Positively, The Best Thing a Person Can Have To Do Is Nothing

Charles Lamb? Théophile Gautier? Anonymous?

relax07Dear Quote Investigator: When I was choosing a major in college, people would ask me what I wished to do in life. I am somewhat indolent; hence, the following response reflects my underlying beliefs:

The best thing to have to do is nothing.

I usually did not share this thought with others. Interestingly, a similar sentiment has been expressed by both the English essayist Charles Lamb and the French writer Théophile Gautier. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1827 Charles Lamb wrote a letter to the poet Bernard Barton. He offered to help his friend, and the missive included an instance of the saying: 1

I would willingly come and work for you three weeks or so, to let you loose. Would I could sell or give you some of my leisure! POSTIVELY, THE BEST THING A MAN CAN HAVE TO DO IS NOTHING! and, next to that, perhaps, GOOD WORKS!

Here are additional selected citations in largely chronological order.

In 1835 the French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier published “Mademoiselle de Maupin” which included a thematically similar remark within the preface: 2

L’occupation la plus séante à un homme policé me paraît de ne rien faire, ou de fumer analytiquement sa pipe ou son cigarre. J’estime aussi beaucoup ceux qui jouent aux quilles, et aussi ceux qui font bien les vers.

In 1905 an English translation of Gautier’s work was published, and the pertinent passage was rendered as follows: 3

It appears to me that the most fitting occupation for a civilized man is to do nothing, or to smoke analytically his pipe or cigar. I also highly esteem those who play skittles and those who make good verses.

Gautier’s statement about the best job for a civilized individual was interesting enough to be printed together with a proper ascription to Gautier in an 1894 collection of sayings called “French Folly in Maxims of Philosophy” translated into English by Henri Pène du Bois: 4

The occupation most becoming to civilized man is to do nothing.

In 1912 a volume of “The World’s Wit and Humor” included a section dedicated to the words of Charles Lamb which contained an instance of the saying: 5

Positively, the best thing a man can have to do is nothing, and, next to that, perhaps, good works.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken printed an instance of Gautier’s remark in his monumental compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 6

The occupation most becoming to a civilized man is to do nothing.
THÉOPHILE GAUTIER: Caprices et zigzags,
1845

In conclusion, both Charles Lamb and Théophile Gautier crafted apposite remarks on this topic. QI would employ the versions specified in the first citations given above.

Image Notes: Illustration of a couple relaxing from bngdesigns at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1837, The Letters of Charles Lamb with a Sketch of His Life by Thomas Noon Talfourd, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter XVI: 1826 to 1828, Letter from Charles Lamb to Bernard Barton, Start Page 211, Quote Page 213, Published by Edward Moxon, Dover Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1837, Mademoiselle de Maupin: Double Amour, Volume 1 by Théophile Gautier, Quote Page 43, Société Belge de Libraire, Bruxelles. (Originally published in 1935)(Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1905, Mademoiselle de Maupin: A Romance of Love and Passion by Théophile Gautier, Comédie D’Amour Series, Section: Preface, Quote Page xxviii, Published by Société des Beaux-Arts, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1894 Copyright, French Folly in Maxims of Philosophy, Translated and Edited by Henri Pène du Bois, Statement Number: LXXVII, (Attributed to Théophile Gautier), Quote Page 14, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1912, The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia of the Classic Wit and Humor of All Ages and Nations, Volume 8: British: Austen to Thackeray, Section: Charles Lamb, Quote Page 34, Published by The Review of Reviews Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Idleness, Quote Page 568, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)