Simplicity and Simple Living

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The term simple living is generally used to refer to a voluntarily chosen way of life that is significantly less frenetic, and significantly less focused on "getting and spending," than life in the mainstream. Simple living traditions exist in a wide array of cultures, and date back thousands of years. But they take on special salience in highly affluent societies dependent on science and technology for their patterns of production and consumption.

The term simplicity is sometimes used synonymously with simple living, but this can lead to confusion as one of the potential uses of high levels of income is to purchase solutions to the burdens of everyday life. Thus, the very wealthy can afford to have personal assistants to take care of their finances, assist in childrearing, and manage the household, vastly simplifying their existence.

Basic Arguments

A theme common to many diverse simple living traditions is that too great an involvement with money is deeply problematic. A classic presentation of this thesis is found in Aristotle's Politics (4th century b.c.e.), which opens with a critique of excessively commercialized civilization. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) distinguishes between what he terms natural and unnatural ways of life. Among the natural ways are hunting, fishing, and farming. What is distinctly unnatural is commerce, whose hallmark is that the pursuit of money takes on a life of its own, knowing no bounds.

Aristotle offers two critiques. The first anticipates the economic theorists of the nineteenth century: Aristotle argues for the diminishing marginal utility of money, maintaining that beyond a limited sufficiency, additional money does not contribute to human happiness. His second thesis is yet more radical, arguing that the unbridled absorption in attaining money results in the misuse of human capabilities and the distortion of the personality. When elevated to the social level, this produces a society in which all social roles have been corrupted. Doctors no longer pursue the health of the patient; jurists no longer seek justice. All activities are ultimately undertaken in pursuit of financial gain.

The two issues Aristotle raises, distortion of the personality and corruption of social roles, are two of a number of concerns that have motivated proponents of simple living. An example of the first is Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who wrote in Walden (1854) that wealth is a curse because it enslaves us. "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." And, "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly" (Thoreau 1965, p. 4 and p. 6).

An example of the second concern, the health of the society, can be found in what has been called Republican Simplicity by historian David Shi. In the mid 1700s prior to the American Revolution, many of the leaders of that Revolution looked to the history of ancient Rome and Greece for guidance in their democratic venture. The lesson that they drew was that public virtue was necessary for the success of a republic, and that it could be undermined by excessive commercialism. John Adams (1734–1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) corresponded about how to build a non-materialist society, and Jefferson looked to state-supported schools and value education as a foundation.

In the writings of the Quaker theorist John Woolman (1720–1772), one finds two lines of thought, both of interest. First, in contrast to the Puritans, Woolman suggested that the simple life also involved limitations on the amount of work one would do. This would later be expanded on by Thoreau, who suggested that we should have one day of work and six days of Sabbath. Secondly, Woolman argued that most of the ills of the world—poverty, slavery, war—could be traced to luxurious desires. He urged that we examine our own lives and see whether, unwittingly, we are part of the problem. He said we should "look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions or not." The contemporary application of this outlook is the suggestion that war in the Middle East, and perhaps terrorism as well, have their roots in our excessive consumption of oil.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), another American advocate of simple living, came to it from a rather different direction. Franklin argued the importance of the individual's liberation from the demands of onerous labor. "Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain Leisure." But Franklin argued for sharply limiting our consumption, so that we may save. His message was that we could all become wealthy if we learned to discipline ourselves, limited our desires, and earned more than we consumed.

Assessment and Application

These various examples make clear that simple living can be advocated for a wide variety of reasons. It represents no single philosophy of life. And while there are some exceptions—perhaps Franklin is one—what they have in common is the view that the good life, both individually and socially, is to be found largely outside the economic realm. Human happiness is obtained not by consuming more and more of what the economy has to offer, but by satisfying core economic needs, and then turning away from the economic to other realms of importance, whether they be religion, science, literature, service to others, or friends and family.

While much of the simple living literature is directed at the individual, offering advice and suggestions for how to live, simple living at times emerges as a politics of simplicity. Here it looks to social policy to offer the framework within which it becomes feasible for the average person to opt for a simple life. Such a politics offers a different paradigm for understanding the relationship between a technological economy and the good life. Economic performance is assessed not in terms of growth, but in terms of success in meeting core needs of the entire population. Technological and economic progress is measured more in terms of the expansion of leisure than the growth of gross domestic product (GDP). And work, rather than being seen as one productive input within the production process, is seen, potentially, as a realm within which personal growth and meaning can be achieved.


SEE ALSO Consumerism.


Shi, David. (2001). The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Shi provides a comprehensive and highly readable account of the different forms that simple living has taken, in practice and thought, throughout the American experience.

Segal, Jerome M. (2003). Graceful Simplicity: The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press. Segal challenges the standard view within the simple living literature that, except for pockets of poverty, Americans have sufficient income to meet core economic needs. Rather than a "how to" book on simple living, he calls for a new approach to social and economic policy. He emphasizes the importance of beauty within the good life.

Thoreau, Henry David. (1965). Walden and Other Writings, ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: The Modern Library.