When the recently elected Pope Francis assumed office, he shocked his minders by turning his back on a luxury Vatican palace and opting instead to live in a small guest house. He has also become known for taking the bus rather than riding in the papal limousine.
This article is based on the author's new book,
How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday
The Argentinian pontiff is not alone in seeing the virtues of a simpler, less materialistic approach to the art of living. In fact, simple living is undergoing a contemporary revival, in part due to the ongoing recession forcing so many families to tighten their belts, but also because working hours are on the rise and job dissatisfaction has hit record levels, prompting a search for less cluttered, less stressful, and more time-abundant living.
At the same time, an avalanche of studies, including ones by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman , have shown that as our income and consumption rises, our levels of happiness don't keep pace. Buying expensive new clothes or a fancy car might give us a short-term pleasure boost, but just doesn't add much to most people's happiness in the long term. It's no wonder there are so many people searching for new kinds of personal fulfillment that don't involve a trip to the shopping mall or online retailers.
If we want to wean ourselves off consumer culture and learn to practice simple living, where might we find inspiration? Typically people look to the classic literature that has emerged since the 1970s, such as E.F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful, which argued that we should aim "to obtain the maximum of wellbeing with the minimum of consumption." Or they might pick up Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity or Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money or Your Life.
I'm a fan of all these books. But many people don't realize that simple living is a tradition that dates back almost three thousand years, and has emerged as a philosophy of life in almost every civilization.
What might we learn from the great masters of simple living from the past for rethinking our lives today?
Anthropologists have long noticed that simple living comes naturally in many hunter-gatherer societies. In one famous study, Marshall Sahlins pointed out that aboriginal people in Northern Australia and the !Kung people of Botswana typically worked only three to five hours a day. Sahlins wrote that "rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society." These people were, he argued, the "original affluent society."
In the Western tradition of simple living, the place to begin is in ancient Greece, around 500 years before the birth of Christ. Socrates believed that money corrupted our minds and morals, and that we should seek lives of material moderation rather than dousing ourselves with perfume or reclining in the company of courtesans. When the shoeless sage was asked about his frugal lifestyle, he replied that he loved visiting the market "to go and see all the things I am happy without." The philosopher Diogenes--son of a wealthy banker--held similar views, living off alms and making his home in an old wine barrel.
We shouldn't forget Jesus himself who, like Guatama Buddha, continually warned against the "deceitfulness of riches." Devout early Christians soon decided that the fastest route to heaven was imitating his simple life. Many followed the example of St. Anthony, who in the third century gave away his family estate and headed out into the Egyptian desert where he lived for decades as a hermit.
Later, in the thirteenth century, St. Francis took up the simple living baton. "Give me the gift of sublime poverty," he declared, and asked his followers to abandon all their possessions and live by begging.Simplicity arrives in colonial America
Simple living started getting seriously radical in the United States in the early colonial period. Among the most prominent exponents were the Quakers--a Protestant group officially known as the Religious Society of Friends--who began settling in the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century. They were adherents of what they called "plainness" and were easy to spot, wearing unadorned dark clothes without pockets, buckles, lace or embroidery. As well as being pacifists and social activists, they believed that wealth and material possessions were a distraction from developing a personal relationship with God.
Partly as a reaction to people like Penn, in the 1740s a group of Quakers led a movement to return to their faith's spiritual and ethical roots. Their leader was an obscure farmer's son who has been described by one historian as "the noblest exemplar of simple living ever produced in America." His name? John Woolman. But the Quakers faced a problem. With growing material abundance in the new land of plenty, many couldn't help developing an addiction to luxury living. The Quaker statesman William Penn, for instance, owned a grand home with formal gardens and thoroughbred horses, which was staffed by five gardeners, 20 slaves, and a French vineyard manager.
Woolman is now largely forgotten, but in his own time he was a powerful force who did far more than wear plain, undyed clothes. After setting himself up as a cloth merchant in 1743 to gain a subsistence living, he soon had a dilemma: his business was much too successful. He felt he was making too much money at other people's expense.