The Spectator "The Insupportable Labor Of Doing Nothing"

Joseph Addison, Richard Steele

"The Insupportable Labor Of Doing Nothing"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Sir Richard Steele was a busy and talented man. After dropping out of Oxford he served for a time in the dragoon and foot guards, but his literary aspirations were uppermost. He wrote a number of successful comedies and soon gained some notice as a playwright. An ebullient, witty person, he was always immersed in moneymaking schemes that kept him destitute. His great and lasting contribution to English literature was his founding, in 1709, of the first real English magazine. This was The Tatler, which ran two years. He was joined by Joseph Addison, who collaborated in the project and wrote some of the articles. The Tatler ceased publication in January, 1711, and was soon succeeded by the more famous Spectator, a daily which ran from March 1, 1711, to December 6, 1712. Of its 555 issues, Addison wrote about 274 and Steele about 240, while guest essayists contributed the remainder. These papers were a reaction to the excesses of the Restoration, and their basic purpose was to popularize morality and temper it with wit. They succeeded admirably in their design, their social criticism being witty, urbane, cheerful; and in addition, the papers are an unsurpassed running commentary on the life of the time, and a high literary standard is always upheld in them. Nearly any subject could be treated, with the exception of politics. A number of fictitious characters appeared in these pages, among them Mr. Spectator, the detached observer of human affairs. One literary device employed was the letters to the editor, nearly all of which were of course written by the authors–a practice not unknown to modern journalism. Steele prints a letter in The Spectator, for example, which is supposedly from Cambridge and tells of a new sect of philosophers, The Loungers; their fundamental belief, upon which their whole system is built, is "That Time being an implacable Enemy to and Destroyer of all things, ought to be paid in his own coin, and be destroyed and murdered without Mercy . . ." Steele offers a general comment:

I must be so just as to observe I have formerly seen of this Sect at our other University; tho' not distinguished by the Appelation which the learned Historian, my Correspondent, reports they bear at Cambridge. . . . The Lowngers are satisfied with being merely Part of the Number of Mankind, without distinguishing themselves from amongst them. They may be said rather to suffer their Time to pass, than to spend it. . . . When one of this Order happens to be a Man of Fortune, the Expence of his Time is transferred to his Coach and Horses, and his Life is to be measured by their Motion . . . The chief Entertainment one of these Philosophers can possibly propose to himself, is to get a Relish of Dress . . . When the Lowngers leave an Academick Life, . . . [and] retire to the Seats of their Ancestors, they usually join a Pack of Dogs, and employ their Days in defending their Poultry from Foxes: I do not know any other Method that any of this Order has ever taken to make a Noise in the World; but I shall inquire into such about this Town as have arrived at the Dignity of being Lowngers by the Force of natural Parts, without having ever seen an University; and send my Correspondent, for the Embellishment of his Book, the Names and History of those who pass their Lives without any Incidents at all; and how they shift Coffee-houses and Chocolate-houses from Hour to Hour, to get over the insupportable Labour of doing nothing.