The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Franz Joseph and the Advantages of Idleness in Politics

When Franz Joseph (1830-1916) succeeded his uncle Ferdy the Fool as Emperor of Austria in 1848 everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The man at least was not a certifiable mental retard. Moreover, he was quite presentable, had a genuine sense of duty and was extremely hard-working and conscientious. Up to this day, tourists at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna are shown the Emperor’s desk at which he would sit every day from the crack of dawn, going through piles and piles of documents. And tourists are invariably impressed by this rare example of royal work ethic.

The elderly Franz Joseph

Considering the final outcome of all his activity – after all, the Habsburg Empire came to an end in 1918, only two years after Franz Joseph’s death - one is not so convinced. Ferdy the Fool, completely incapacitated for any mental work, had at least left matters in the hands of others. Franz Joseph felt that he could - and indeed should – undertake the governing of his empire himself. Thus, decisions of the utmost importance were made by a man, who may have been no idiot, but was simply slow and unimaginative. This is how A. J. P. Taylor, the Oxford historian, describes the Emperor:


“Franz Joseph distrusted ideas, because he couldn’t understand them. It was a perpetual puzzle to him that he could not make his empire work simply by sitting at his desk and signing documents for eight hours a day. Being both intensely determined to maintain his position and incapable of following an argument, it was impossible either to force or persuade him into a fixed political system.”

Franz Joseph at his desk, Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna

Bells should start ringing already at the sight of the posture of Franz Joseph at his desk. There is a reason why the ancient Greeks and Romans considered sitting upright, rather than lying, in company to be the surest sign of barbarism. Being stretched out on an exceptionally comfortable sofa was the posture that the ancient philosopher adopted. One can trust Socrates on that. It is in the spirit of Socrates, “the wisest man of Antiquity,” that Oscar Wilde says in one of his plays that “idleness is the most difficult and the most intellectual thing in the world.” More generally, one suspects that some hard thinking, rather than obsessive hard work, might have been much more beneficial. Not being able to understand the big ideas of his age – such as the need to give up some of his imperial power – Franz Joseph unwittingly contributed to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is Taylor’s interpretation in his classic The Habsburg Monarchy 1815-1918 (1942).


Experience shows us all the time, even though we choose to ignore its lessons, that there are many situations in life in which idleness serves us so much better. Conversely, we should seriously consider all the harm caused by the hard working. Wouldn’t the world have been a much better place if Hitler hadn’t been quite so energetic? Or, wouldn’t we all be better off if the bankers, who caused the financial crisis of 2008, that everybody else had to pay for, had suffered from an acute exhaustion syndrome and shown less activity? In fact, which of the great disasters in history has ever been caused by the lazy or, as the Nazis called them, the “work-shy”?

Comments are closed.