A good life is a simple life. Among philosophical ideas about how we should live, this one is a hardy perennial; from Socrates to the Buddha, thinkers have been contemplating it for more than two millennia. And it still has plenty of adherents.
Through much of human history, frugal simplicity was not a choice but a necessity – and since necessary, it was also deemed a moral virtue. But with the advent of industrial capitalism and a consumer society, a system arose that was committed to relentless growth, and with it grew a population (aka ‘the market’) that was enabled and encouraged to buy lots of stuff that, by traditional standards, was surplus to requirements. As a result, there’s a disconnect between the traditional values we have inherited and the consumerist imperatives instilled in us by contemporary culture.
In pre-modern times, the discrepancy between what the philosophers advised and how people lived was not so great. Wealth provided security, but even for the rich wealth was flimsy protection against misfortunes such as war, famine, disease and injustice. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, one of the richest men in Rome, still ended up being sentenced to death by Nero. As for the vast majority – slaves, serfs, peasants and labourers – there was virtually no prospect of accumulating even modest wealth.
Somewhat paradoxically, then, the case for living simply was most persuasive when most people had little choice but to live that way. The traditional arguments for simple living in effect rationalize a necessity. But the same arguments have less power when the life of frugal simplicity is a choice, one way of living among many. Then the philosophy of frugality becomes a hard sell. This might be about to change, under the influence of two factors: economics and environmentalism. When economic uncertainty strikes, as it has done often millions of people suddenly find themselves in circumstances where frugality once again becomes a necessity, and the value of its associated virtues is rediscovered.
In societies such as the United States, we are currently witnessing a tendency for capitalism to stretch the distance between the ‘have lots’ and the ‘have nots’. These growing inequalities invite a fresh critique of extravagance and waste. When so many people live below the poverty line, there is something unseemly about in-your-face displays of opulence and luxury. Moreover, the lopsided distribution of wealth also represents a lost opportunity. According to Epicurus and the other sages of simplicity, one can live perfectly well, provided certain basic needs are satisfied – a view endorsed in modern times by the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. If correct, it’s an argument for using surplus wealth to ensure that everyone has basics such as food, housing, healthcare, education, utilities and public transport – at low cost, rather than allowing it to be funnelled into a few private pockets.
However wise the sages, it would not have occurred to Socrates or Epicurus to argue for the simple life in terms of environmentalism. Two centuries of industrialisation, population growth and frenzied economic activity has bequeathed us smog; polluted lakes, rivers and oceans; toxic waste; soil erosion; deforestation; extinction of plant and animal species, and global warming. The philosophy of frugal simplicity expresses values and advocates a lifestyle that might be our best hope for reversing these trends and preserving our planet’s fragile ecosystems.
Many people are still unconvinced by this. But if our current methods of making, getting, spending and discarding prove unsustainable, then there could come a time – and it might come quite soon – when we are forced towards simplicity. In which case, a venerable tradition will turn out to contain the philosophy of the future. This is the beauty, the power and the grace of the human spirit – to rise when one aspect of our being seems to outgrow its place, the other side arrives to balance it back out. Sound familar?
There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect. So let us not forget the conscious flow from the human spirit is absolutely unlimited. All you have to do is tap into that well. . . It’s creativity. It’s a belief that every person can clear the the way of choice, that every person counts.
Peace and Love, Jim