On simple living

by James Kelso

Extract from book:
Remind yourself that ‘living simply’ is the ideal for the wise person, and be alert to making changes or even turning down opportunities if doing so will contribute to this ideal.’

Record your decisions and actions accurately and fully in your Journal. If some decision is challenging, record that this is so, for the thinking that writing requires may well serve to clarify the issue in question. [Seddon, Keith, Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (Lulu: 2006).


To start this essay, I must confess that I do not really live all that simply. No, this home has as many ‘mod cons’ as any other. The question is, to what extent do mod cons, technology etc. help us in our lives, and to what extent do they hinder us? We have a TV, DVD/Blu Ray Player, telephones, android phones, computers, printer, CD players, digital radio, iPods, and almost all of the other furnishings and appliances that many would assume to take a place in a modern household. So in essence, it could hardly be said that we ‘live simply’.

So I suppose that the Stoic advice to ‘live simply’ comes as a welcome relief to me and others like me, somewhat overwhelmed by the ‘consumer’ lifestyle. In other words, could it be that now many people have not too little, but in fact too much to be happy?

I must say that I have always found it an appealing assertion to ‘live simply’. But what does this actually mean? Do without a coffee machine? Do without a microwave? Do without a TV? Do without a bed? The lifestyle we live today, alas, seems to provide us with not more options to get rid of items and oddments, but instead provide us with every inducement to add yet more to them. It also seems to place a certain pressure on us to buy and buy more – as if in competition with the advertisements and marketing culture, and each other. The outcome of this situation (unless one ‘culls’ consistently) is an overload of ‘stuff’ to the degree that it seriously hampers and impairs our lifestyles, our thinking, and our cluttered and beleaguered psyche.

But say that we did take the Buddhist or Stoic notion to heart of living simply, and rejecting many of the trappings of affluence, what then are we really left with? I suppose you could say that if I did without a washing machine, and washed all of my clothes by hand, then that would be ‘living simply’. However, it would take a lot longer, be messier, use more detergent and be more arduous. Is this an advance on plonking them in the machine, adding detergent and pressing the ‘start’ button? It’s hard to think that this is what the Stoics meant by ‘living simply’. If I threw out my TV, rather than just using it rarely, then that would be another simplicity that I added to my home life. But TV is not an addiction for me anyway, like leaving beer in the fridge for an alcoholic. I can leave beer in the fridge, and usually take out just one a day. I can leave the TV in the lounge room, largely unwatched, and yet not have an addiction to it. So we can see that just ‘having’ tempting articles is not necessarily a problem, if largely we are not tempted by them. The problem is, many are tempting, and many more could be. Hence is it wise to be vigilant. This is in accordance with the Stoic ideal of ‘everything in moderation’ (and then it will never become a problem for you).

One assertion may be to say that some people’s homes are not large enough to lead the lifestyle that many of us in today’s consumer world want to lead, and indeed believe it is ‘normal’(?) to lead. Is this an excuse?

Well, yes and no. Certainly it would assist to have a larger place, but I can’t but think that this would then just lead us to get rid of less, add more, be attracted more easily to things in stores and catalogues that we can now buy and have a place to put, buy them, and then quickly fill our excess space. Same outcome, potentially, to old problem.

Is the Buddhist/Stoic notion of ‘living simply’ and ‘simplicity’ really as simple as it sounds? No, not at all. If I added more ‘manual labour’ to this home by dispensing with some of the mod cons that most of us almost take for granted, then that would fill up some time. It may also save some space where the mod cons once belonged. But how much happier would I be? If I dispensed with most of my book collection, would I be any happier? For some of it, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. But some cherished books would be really hard to throw out. What about papers that live somewhere between the useful/useless dividing line? It certainly is difficult learning to live with someone whose idea of ‘mine’ ‘yours’ and ‘ours’ differs from the previous ‘mine and ‘yours’ (in different locations).

More to the point, for a couple without children, working part-time, what does the ‘live simply’ assertion actually give us to do at home? After all, much of our time is spent there, and manual or household labour is a large part of what keeps me still sane. So here is the paradox of simplicity. Simplicity can give us more manual work. But this extra work can be ‘good work’, mentally simple yet stimulating, possibly less stressful, and hence approach the enjoyable. A complete absence of ‘work’ can also seem like simplicity – but not be good for us. ‘Good’ work is work which used to be described as ‘steady industry’ – that is, a steady amount of useful work, not being under huge pressure, but still delivering an observable result. This is gained through the process of bodily exertion, and brings personal satisfaction.

I quite enjoy putting washing in the washing machine, washing it, taking it out onto the line, waiting until the sun and wind dries it, then bringing it in again and putting it away. I suppose that this is indeed what the Stoics meant by ‘living simply’. If I tried to get out of more household jobs than I already have (a rather different idea of ‘simplicity’), I would be left in existential pointlessness and despair. What would there be to do? We all have to have something to do to contribute to our continued existence on earth.

So in summary, ‘re-manualising’ some of our lives’ duties, especially around home, may assist us in approaching the Stoic ideal of simple living. At least not buying yet more mod cons, as if almost for the sake of it, can also assist us in this quest. Jumping off the bandwagon of constantly being yet more electronically up to date can save us both money, sanity – and yes, even time. However I don’t think that we can say that stripping our home of almost every labour-saving or interest giving device will give the majority of us profound happiness – we must be busy enough not to get bored, and that ‘busyness’ must have an existential purpose for us – a need in our life. But beyond that – simplify. Neatness and simplicity in our home affairs is essential for our mental health, where our psyche can blend with our environment, and we are able to take a big deep breath and say ‘aaaaaahhhhh…………….’