Austerity in Theory and Practice

Philosophers once preached what they practiced. Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, Epicurus, and the Stoics not only devoted themselves to living simple, abstemious lives; it was the essence of their philosophy. Some of the most important modern philosophers—Spinoza, Kant, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein—maintained the tradition of a spare, detached, often solitary way of life, but by now it has largely been lost, along with its importance. Most philosophers today are frazzled, multitasking academics, and they don’t write about simplicity, they write about “Quantifier Variance and Ontological Deflationism” or “Modally Plenitudinous Endurantism.”

These memorable phrases, reproduced by Emrys Westacott in the introduction to his book, The Wisdom of Frugality, are the titles of papers presented at a recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Westacott, a professional philosopher himself (he teaches at Alfred University), has committed the heresy of writing a lucid, accessible book with an immediate bearing on people’s everyday lives. But it’s not primarily an attempt to retrieve the ancient philosophical art of living (and writing) simply. It’s an attempt to evaluate that tradition, and its contemporary echoes and amendments, at a time when life has arguably never been so complicated, distracted, and encumbered. Unlike the ancient Greek philosophers, contemporary Americans inhabit a time and place in which it is easier to be fat than thin and more common to have too much stuff than too little.

So a throng of books, magazines, websites, motivational speakers, and counselors has arisen, each pitching a simpler, less fitful and fretful life. There are Slow Food and Small House movements, off-the-grid guides, conquer-your-closet coaches, and vegan, organic, locavore, and other drastic stop-eating-that regimens. Simplicity has become a cacophony. Westacott steps in as a sort of referee: He articulates and examines every argument you can think of, and numerous others that never would have occurred to you, for a frugal, materially minimal life. And in careful counterpoint throughout this book, he sets forth just about every conceivable objection to seeking such a life.

The arguments over simplicity can get a bit complicated—he divides them into moral, religious, prudential, and aesthetic—but The Wisdom of Frugality isn’t forbiddingly abstract. It ranges widely enough to cite films like Babette’s Feast and to quote Woody Allen and Bob Dylan and New Yorker cartoons, as well as the usual suspects such as studies and experts. I relished some of the tangible odds and ends of ancient simplicity. The Spartans ate, as their staple meal, a black broth made of pork, blood, vinegar, and salt. A traveler who tasted it remarked, “Now I know why the Spartans don’t fear death.” Plato, of course, admired the Spartans. So did Rousseau, who praised their “happy ignorance” and wanted a society that emulated their artless indigence and severity. Among their deluded descendants are the Western intellectuals who applauded (at a safe distance) Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which out-Spartaned the Spartans.

But Voltaire, who in his Philosophical Dictionary defended luxury and dismissed the resilient early Romans as “brigands,” despised the Spartans as much as he despised Rousseau. He wasn’t the only one who favored some measure of extravagance. Westacott mentions Aristotle, Hume, Mandeville, and Adam Smith. They called attention to the way that acquisitive ambitions spur trade and prosperity, and exquisite tastes multiply civilized pleasures and promote all the arts and crafts. Yet they are, among philosophers and modern intellectuals, in a minority.

Still, most people have preferred to ignore the austere advice of austere philosophers. Westacott notes that in a 2007 survey, 64 percent of young Americans said that getting rich was their most important goal in life. If ordinary people, throughout history, lived lives of cheeseparing frugality, it’s because they had no choice; give them a choice, as the Industrial Revolution and its consumerist aftermath finally did, and they find that they like going to the mall.

There are, as this book makes clear, plenty of illusions involved in craving riches, investing in lottery tickets, or trying to purchase contentment at the aforementioned mall. It has been found that, beyond a certain level, affluence and material possessions don’t increase happiness, and that an endless proliferation of consumer choices tends to breed confusion and regret, not satisfaction. So the ancient sages were right? Not necessarily: Westacott suggests (with some help from Nietzsche) that the self-denying life espoused by them is somewhat illusory itself, being founded on a self-serving prejudice. In essence, the point is that a simple, pared-down lifestyle is made to order for philosophers. Anyone who wants to ponder cosmic puzzles or construct elaborate systems of thought needs a minimum of distractions—and material possessions, beyond a few basic ones, are distractions. Philosophers build their castles in the air. Most people want to build them on the ground, which costs money.

Intellectuals, ancient and modern, have tended to make the narcissistic mistake of thinking that everyone should, ideally, live like intellectuals. That’s why their utopias are so hallucinatory. Westacott hasn’t made that mistake. But the overall effect of his book, with its serried ranks of arguments marching in opposite directions, is to persuade you that hardly anyone ever gets argued into, or out of, a way of life.

The ancient Greek sages thought their prescriptions were rational, but they depended more on the example they set, and epigrams and diatribes, than on syllogisms. And their followers turned themselves into sects: Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics. Many of our current simplicity proselytizers promise a sense of liberation, redemption, purity, and recovered primordial harmony with nature. Even our reflexive aesthetic taste for simplicity—tranquil, uncluttered spaces, thatched cottages, cow-studded rural landscapes, burbling mountain streams, Shaker furniture—carries a whiff of Arcadia or Eden.

Some kind of sancta simplicitas seems to cast its spell in every culture—or at least every culture complicated and sophisticated enough to be susceptible to surfeit and ennui. Much of it is tonic. Westacott rests his own moderate case for frugality on a wary, sensible environmentalism: He doesn’t deal with some of the more influential modern forms of simplicity-seeking, like bohemianism, primitivism, anarchism, arts-and-crafts, Gauguin’s departure for Tahiti, the desolate austerities of some modernist art and architecture, and the solemn intellectual pursuit of the mirage known as authenticity. He also leaves out the coercive simplifiers: lethal religious fundamentalists, neo-Spartan political fanatics. But he makes it clear that the simple life has never been a simple matter.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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