Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future Alexander, S. & McLeod, A. (eds.), Simplicity Institute, Melbourne, 2014, 244pp + xxiv
It is well known that context plays an important role in so many situations. In this case two external factors profoundly affected how I approached this work and the impacts it had upon me. One was that I’d just finished a brilliant expose of high speed trading on the US stock market. It showed beyond any shadow of doubt what one can expect when extraordinary technical capacities are linked with egoism and greed (Lewis, 2015). In so doing it helped to undermine any residual notion I may have had that the US can be seen as the proud defender of freedom and prosperity – quite the contrary. The fact that these practices flourished there in the ways they did sends a clear message to the rest of the world about a nation steeped in a profound existential crisis largely of its own making.
The second influence came from a prior decision to write something about what I am calling ‘rogue signs.’ These are high-tech billboards that have recently sprung up in a number of places including the part of Brisbane in which I live. Some are out in the open while others are located within a grandly renovated shopping centre that I think of as ‘marketing central.’ Taking a close look at these gaudy, crass and in-your-face installations raises many questions for me about what is going on, who is driving these developments and what they may mean in terms of the wider social context.
So with this background I undertook to read all 27 sections of the Simple Living anthology. To be honest I was not particularly taken with the early sections on Buddha, Diogenes, Aristotle and the like – possibly because they were a little distant and the world has changed greatly in the interim. My interest perked up, however, as I moved into more recent times via the Quakers, the Amish and Henry Thoreau. It was in the latter section that I came across these words: ‘very little is needed to live well and be free, provided life is approached with the right attitude.’ What struck me about this was that the sentiment expressed by Thoreau coincides almost exactly with that expressed by Seneca many centuries earlier, namely that ‘life is quite long enough if you only know how to use it’ (Costa, 1997, p. xxii).
If an idea that contains so much wisdom can be expressed so simply and, equally, span the centuries over so much of recorded human history, then its credibility is not in doubt. It became clear that what the book expresses is nothing less than a collective view of what discriminating people have considered important over the long haul. Or, to put it differently, each person or group are, in their own fashion, expressing a view about what really constitutes ‘the good life.’ It will come as no surprise, therefore, that placing these contributions in a historical sequence establishes a perspective that stands in direct opposition to the present-day consumerist view.
The editors make this explicit in their introduction. In their view ‘consumerism…has no future.’ It is as simple – and complicated – as that. The current ‘treadmill of consumerism’ may well be the ‘Grand Narrative of our times.’ They add that ‘we know, of course, that something is wrong with this narrative…but we live in a corporate world that conspires to keep knowledge of … alternatives from us.’ What else, I thought, are the marble corridors and invasive signage of shopping centres than a vast and diverse attempt to do exactly that? And how aware of this vast mind game are those who flock through these gaudy halls in search of fulfilment? The editors are clear about how, in general, we can respond. They suggest that:
We should explore alternatives… not simply because we will soon be ecologically compelled to live differently, but because we are human and deserve the opportunity to flourish within sustainable bounds. This does not, however, mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of the ages to advance beyond consumerism (p. xiii, emphasis in original).
What also appealed to me about this book is that each short précis is very clear and well written. Indeed, if one had never encountered those represented here, these brief overviews would provide an excellent starting point for further reading. While most sections deal with individuals, some deal with collectives. I was interested to read, for example, about places such as Ditchling Village. While I was familiar with some of Eric Gills fine artwork I knew nothing about the social background within which it was created. Similarly, I enjoyed the piece on John Ruskin in part because his alleged marital failings have been accorded greater prominence lately than his substantive life achievements that are outlined here.
Ivan Illich stood out for me for a couple of reasons. First, he was one of the most significant people I almost met. (While travelling in Mexico I sat outside his office in Cuernevaca but ran out of time to see him.) Second, because I’d read much of his work that revealed the underlying character of the high-tech commercial culture that was taking shape in the 70s and 80s. It was good to be reminded of some of these contributions. Moreover, they spoke directly to the commercial overkill mentioned above.
If I were to nominate one individual that needed to be included it would have to be E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful and similar works. He is mentioned here and there but really deserved his own piece. (I later discovered that he would indeed be included in a projected second volume.) That said, it has to be acknowledged that deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is really an impossible task. What can be said with confidence is that this book provides a series of valuable vignettes of people, projects and enterprises that stand in direct contrast to those that are currently dominant.
After spending so long with the high-speed traders and the marketing geniuses of the shopping mall I did not realise how hungry I’d become for some signs of spiritual nourishment. Well, here it was – in bite-sized chunks to be sure – but no less valuable for that. Thus I’ve no hesitation in recommending this book very highly indeed. It is welcome in a world falling headlong into a consumerist nightmare from which we will have great difficultly extracting ourselves.
It’s good to know that men and women throughout history have known and shown with their lives that there are other values to adopt, other well travelled but currently little known, paths to follow.
Costa, C. (trans., ed.) Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, Penguin, London, 1997, 2005.
Lewis, M. Flash Boys, Penguin, London, 2015.