A Brief History of Voluntary Simplicity

The celebration of the simple life is about as old as human history itself; so too are warnings about the dangers of greed and materialism. The story could begin with Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – who at the age of 29 gave up the superficial luxuries of a royal existence to seek spiritual truth in a life of extreme asceticism. After nearly starving himself to death through his practice of self-deprivation, Siddhartha reconsidered his path and after years of inner struggle eventually found Enlightenment in what Buddhist’s call ‘the Middle Way’ – a path of meditative self-discipline that is said to the lie in between the paths of worldly indulgence and asceticism. A similar message about the spiritual value of living a materially simple life can be found in almost all of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, as well as many of the world’s indigenous wisdom traditions.

Simplicity of living also found many advocates among the great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, the Cynics and the Stoics, in particular. In one of the most radical expressions of simplicity, Diogenes the Cynic (described by Plato as ‘Socrates gone mad’ ) voluntarily embraced a life of poverty to show by example that a free and meaningful life could not be measured by conventional accounts of wealth. It is said that Alexander the Great – the richest and most powerful person in the world at the time – approached Diogenes and offered to supply him with anything he needed, to which Diogenes responded by asking Alexander to stand out of his sunlight. Recognizing that all his wealth and power meant absolutely nothing to Diogenes, Alexander ponderously announced: ‘If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes.’ Less extreme were the Stoics, such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, who advocated disciplined and thoughtful moderation rather than poverty. In various ways the Stoics argued that, while a person cannot always be in control of how much worldly wealth and fame they attain, they are in control of the attitudes they adopt in relation to such things. True contentment, on this account, lies not in getting what one wants but in wanting what one has. In a representative statement of Stoicism, Seneca insisted that ‘the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man.’

Leaping forward to the Victorian era in England we find passionate support for simple living in the works of the great ‘moralists,’ John Ruskin and William Morris. Ruskin refused to treat money as a neutral meeting place of mere exchange and instead highlighted the ways in which the social and environmental consequences of consumption were pushed out of sight by the obscuring distances of a money economy. Ruskin urged consumers to recognize that material things are worthwhile only to the extent that they further some worthwhile end, all things considered, a perspective encapsulated in his maxim, ‘There is no wealth but life.’ William Morris developed this line of thought in important ways, drawing particular attention to how consumption is always dependent upon labour. Morris suggested that huge reductions in ‘useless toil’ could be achieved if people were only wise enough to reduce their consumption of ‘those articles of folly and luxury.’ The Bohemians in Europe, on the other hand, tended to live simple lives for the sake of their art and for pleasure. Quite different again are the Amish, the Trappist monks, and the Quakers, who exemplify varieties of the simple life grounded upon religious belief. In the twentieth century, towering figures such as Gandhi, Lenin, Tolstoy, and Mother Teresa all lived lives of great material simplicity.

Given that the U.S. is the birthplace of modern consumerism it might surprise some to discover that in fact it has always had an undercurrent of ‘plain living and high thinking.’ In the mid-nineteenth century there were the fascinating versions of the simple life articulated by the New England Transcendentalists, that colourful groups of poets, mystics, social reformers, and philosophers (including Henry Thoreau) who lived on modest means in order to afford the luxury of creativity and contemplation. As leading Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, asserted, ‘It is better to go without than to have possessions at too great a cost.’ Other early American’s highlighted the tension between profiteering and civic virtue, and insisted on the close connection between simple living and a flourishing democracy. There were also the warnings of Benjamin Franklin, who railed against consumers thoughtlessly going into debt: ‘What Madness must it be to run into debt for these Superfluities! … think what you do when you turn in Debt; you give another power over your liberty… Preserve your Freedom; and maintain your Independency: … be frugal and free.’ In more recent times, President Carter advocated material restraint on the grounds that ‘owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.’ Referring to ‘a crisis of spirit,’ he felt that the worship of ‘self-indulgence and consumption’ was based on ‘a mistaken idea of freedom.’

What could be called the ‘modern’ simplicity movement is typically traced back to the 1981 publication of Duane Elgin’s book on the subject. It is, however, somewhat arbitrary to take that as a starting point given that the American and European counter-cultures of the 1960s and 70s had deep anti-consumerist and environmentalist sentiments which cannot be easily distinguished from the notion of simple living. This is especially so with respect to the so-called ‘back-to-the-land’ movement of that era, exemplified by the inspired lives of Helen and Scott Nearing. Other significant figures in the modern movement include Joe Dominguez, who was one of the first to try to organize a campaign for simple living and who published with Vicki Robin a best-selling book about frugality and money management called Your Money or Your Life. There is also Cecile Andrews, whose name is associated with ‘simplicity circles,’ the term sometimes given to small groups of people who meet to informally discuss and explore simple living. Also deserving of mention is the inspirational and challenging example of Jim Merkel, who had a crisis of conscience in the late 1980s and ever since has been living a life of radical simplicity as well as writing about it with insight and grace. Some of the leading academic spokespeople for the movement today include Amitai Etzioni, Juliet Schor, Jerome Segal, and Mary Grigsby, among many others. Less well known, but arguably one of the most eloquent advocates of simplicity, is Mark Burch. There is also a vast body of non-scholarly work on the subject as well as a growing number of ‘how to’ guides.

Even from this short survey it is clear that historically, both within America and beyond, people have simplified their lives to engage in a variety of enriching pursuits, including philosophy, religious devotion, artistic creation, hedonism, revolutionary or democratic politics, humanitarian service, and ecological activism.

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  1. […] more on the history of voluntary simplicity, click here. [1] See, e.g., Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901); Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: […]

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