From Socrates to Thoreau, most philosophers, moralists, and religious leaders have seen frugality as a virtue and have associated simple living with wisdom, integrity, and happiness. But why? And are they right? Is a taste for luxury fundamentally misguided? If one has the means to be a spendthrift, is it foolish or reprehensible to be extravagant?
In this book, Emrys Westacott examines why, for more than two millennia, so many philosophers and people with a reputation for wisdom have been advocating frugality and simple living as the key to the good life. He also looks at why most people have ignored them, but argues that, in a world facing environmental crisis, it may finally be time to listen to the advocates of a simpler way of life.
The Wisdom of Frugality explores what simplicity means, why it's supposed to make us better and happier, and why, despite its benefits, it has always been such a hard sell. The book looks not only at the arguments in favor of living frugally and simply, but also at the case that can be made for luxury and extravagance, including the idea that modern economies require lots of getting and spending.
A philosophically informed reflection rather than a polemic, The Wisdom of Frugality ultimately argues that we will be better offas individuals and as a societyif we move away from the materialistic individualism that currently rules.
|Publisher:||Princeton University Press|
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About the Author
Emrys Westacott is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York.
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The Wisdom of Frugality
Why Less Is More â" More or Less
By Emrys Westacott
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
What is Simplicity?
The concept of simple living is complex. It encompasses a cluster of overlapping ideas, so our first task must be to identify and clarify the most important of these. One useful way of achieving an initial orientation is to consider some of the synonyms for terms like "frugal," "thrifty," and "simple." Here is a partial list.
mean ascetic serious frugal wholesome
miserly self-denying simple thrifty salubrious
closefisted abstemious prosaic economical unpretentious
cheeseparing austere stodgy temperate unaffected
stingy severe plain moderate unassuming
Spartan homespun continent honest
illiberal puritanical dry self-controlled natural
parsimonious unpampered measured pure
penny- poor careful
pinching hardy sparing
The attentive reader will notice that the columns have been strategically arranged to bring out the fact that the terms form a spectrum of implicit or associated value judgments from mean and miserly (bad) to pure and natural (good). As one would expect, though, the champions of frugal simplicity like to accentuate the positive; and positive associations are also provided by the etymology of words like "frugality" and "thrift." "Thrift" has a common root with "thrive"; both derive from the Old Norse thrifa, meaning to grasp or get hold of. In Chaucer's Middle English of the late fourteenth century, "thrifti" meant thriving, prosperous, fortunate, respectable. And in his eighteenth-century dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines "thrift" as "profit; gain; riches gotten; state of prospering." "Frugal" comes from the Latin term frugalis, meaning economical or useful, which is itself derived from frux, meaning fruit, profit, or value.
Today, most people are favorably disposed toward the idea of simple living, at least in theory. When a person is described as practicing frugality or having simple tastes, this is usually understood as a form of praise, especially if he or she could easily live otherwise. Celebrities who live in modest homes and ride the bus are not just applauded for remaining in touch with the common people; their lifestyle is also thought to bespeak nonmaterialistic values and hence a certain moral health or purity. But even when viewed in this positive light, the notions of thrift, frugality, and simple living carry a number of meanings. Here we will consider the most important of these, in some cases fleshing out the idea by identifying exemplary figures who serve to represent and articulate the senses of frugality or simplicity in question. Making use of particular sages in this way should also lend a little color to the idea of a long-standing tradition of philosophical reflection on the nature and virtues of simple living.
This is probably the most familiar and uncomplicated sense of thrift. It finds expression in many well-worn adages:
Waste not, want not.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Willful waste makes woeful want.
Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.
One frugal sage particularly associated with this idea of fiscal prudence is Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was the archetypical self-made man. At seventeen he arrived in Philadelphia a penniless fugitive, having left without permission an apprenticeship at his brother's printing house in Boston. By the age of forty he was a best-selling author and comfortably off. When he died at eighty-four, he was celebrated as one of greatest men of his time for his achievements as an entrepreneur, writer, politician, diplomat, scientist, inventor, and philanthropist. An interesting and rather endearing section of his autobiography is his account of how he sought to cultivate within himself thirteen specific virtues. The fifth in his list of virtues was frugality, which he defined for himself in this way: "Make no Expence but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. Waste nothing." Although Franklin was surprised by and lamented his failure to perfect within himself many of the qualities on the list, frugality seems to have been one that gave him little trouble. One reason for this, according to his own account, was that his wife Deborah was
as much dispos'd to Industry and Frugality as my self. ... We kept no idle Servants, our Table was plain & simple, our Furniture of the cheapest. For instance, my Breakfast was for a long time Bread and Milk, (no Tea,) and I ate it out of a twopenny earthen Porringer with a Pewter Spoon.
Franklin amusingly goes on to note "how luxury will enter families ... in spite of principle"; in his case, Deborah one day served him breakfast with fine tableware that she had bought simply because she thought "her Husband deserv'd a Silver Spoon & China Bowl as well as any of his Neighbors." But by then, and for the rest of his life, he could easily afford such luxuries, a circumstance he repeatedly ascribes to his early habits of frugality and industry.
Franklin's essay "The Way to Wealth" contains many of his best-known maxims on frugality, most advising us to live within our means and to beware of waste and luxuries. For example:
A fat kitchen makes a lean will.
Who dainties love, shall beggars prove.
Fools make feasts, and wise men eat them.
Fond pride of dress, is sure a very curse;
E'er fancy you consult, consult your purse.
Get what you can, and what you get hold;
'Tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold.
Franklin is especially concerned to warn against the dangers of debt, since "he that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing." Debt, he says, "exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors." Debt is still spreading much misery, of course, usually in the form of credit card balances, student loans, and underwater mortgages. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the consequences of going into debt could be even more ruinous than today. In Dickens's London, the debtor's prison and the workhouse cast long shadows over many lives. And Victorian novels are stuffed with edifying examples of characters who illustrate the folly of living beyond one's means, from Mr. Micawber in Dickens's David Copperfield to Felix Carbury in Trollope's The Way We Live Now.
Partly because it is so familiar, however, this sense of frugality — exercising fiscal prudence and living within one's means — is one of its less interesting meanings. Practicing thrift is obviously sensible for those of us who haven't inherited a fortune, who don't posses some highly marketable talent, or who lack the extraordinary salary-negotiating skills of a Kenneth Chenault (CEO of American Express, who in 2011 received a pay increase of 38 percent, taking his weekly wage to around half a million dollars). There can, of course, be circumstances where going into debt temporarily makes sense: for instance, to buy a house, pay for education, take advantage of a business opportunity, or deal with a pressing hardship such as eviction or a medical emergency. But for most of us, most of the time, Ben Franklin's advice is clearly sound. "Beware of little expenses," he says; "a small leak will sink a great ship." And who would disagree? Well, there is always Oscar Wilde, according to whom, "the only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance," and who, according to one account, lived and died true to his philosophy. Impoverished and on his deathbed in a seedy hotel in Paris, Oscar supposedly raised a glass of champagne and declared, "I die as I have lived — beyond my means." But few aspire to that sort of end.
My main concern in this chapter and throughout is not primarily with frugality understood as Franklinesque fiscal prudence. That notion is relatively uncomplicated, and the reasons for practicing it are fairly obvious. Rather more interesting are some of the other meanings attached to the notion of simple living as championed by the philosophers of frugality.
Living cheaply means adopting a lifestyle that requires relatively little money and uses relatively few resources. One point on which most frugal sages are agreed is that such a lifestyle is not difficult to achieve, since the necessities of life are few and easily obtained. What are these bare necessities? Strictly speaking, they consist of nothing more than food and drink adequate for survival and protection from the elements in the form of basic clothing and shelter. But one might also throw in a few tools and implements to be used in the securing of these necessities, along with some companions in deference to Epicurus's claim that friendship is indispensable to human happiness.
Many of us like to believe we live cheaply, or at least that we know how to. Even people with three-car garages, summer homes, and sailboats enjoy telling stories of how earlier in life they lived in a shoebox and got by on oatmeal and the smell of an oily rag. But before we get too smug, we should perhaps recall and compare ourselves with Diogenes of Sinope, beside whom Ben and Deborah Franklin look like a pair of decadents wallowing in luxury.
Diogenes (c. 404–323 BCE) is the best known of the Cynic philosophers. The label "Cynic" is derived from the Greek kynikos, meaning doglike, and it was probably first applied to the Cynics as a term of abuse that likened their way of life to that of dogs. The stories told about Diogenes indicate that he had an acerbic wit, loved to buck convention, was contemptuous of abstract theorizing (Plato's in particular), and rigorously practiced what he preached. They also suggest that he found it amusing to see how he might live on less and with less.
Although he is usually depicted as using a barrel or large earthenware jar as a shelter, this may have been during his more decadent period. The sight of a mouse running around without any concern for finding a bed or protective shelter is supposed to have inspired him to accept cheerfully even greater poverty. Thereupon he doubled up his cloak to make a bed, kept his food in a bag, and ate, slept, and did whatever else he felt like doing wherever he felt like doing it. Reproached for eating in the marketplace, he said, "I did it, for it was in the market place I felt hungry" — a classic example of criticizing conventions in the name of what is natural. Yet he found he could still make do with even less. Seeing a child drinking out of his hands, he threw away the one cup he owned, saying, "That child has beaten me in simplicity." On another occasion he threw away his spoon, after seeing a boy whose bowl had broken eat his lentils using a crust of bread.
Like Socrates, Diogenes seems to have had no problem accepting things from others. Asked what wine he most liked to drink, he answered, "That which belongs to another." But he did not see this as incurring an obligation to the giver, since he viewed material goods as having little or no value, especially when compared to simple, easily obtained pleasures. This is the moral of the famous story about the meeting of Diogenes and Alexander. When the ruler of the world was taken to see the philosopher, he found him sitting contentedly in the sun. Asked to name a favor he would like Alexander to do for him, Diogenes merely asked him to stop blocking the sunlight. He argued that since the gods lacked nothing, to want nothing was to be like the gods, and to come closer to this state Diogenes would toughen himself to put up with any hardship by rolling in the hot sand in summer and embracing snow-covered statues in winter. To be sure, he once asked the Athenians to erect a statue in his honor, which looks like a fairly grand desire; but when asked his reason for making this request, he said, "I am practicing for disappointment"— in other words, he was toughening himself up mentally as well. Were he a philosophy professor today, he would probably ask for regular pay raises.
Not surprisingly, Diogenes was considered pretty eccentric in his time, but he was understood to be putting a philosophy into practice. Anyone emulating him today, though, would probably be viewed by most people as mentally ill. This brings out the obvious point that what people consider "cheap" or "basic" or "necessary" varies according to time, place, and social class. These concepts are relative. A normal lifestyle for an Athenian citizen in Diogenes's day required far fewer accoutrements than are needed by a twenty-first-century New Yorker, whose "basic needs" might include electricity, running water, a flush toilet, central heating, air-conditioning, an equipped kitchen, a smartphone, an Internet connection, and a nearby Starbucks.
Scores of books and an unending stream of magazine articles are devoted to the topic of how to live cheaply by cutting costs, although the basic strategies are hardly mysterious: buy used items rather than new; where possible, do things for yourself rather than pay someone else; stock up on staple groceries when they're on sale; use discount coupons; grow some of your own food; don't eat out much; and in general follow the old formula "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." Some of this advice is timeless, but some can be rendered less relevant, less sensible, or less appealing by social and technological change. There was a time when it almost always made economic sense to repair an item rather than replace it, so people would darn socks, patch sheets, and take their defective video recorder in for repair. But when half a dozen socks cost what a minimum-wage worker can earn in less than an hour, and when the cost of repairing a machine may easily be more than the price of a new one, some of the old ways can seem outdated. Treating things as disposable used to be an attitude associated with the rich. When Russian aristocrats hurled their wineglasses into the fireplace after drinking from them, they were flaunting their wealth. Today, though, using disposable items, or treating things as disposable, is often more economical in terms of both money and time. So while the guiding idea of living cheaply remains central to the notion of frugal simplicity, the methods of achieving this goal have to take into account changing times.
Taken literally, to be self-sufficient is to not be dependent on anything other than oneself. No living things can be perfectly self-sufficient in this literal sense since all depend on their environment to provide them with the means of life. But they can be more or less independent of others. Self-sufficiency is thus always a matter of degree.
The frugal sages regularly praise self-sufficiency, but they do not all have exactly the same thing in mind. Self-sufficiency contrasts with dependence, of which there are two main kinds: dependence on another's patronage, and dependence on someone else's skills or services, either directly, as when one hires a plumber, or indirectly through technology produced by others. When Greek and Roman thinkers like Epicurus and Seneca talk about self-sufficiency, they typically contrast it with the first sort of dependency since they worry a good deal about the dangers of patronage. For them, being self-sufficient means, above all else, not being dependent on another person's favor or good opinion. For much of human history, enjoying the favor of one's social superiors has been a major avenue to success and an important defense against poverty and oppression. But of course one usually pays a price for such favor. Ideally, favor would be bestowed purely on the basis of merit, but everyone knows that the world does not typically work that way. Dependents must often flatter and fawn; they are expected to endorse their patron's words and approve of his or her actions. This is true whether one is a courtier complimenting a king, a politician currying favor with the crowd, or an employee hoping to impress a supervisor. Dependency of this sort thus inhibits one's ability to think, speak, and act as one sees fit. Being independent of such constraints is liberating, which is why Epicurus says that "the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom."
There are interesting lines of connection between this classical conception of self-sufficiency and Emerson's famous essay on self-reliance, which urges the importance of thinking for oneself. But in the modern world, especially in America, the more practical notion of self-sufficiency has come to the fore. Being self-sufficient in this second sense means being able and willing to do things for oneself as opposed to relying on the labor of others. Romantics like Thoreau particularly stress the value of this sort of self-sufficiency, and some extend it to include reducing our dependence on technology. Those who advocate self-sufficiency in this sense seek to counter the alienating effects of modernity, which, by increasing the division of labor and mechanizing so many tasks, has distanced us from nature and from the elementary activities that underpin our lives.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 What Is Simplicity? 9
2 Why Simple Living Is Supposed to Improve Us 40
3 Why Simple Living Is Thought to Make Us Happier 73
4 Why the Philosophy of Frugality Is a Hard Sell 136
5 The Pros and Cons of Extravagance 163
6 The Philosophy of Frugality in a Modern Economy 200
7 The Environmentalist Case for Simple Living 249