Simple Living and American Dreams

Simple Living and American Dreams


            We entirely mistake our own history if we think of simple living as some recent fad. The idea of simple living has always been part of the American psyche; sometimes central, sometimes only a minor theme, but always present. From the earliest days of the American experience there have been advocates of simple living who challenged consumerism and materialism.

            Simple living, especially in America, has meant many things.

 For Christians the central inspiration for a life of simplicity has been the life of Jesus. In the hands of the Puritans, this emerged as a life of religious devotion, a lack of ostentation, and plenty of hard work. It was certainly not a leisure expansion movement, as it is today.  Nor was simple living a matter of individual choice; sumptuary laws invoked the power of the state to restrict consumption display, and economic life was regulated to limit the role of greed in human affairs.

             In the hands of the Quakers, the concept of the simple life underwent an evolution. For the Puritans, at least part of the motivation for sumptuary laws was to prevent those in the lower classes from putting on the manners of those above them; among Quakers, the restrictions on display and consumption became more widely applicable. Most importantly, the pursuit of luxurious consumption was linked to a broad range of injustices and social problems, including alcoholism, poverty, slavery, and ill treatment of the Indians. Here perhaps are the origins of a radical politics of plain living, the belief that if people adopted the simple life, all of society would be transformed.

            The key Quaker theorist of the simple life was John Woolman. Central to Woolman's thought was the recognition that people could be "necessitated to labour too hard." He focused of the plight of those who did not own their own land but rented it from large estates. If the rent was too high, the amount of labor required of the poor would oppress them and draw them away from the proper affairs of life. But rent was an intermediate concern, what was really at issue was the extent to which one person would be required to labor so that another might have superfluous luxuries. Woolman wrote, "Were all superfluities, and the desires of outward greatness laid aside" then "moderate labour with the blessing of Heaven, would answer all good purposes . . . and a sufficient number have time to attend on the proper affairs of civil society."

 Thus, he maintained that "Every degree of luxury of what kind soever and every demand for money inconsistent with divine order hath some connexion with unnecessary labour." Woolman called on his listeners to follow the example of Jesus in simple food and dress. He saw their desire for luxurious consumption as the core motive which resulted in the practice "of fetching men to help to labour from distant parts of the world, to spend the remainder of their lives in the uncomfortable conditions of slaves." He also identified selfishness as the cause of past wars, telling us to "look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garment in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not." Were Woolman alive today, it is likely that he would extend his critique, arguing that excessive consumption, and the desire for it, is at the root of both the drug and environmental problems we face. Indeed, Woolman would probably have been receptive to the idea that the harsh poverty of many Third World countries emerges from the excessive consumption of the rich nations.

            In the mid 1700's, in the years prior to the Revolution, the ideas of simple living and democratic government were intertwined. For many of the leaders of the Revolution, however, the ideal was not the simple life of Jesus, but the simple life of the self-governing citizens of ancient Greece and Rome.  Key figures in the revolutionary period, in particular Samuel Adams, were deeply concerned about the relationship between our political health and the individual pursuit of luxury. The rebirth of democracy in the world brought with it an interest in the ancient Greek and Roman experiments, and why they disappeared. There was a concern (as there is today) with the virtue of office holders. Genuine democracy seemed incompatible with too great an absorption in getting rich. There was great fear of the corrupting influences of unbridled commercialism. When the colonists boycotted British goods, it was not just a tactic of the independence movement; Britain was viewed as The Great Satan, exporting the corruptions of capitalism.

            In their correspondence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assessed the prospects for building a non-materialist society. Jefferson emphasized civic virtue, and looked to public policy, in particular state-supported schools and values education as the foundation of such a society.  Adams viewed this as unrealistically "undertaking to build a new universe." He himself feared economic growth, however, and argued for preventing both extreme poverty and extravagant riches. Both men feared rather than celebrated boundless economic opportunity. 


            Benjamin Franklin's views on these questions are also worth noting; they too have a contemporary echo. In Franklin we have an unusual mixture: the espousal of frugality, hard work, and restrained consumption as the vehicles for getting ahead, as the central patterns of behavior that will lead to wealth. Thus, in the Preface to Poor Richard's Almanac, which was reprinted in fourteen languages under the title, "The Way to Wealth,"

   Franklin writes, "But dost thou love Life, then do not squander Time,; for that's the stuff Life is made of." And "If Time be of all Things the most precious, wasting Time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest Prodigality." Franklin was concerned with how the average person might remain free in his own life, his own master. "Employ thy Time well, if thou meanest to gain Leisure." He warns of the perils of spending and in particular of borrowing. The great thing is to save. "We must add Frugality, if we would make our Industry more certainly successful. A Man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his Nose all his Life, to the Grindstone, and die not worth a Groat at last. .  . If you would be wealthy . . . think of Saving as well as Getting." Note that here Franklin is advocating simple living as a means to future wealth; quite a different reason than those than animated Woolman. 

            Franklin warned that the dangers of excessive consumption are easily missed. And he was quite demanding in what he viewed as "excessive." He wrote, "You may think perhaps, that a little Tea, or a little Punch now and then, Diet a little more costly, Clothes a little finer, and a little Entertainment now and then, may be no great Matter; but remember what Poor Richard says, Many a Little makes a Mickle. . . . A small Leak will sink a great Ship."

            He continued, "The artificial Wants of Mankind thus become more numerous than the Natural. . . When you have bought one fine Thing, you must buy ten more, that your Appearance many be all of a Piece." "'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follows it." "What Use is this Pride of Appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It cannot promote Health, or ease Pain; it makes no Increase of Merit in the Person, it creates Envy, it hastens Misfortune."

            Franklin rails against going into debt. Credit cards would have seemed to him the instruments of our undoing. "What Madness must it be to run in Debt for these Superfluities! . . . think what you do when you turn in Debt; you give to another Power over your Liberty." "Preserve your Freedom; and  maintain your Independency: Be Industrious and free; be frugal and free."

            Often in American history, the mode of response to the dominant commercial culture has been utopian, not in the sense of speculation on utopia, but in the actual establishment of a community wherein this dominance by the economic is overcome. Utopian thought has a long and rich history, much of it European. It was in America, both before and after the founding of the United States, that the impulse to go ahead and just create that better world was the strongest.

            Though the formation of these communities was not unique to the American experience, the abundance and constancy of utopian communities does appear to be distinctly American. Indeed there has not been a single year in the history of the United States without communes. One recent study of American communes concluded,

            . . .the extent and continuity of the communal phenomenon had no equal outside the United States. . . .in modern times the United States is the only place where voluntary communes have existed continuously for 250 years.

            Two features of these utopian communities are particularly noteworthy. First, with few exceptions, they were communes. Property was typically held in common, and sometimes income was pooled. And second, they were typically not mere sites of residence, but work sites as well.  The community collectively owned land and capital, and the community both provided for itself and collectively produced for the outside world. Thus, virtually all of these communities challenges the boundaries between household and work place that had begun to emerge in the seventeenth century. And in doing so as a community, through the holding of the common property of the unified home/work site, they were re-establishing the extended establishment-family. In a sense, these communities could be seen as large establishment-households.

            The uninterrupted history of utopian communes throughout American history, speaks of an ongoing practical discourse that seeks through actual life experiments to break the boundaries between home and economy and to replace, within the economic realm, harsh marketplace relations (of worker/master, of owner/employer) with a simpler life within a "circle of affection."  In the mid-1800's such communes flourished. In some ways this period prefigured the communes, vegetarianism, nudism and animal rights efforts of the 1960's.

            Filled with a sense of adventure and experiment, but of a more individualist bent, was Henry David Thoreau. In Walden he looked about him and saw mostly foolishness -- people not knowing how to grab hold of the gift of life. He revelled in the energy of youth and in its ability to find out what older generations had never seen.

 "Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures . . . Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me. . . If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors, said nothing about."

            With words that had echoes of Aristotle he told Americans that our necessities are few, yet we subject ourselves to endless labor. He described a world that had taken the wrong turn.  "The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve and had an end."

 Wealth itself is a curse because it enslaves us. "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Of most men Thoreau says, "they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born." "Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost." We must take better care of ourselves, of our potentials. "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly." We miss that which is best in life. "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."

Yes, the necessities must be met, "for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success."

 But "most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life and not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor."

 He tells us that "None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty."

 The dictates of wisdom call for "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust."  

            For Thoreau it is not necessity that enslaves us. Rather we have become our the "slave-drivers" of ourselves, "the slave and prisoner of [our] own opinion of [ourselves]." Once we have satisfied our necessities, rather than laboring for superfluities, it is time to "adventure on life." But few undertake this adventure. Instead, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." It is from a disease the spirit that Thoreau recoils, one that people may not even be aware of. "A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them . . ."

Thus Thoreau called Americans away from their over-absorption in economic life, from their self-subjugation to a life of toil. Unlike earlier advocates of simple living, he was not calling people to religion or to civic engagement, rather he was calling us as individuals to find our own nature, to define ourselves at a higher level of experience. He called for simple living in order to enable the life of the mind, of art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and an almost reverential engagement with Nature.

            Interest in simple living was harder to find in the post Civil War period, but it re-emerged powerfully towards the turn of the century. There was a reaction against materialism, and the hectic pace of urban life. In those days it was Ladies Home Journal (of all things) that led the charge against the dominant materialist ethos. Under a crusading editor, Edward Bok, it served as a guide for those in the middle class seeking simplicity. By 1910, the Journal had a circulation of close to 2 million, making it the largest selling magazine in the world. This period also witnessed a movement of aesthetic simplicity. It was influenced by the English thinkers John Ruskin and William Morris, and recognized that only in a world which appreciated fine crafts would there be jobs for fine craftsmen. It is from this mileau that we have the  "mission" furniture, much sought by antique dealers today. 

            One dimension of the renewed interest in simple living was a "country life" movement which sought to use modern technology to improve country life for the small farmer and to keep young people on the farm. Later, in 1933, the Department of the Interior created a Division of Subsistence Homesteads to resettle the urban and rural poor in planned communities based on "handicrafts, community activities, closer relationships, and cooperative enterprises." About 100 such communities were established, most of them failing in their grand design to replace individualism with "mutualism."

             After the Second World War, as after the First, the Civil War and the Revolution, there was a surge in consumption, and simple living receded into the background.  But again in the 1960's there was a critique of the affluent life style and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970's, with the energy crisis, this merged with a broad environmentalism. Many saw the energy crisis not as an economic or political problem to be overcome, but as an occasion for a spiritual renewal which would turn us away from the rampant materialism of modern life. One of these was President Jimmy Carter.

            "We worship self-indulgence and consumption," Carter declared, taking his place in a great American tradition of social criticism. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." And like earlier critics, Carter lamented the emptiness of such an existence. "We've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning."

            Carter saw the problem as residing in what he termed "a mistake idea of freedom" -- one in which we advocate "the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others." He called on Americans to unite together in a crusade of energy conservation:

             We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. . . solutions to our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of spirit in our country. It can rekindle a sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose."

This was his so-called "malaise" speech, and while it failed as an effort to transform the national spirit, and certainly failed Carter politically, it did capture well the link between environmental concerns and simple living that many Americans continue to feel today. Carter was followed  by the Reagan and Bush administrations in which no similar critique was heard. But now at the turn of the millennium there is renewed interest in simple living, if not in the White House, then at least in the heartland.

             This quick historical survey reveals that "simple living" has meant many things. There is an anti-consumptionist core in much American thinking on this subject, but great diversity with respect to the human good and the place of work, religion, civic engagement, nature, literature and the arts.  Concern with simple living has been largely apolitical at some times, and at others the heart of a general political and social vision.

             Today, when there is once again a great interest in simple living in America, it is mainly an apolitical enthusiasm.  Most, though not all, of the literature is of a "how to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. The attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life is seen as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics. In the chapters that follow I will explore the limitations of this individualistic approach and argue for a "politics of simplicity."