Quartz] The good life is the simple life. Among philosophical ideas about how we should live, this one is a hardy perennial; from Socrates to Thoreau, from the Buddha to Wendell Berry, thinkers have been peddling it for more than two millennia. And it still has plenty of adherents. Magazines such as Real Simple call out to us from the supermarket checkout; Oprah Winfrey regularly interviews fans of simple living such as Jack Kornfield, a teacher of Buddhist mindfulness; the Slow Movement, which advocates a return to pre-industrial basics, attracts followers across continents.
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, injustice and the disfavor of tyrants. 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 laborers—there was virtually no prospect of
accumulating even modest wealth.
Before the advent of machine-based agriculture, representative
democracy, civil rights, antibiotics and aspirin, just making it through
a long life without too much suffering counted as doing pretty well.
Today, though, at least in prosperous societies, people want and expect
(and can usually have) a good deal more. Living simply now strikes many
people as simply boring. Read More