The simple life is the good life. This is a sturdy perennial among philosophical beliefs about how we should live; intellectuals have been peddling it for more than two millennia, from Socrates to Thoreau, from the Buddha to Wendell Berry.
And it still has a sizable following. Magazines like Real Simple beckon us from the checkout line; Oprah Winfrey routinely interviews supporters of simple living like Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist mindfulness instructor; and the Slow Movement, which urges a return to pre-industrial essentials, has adherents on every continent.
Throughout most of human history, economical simplicity was considered a moral virtue because it was a necessity rather than a choice. However, with the development of industrial capitalism and a consumer culture, a system devoted to perpetual expansion evolved, as did a population (dubbed ‘the market’) that was empowered and encouraged to buy a lot of items that, by previous standards, was excess to necessities. As a result, there is a schism between our inherent traditional values and the consumerist imperatives implanted in us by current society.
The gap between what philosophers advocated and how people lived was not as wide in pre-modern times. Riches offered security, but even for the wealthy, wealth gave weak protection from catastrophes like as war, starvation, sickness, injustice, and rulers’ disfavor. Despite being one of Rome’s wealthiest men, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was put to death by Nero. The vast majority — slaves, serfs, peasants, and laborers – had essentially no chance of gaining even minor riches.
Before machine-based agriculture, representative democracy, civil rights, antibiotics, and aspirin, simply living a long life without too much suffering was considered a good life. People nowadays, at least in rich cultures, demand and expect (and can typically get) a lot more. Living simply now appears to many people to be merely uninteresting.
Nonetheless, there appears to be an increasing interest in rediscovering the benefits of simple life, particularly among millennials. Some of this may reflect nostalgia for a pre-industrial or pre-consumerist world, as well as sympathy for the moral argument that living simply makes you a better person, by cultivating desirable traits like frugality, resilience, and independence – or a happier person, by promoting peace of mind and good health, and keeping you close to nature.
These are sound arguments. Despite the formal reverence accorded to their teachings, the sages have proven notably unpersuasive. Millions of people continue to run around obtaining and spending, purchasing lottery tickets, working long hours, accruing debt, and seeking to climb the greasy pole 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Why is this the case?
One apparent solution is plain old hypocrisy. We admire the thrifty ideology while neglecting its principles in our daily lives. We applaud Pope Francis’s humble lifestyle as a proof of his moral purity, while yet yearning for and cheering on economic progress fueled, in large part, by desire for bigger houses, nicer automobiles, and other luxury items.
But the issue isn’t simply that our conduct contradicts our claimed ideals. Our attitudes toward simplicity and luxury, austerity and indulgence, are inherently contradictory. We criticise excessive or tasteless expenditure while praising monuments of previous extravagance, such as Beijing’s Forbidden City or Versailles’ grandeur, as extremely desirable. The fact is that much of what we term “culture” is driven by excess.
Contrary to popular belief, the case for living simply was most compelling when most people had no option but to do so. Traditional reasons for simple life essentially justify a necessity. However, the same arguments have less traction when economical simplicity is a choice, one way of life among several. The frugality mentality thus becomes difficult to market.
That may be changing as a result of two factors: economics and environmentalism. When a recession hits, as it has recently (revealing fundamental instabilities in an economic system devoted to perpetual expansion), millions of individuals find themselves in situations where frugality becomes a necessity, and the worth of its related qualities is reinforced.
We are already witnessing a trend for capitalism to widen the gap between the ‘have plenty’ and the ‘have nots’ in civilizations such as the United States. These rising inequities necessitate a new criticism of excess and waste. When so many people live below the poverty line, overt displays of richness and luxury seem inappropriate. Furthermore, the unequal distribution of wealth signifies a missed opportunity.
Epicurus and other sages of simplicity believed that if certain fundamental requirements were met, one may live perfectly well – a viewpoint supported in modern times by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs.’ If right, it is an argument for using surplus income to ensure that everyone has access to basic necessities – such as food, housing, healthcare, education, utilities, and public transportation – at a cheap cost, rather than allowing it to flow into a few private pockets.
Socrates or Epicurus, whatever intelligent they were, would never have considered arguing for the simple life in terms of ecology. Smog, polluted lakes, rivers, and seas, toxic waste, soil erosion, deforestation, extinction of plant and animal species, and global warming have all resulted from two centuries of industrialisation, population increase, and frenetic economic activity. The philosophy of frugal simplicity reflects ideals and promotes a way of living that may be our best hope for reversing these trends and protecting our planet’s fragile ecosystems.
Many folks are still not persuaded. But, if our current techniques of producing, acquiring, spending, and discarding prove unsustainable, there may come a day – and it may come soon – when we are forced to simplify. In that circumstance, a venerable tradition may include the philosophy of the future.
The Wisdom of Frugality (2016) by Emrys Westacott is published via Princeton University Press.