyndeth occupied in goode werkes.

[You should in every way flee idleness. For Solomon says that “idleness teaches a man much evil.” … And Saint Jerome says, “Do some good deeds, that the Devil who is your enemy should not find you unoccupied.” For the Devil doesn’t easily take into his service those he finds occupied in good works.]

We can see how Bunyan’s words are reminiscent of Chaucer’s, just as Watts’ and Franklin’s are reminiscent of Bunyan’s. As time passes, the phrasing may change, but simple truths remain the same. And if  Chaucer points not only to St. Jerome (c. 347–420) but also to Solomon (c. 1011-932 BC), then it must be that the phrase is nearly as old as that wise king.

Actually, the exact phrase is not found in the Bible, but in the apocryphal book of Sirach; there, the author gives advice for the treatment of slaves: “Put him to work, that he may not be idle, for idleness teaches much evil” (Sirach 33:27). Although Solomon was not the author of Sirach, the book was probably written around 180 BC, thus making our little phrase very old indeed!

You may not believe that idleness will cause an evil supernatural being to set up shop in your heart, but I think we can all agree that keeping yourself busy is the best way to avoid depression, dark thoughts, and temptation. In fact, research on conformity and deviation conducted in the 1960s by Dr. Travis Hirschi suggests that involvement in conventional activities would keep someone’s time too occupied to allow him the indulgence of deviant behavior (Causes of Delinquency, 1969). While this may not account for white collar crime, it is certainly the philosophy behind many successful after-school programs in our nation’s urban communities.

In any case, if I write much more, someone will perhaps think to accuse me of idleness. Just keep in mind, the next time that you’re feeling overly busy, that great thinkers have warned of the alternative. It could be much worse—you could be bored!

But perhaps this is much ado about [doing] nothing…


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