Alas and alas! you may take it how you will, but the services of no single individual are indispensable. Atlas[24] was just a gentleman with a protracted nightmare! And yet you see merchants who go and labour themselves into a great fortune and thence into bankruptcy court; scribblers who keep scribbling at little articles until their temper is a cross to all who come about them, as though Pharaoh should set the Israelites to make a pin instead of a pyramid;[25] and fine young men who work themselves into a decline,[26] and are driven off in a hearse with white plumes upon it. Would you not suppose these persons had been whispered, by the Master of the Ceremonies, the promise of some momentous destiny? and that this lukewarm bullet on which they play their farces was the bull's-eye and centrepoint of all the universe? And yet it is not so. The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.


This essay was first printed in the _Cornhill Magazine_, for July 1877, Vol. XXXVI, pp. 80-86. It was next published in the volume, _Virginibus Puerisque_, in 1881. Although this book contains some of the most admirable specimens of Stevenson's style, it did not have a large sale, and it was not until 1887 that another edition Appeared. The editor of the _Cornhill Magazine_ from 1871 to 1882 was Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), whose kindness and encouragement to the new writer were of the utmost importance at this critical time. That so grave and serious a critic as Leslie Stephen should have taken such delight in a _jeu d'esprit_ like _Idlers_, is proof, if any were needed, for the breadth of his literary outlook. Stevenson had been at work on this article a year before its appearance, which shows that his _Apology for Idlers_ demanded from him anything but idling. As Graham Balfour says, in his _Life of Stevenson_, I, 122, "Except before his own conscience, there was hardly any time when the author of the _Apology for Idlers_ ever really neglected the tasks of his true vocation." In July 1876 he wrote to Mrs. Sitwell, "A paper called 'A Defence of Idlers' (which is really a defence of R.L.S.) is in a good way." A year later, after the publication of the article, he wrote (in August 1877) to Sidney Colvin, "Stephen has written to me apropos of 'Idlers,' that something more in that vein would be agreeable to his views. From Stephen I count that a devil of a lot." It is noteworthy that this charming essay had been refused by _Macmillan's Magazine_ before Stephen accepted it for the _Cornhill._ (_Life,_ I, 180).

[Note 1: The conversation between Boswell and Johnson, quoted at the beginning of the essay, occurred on the 26 October 1769, at the famous Mitre Tavern. In Stevenson's quotation, the word "all" should be inserted after the word "were" to correspond with the original text, and to make sense. Johnson, though constitutionally lazy, was no defender of Idlers, and there is a sly humour in Stevenson's appealing to him as authority. Boswell says in his _Life_, under date of 1780, "He would allow no settled indulgence of idleness upon principle, and always repelled every attempt to urge excuses for it. A friend one day suggested, that it was not wholesome to study soon after dinner. JOHNSON: 'Ah, sir, don't give way to such a fancy. At one time of my life I had taken it into my head that it was not wholesome to study between breakfast and dinner.'"]

[Note 2: _Lese-respectability._ From the French verb _leser_, to hurt, to injure. The most common employment of this verb is in the phrase "_lese-majeste,"_ high treason. Stevenson's mood here is like that of Lowell, when he said regretfully, speaking of the eighteenth century, "Responsibility for the universe had not then been invented." (_Essay on Gray_.)]

[Note 3: _Gasconade_. Boasting. The inhabitants of Gascony (_Gascogne)_ a province in the south-west of France, are proverbial not only for their impetuosity and courage, but for their willingness to brag of the possession of these qualities.

Robert Louis Stevenson
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