books simple living

Book review: Simple Living in History

simple-living-in-historySimple living, paring back our lives to focus on the things that matter most, is not a new idea. All through history people have advocated simpler living – for happiness, for virtue, for God, or for the earth. It’s always been there in our wisdom traditions. It may be more important now than it has ever been.

That’s because in the past, simple living was a matter of wisdom and a lifestyle choice. Today it may be a matter of survival. As the climate changes and resource stocks deplete, we are being forced to re-consider our assumptions about development, and the stories we tell ourselves about the good life. Simpler ways of living may be inevitable in the not too distant future, and the more deliberate we can be about it the better.

That doesn’t mean we need to return to some mythical pre-industrial golden age. As editors Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod say in their introduction, living differently “means drawing on the wisdom of the ages in order to advance beyond consumerism; in order to create something better, freer, and more humane.”

Presented chronologically, Simple Living in History is series of essays from a range of contributors. It begins in 500 BC, give or take, with the life of Buddha, and ends in the present day with Transition Towns and the degrowth movement. In between it takes in the Stoics, medieval monasticism, the Amish, Gandhi, John Seymour and many more. It’s an intriguingly diverse collection of people.

The focus here is more on philosophy than practice, although there are some contributing practitioners. It’s about the why, the reasons that people have chosen to simplify. We might associate the current movement with ethical concerns around consumerism and the environment, but previous groups or thinkers have emphasised very different reasons. For Aristotle or Henry Thoreau, it was all about meeting your economic needs and then having time for more interesting things. The Stoics simplified in order to live a considered and rational life. Gandhi or Ivan Illich saw simplicity as vital for equity and empowerment. For William Morris or the Ditchling Villagers, it was as an aesthetic project as much as anything, a way of life that valued beauty and creativity.

Reading this variety of reasons, the number of approaches to the same basic idea, I couldn’t help but think how shallow consumerism is by comparison. The individualistic materialism that defines our culture is not a philosophy to live by. It’s almost the opposite – the important thing is not to think, not to ask questions, to run with the promptings of your own self interest, immediately and exclusively.

That’s why the book closes with a chapter on ‘mindfulness’. If there’s one thing that unites the various strands of simple living, it is the call to live a ‘considered life’, to pay attention to the way we live and its consequences. That’s an important message in our age of distraction.

Needless to say, you can take or leave a lot of the ideas here. The book includes some extreme examples, such as Diogenes, who lived in a big clay pot and threw away his only cup after he saw a child drinking with his hands. Some of the arguments are products of their time or come with a gender politics we wouldn’t want to endorse. Some forms of simple living seem perverse or unnecessary – like the Amish using expensive propane refrigerators and rejecting electric ones.

The point is that there’s no one example in the book that we should seek to emulate, no model for simple living. Their stories and teachings are there for us to learn from, to draw inspiration from as we shape our own life according to our own circumstances and priorities.

In the interests of mindfulness, I’d recommend reading the book slowly. (I didn’t as it happened, but I have a backlog of review copies to get through.) Chapters are short and you can read them in one sitting, so dip in and out. Read a chapter and then hold its ideas for a while before moving on to the next. See what resonates. There’s lots to learn here, and lots to reflect on.


  1. I did splutter in my tea: “in the past the simple living was a lifestyle choice”. Yes because 15th century peasants chose to subsist in the fields rather than go and work as web designers.

    Consumerism maybe be shallow but it is popular. It has seen off these past ideas and is still going strong.

    1. I hope your keyboard didn’t sustain any tea-related damage.

      You are conflating simple living with poverty, which is a classic misunderstanding. And even 15th century peasants could choose a life of simplicity, as offered by the monasteries and covered in the book.

      It’s a little premature to hail the victory of consumerism. We’ve had it for what, 50 years, maybe 60? If people are drawing on the advertising slogans of the 21st century in two thousand years time, and finding guidance and inspiration to live by, I will concede you the point.

      1. The fact that there have been all these anti consumption ideas over the last few thousand years is not an example of their success but their failure. Whenever given the choice most people historically have chosen more stuff over less. How do I know? Because we are living in that world of growth.

        Now that groups have tried to differentiate themselves as somehow better because they deny themselves things just shows the desire to self differentiate. Not that they actually are better more moral people.

        1. Seriously? You clearly don’t understand simple living at all. You should read the book.

          Here’s an idea that has been around since the beginning of written history, and continues to inspire millions today. It’s an idea that won’t go away, despite the ever increasing promise of more. All through history, when given the choice, some have quite deliberately chosen less.

          I’m one of them, although you miss the point my saying it’s a choice between more or less ‘stuff’. People who live simply are almost always making a positive choice, choosing more of something rather than less. In my case, I choose more time. The trade off for that time is I earn less money, and can afford less stuff.

          It works for me. If it didn’t, I’d go full time again and earn more. But right now, the time with my children is infinitely more valuable to me than ‘stuff’. If other people choose differently, that’s their business.

          1. The point is ‘some’ people choose to live simply. It has never had mass appeal. Yours is a minority pursuit. As a good liberal I believe you have every right to live as you wish. What would be illiberal would be to force everyone else to pay for a minority’s simply life (such as medieval monks did)

            Those who choose not to live simply are also making positive choice.

            1. You know what, Westmalle trappist beer isn’t nearly as popular as Foster’s. But not everyone’s heard of Westmalle Trappist or had a chance to try it, so they don’t know what they’re missing. If they did try it, perhaps they wouldn’t be satisfied with Foster’s.

              The thing with minority pursuits is that you know they have been chosen deliberately. That’s not always the case with things that are the majority or the default. Hence the focus on mindfulness in the simple living movement, on paying attention and not drifting into things.

              I regularly have conversations with people who hear that I work part time, and say that they wish they could do the same. For some, it’s really never occurred to them that there are alternatives, or that you can afford to live on less. Some say they’d like to, but they’ve got a big mortgage to service, in which case their possessions are dictating their life choices in just the way Thoreau warned us about. So I’m not convinced that everyone who doesn’t live simply has made an active choice. I couldn’t say what the percentages are, but some have and some haven’t.

          2. Of course there are some people who drink Westmalle Trappist beer who would be deeply unhappy if it became popular because they like feeling they are special. And as the Incredibles said, if even one is special, no-one is

            Simply living works for you but it isn’t a better or more moral was of living and is just as self centred as consumerism.

            1. I know you’re waiting for me to say it so that you can justify your indignation, but obviously I disagree that simple living isn’t better. I wouldn’t do it, or recommend it, if I didn’t think that. As I said in the post, the environmental cost of consumerism makes it unsustainable – and since we can’t possibly make it universal, it’s not equitable either. If a simpler way of life can be more sustainable, and sustainability is something we value, then a simple way of life is better. That’s nothing more than common sense.

              Everyone has a right to choose how they live, and I’m going to judge anyone for their choices. But we do have to recognise that our lifestyles have consequences. If a consumerist lifestyle has negative consequences for the environment and for social justice, then we can’t pretend it’s a neutral or a positive choice just to be politically correct.

          3. I have sympathy for living not just to work. I’ve taken a career breakfast to be with my children and my wife works part time. But all that is for our benefit, and that of our children. I don’t judge those who make different choices.

            I’m also of the view that doing this can impose a negative externality on wider society. Working less you still consume a similar amount of public goods than if you were working full time. Working less means earning less so paying less tax but placing the same burdens on taxpayer funded services like health and education. Therefore either those services are worse or others have to pay more for your choices.

            It is even worse with benefits. If claim a benefit you only qualify for because you reduced your earnings, such a working family tax credit, you are taking money that wasn’t intended for you. If you asked the public or Beveridge they would tell you benefits are for those who can’t earn enough, not those who choose not to earn enough.

            Finally by choosing to earn less you are widening inequality. It seems off to argue for action to be taken against the wealthy to reduce inequality when you are part of the cause.

            Before you ask my wife and I’s combined earnings for the duration of my career breakfast and her part time working means we didn’t qualify for earning related benefits.

            1. I’d go along with some of that. We’re not receiving any benefits at the moment as a household, and it doesn’t seem fair to rely on others to fund a part time lifestyle. I do think one’s season of life matters though. I’ve got nothing against people drawing more on the state while they have children under two, as every psychologist will tell you how important it is to have parents around during that time. By giving children a good start, you’re doing society a favour in the longer term. No harm in supporting that choice.

              I don’t think there’s much danger of benefits-funded simple living though, as it’s pretty antithetical to the movement. Simple living is about being in control of your own circumstances, taking responsibility, about freedom through reducing one’s needs. Dependence on the state runs completely counter to all of that.

              I’d be interested to know if anyone’s ever calculated whether simple living is a net burden on society. You may be paying less tax in, but there are other areas where you will save society money – fewer carbon emissions, landfill, lower use of infrastructure such as roads and airports, and a smaller contribution to air pollution for example. It’s a good question.

              As for inequality, the big problem is at the top, particularly the top 1%, rather than the gap between the bottom and the middle where my own microscopic contribution to the statistics would fall.

              These are all fair considerations, but you haven’t mentioned the sustainability side of things. If consumerism cannot be universalised and cannot be sustained, then why should we champion it?

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