Segal, Jerome M. Graceful Simplicity: Towards a Philosophy and Politics
of Simple Living. New York: Holt, 1999.
Subtitle on 2003 printing: The Philosophy and
Politics of the Alternative American Dream. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2003.
Pursuing a "politics" of simplicity matters because such a pursuit reveals our individual interdependence within society regardless of how we think of ourselves. Our material possessions are the products of an economic system, and for most people, feelings and reflections are often no more than what society and modern culture have provided them ready-made. To understand simplicity, then, means understanding the larger context of what we do and how we think of ourselves.
Author Segal pursues these fundamentals in order to chart a viable path towards simplicity. Refreshingly absent are the how-to formulas of the majority of popular simplicity books. Instead, the author presents the politics of simplicity as
an approach to social and economic policy that would offer a new paradigm of the purpose of an economy.
But the book is not a dry economics textbook.
Part One describes the social and institutional setting, beginning with Aristotle's Politics as the guideline for thinking about the purpose of society and the criteria for a good life. Segal introduces the idea of gracefulness as a positive, constructive and desirable goal. Gracefulness consists of the material condition of good fortune but viewed with an attitude of conscious appreciation for what is had and enjoyed, even a sense of gratitude and blessedness.
Gracefulness is then combined with an aesthetics that prioritizes what makes for the quality of life. Simplicity combines a convivial enjoyment of social life with aesthetic pleasures. It combines the style of Epicurus and the moral sensibility of Epictetus, where Epicurus emphasized friendship and moderation and Epictetus emphasized justice.
Segal then offers social and political scenarios that would enhance individual latitude for decreasing work time while increasing the leisure that would become available if his recommendations were pursued by society. This section is, naturally, the most problematic referring to the United States, but these ideas are not at all unusual in Europe. Nevertheless, this section -- the closest Segal comes to offering government and institutions a how-to -- does not depend on his overall philosophy, which applies far more to the individual than to what is likely to happen in society or the economy.
Part Two focuses on a philosophy of simple living and is more compelling because it addresses how the individual can understand the dynamics of psychology and society in pursuing a simple life. Here the author identifies three human factors in the psychology of the individual:
- perception of self by others, and
- perception based on economic and social norms.
Nearly everybody perceives themselves through the norms of culture. This is why most people consume whatever the marketplace touts, without a second thought. The basic self-esteem of the individual is defined by the consumptive norms of society and of others. Hence, what is outside of themselves forms their self-identity and their personal norms for behavior, consuming not only products and services but values of worth and self-esteem.
Here is a clear connection to simplicity. If the social norms of society and culture are rejected for, let us say, psychological or spiritual reason, then it behooves that individual to be conscious of the economic and cultural ways society may impact him or her.
Consumption is probably the best measure of the degree of self-consciousness in a person. If a person consumes like everyone else, the person remains dependent on a relationship to society and the marketplace that mocks their self-perception. Self-perception must be strong enough to thoughtfully reflect upon and reject the norms and attitudes of society at large. Self-perception must reject the products that function as ambassadors of that society and culture.
One can cite excellent models of simplicity and self-sufficiency throughout history, and in each case see that a key to their simplicity was not merely a measured use of the products of the marketplace or even an outright abstention. The key was to develop a strong self-perception so that the way others and the culture viewed him or her did not matter as much as the values that formed the self-perception. While it may have worked historically, the urgency of the present is in the fact that there exists today, as Segal puts it, conscious
manipulation by economic actors ... of the linkage between our deep psychological needs and desires for consumer goods.
Whereas in the past the marketers attempted to learn the needs of the consumer, today the marketer learns the psychosocial needs of those who derive their perception from the popular culture. Marketers then try to convince people of why they "need" the product.
Recovery of an informed self-perception is essential. Segal makes an excellent point about how various philosophies of life have viewed self-perception:
Stoicism, in its emphasis on individual self-sufficiency, might be understood as an effort to block the transformation of the general need for self-esteem into a need for the approval of others. Buddhism might be thought of as seeking change on an even more fundamental level, whereby the sense of self is so totally transformed that there is no longer a need for self-esteem.
Additional, those more socially inclined have sought to delimit perception based on society and economy (factor 3) by folding the group into a more congenial and smaller group (factor 2). By shrinking the external world, self-perception could be bolstered with a smaller and supportive group. Segal mentions utopian movements. Also relevant are today's intentional communities and, perhaps, monasteries and retreat centers. But moving to a small community where social and economic values are more compatible with non-consumption and self-perception may be a modern equivalent, too.
The economics of simplicity for both individual and society does not deny the complexity of human needs but challenges the assumption that these needs are best addressed at high personal and social costs and through increasingly higher levels of consumption. With that higher consumption (and anonymity) comes more social conflict, physical ills, environmental damage, and violence. Money always distorts human needs and values, putting a price on everything as if everything in life was a contrived object. What is "unpriced" -- a flower, a mountain, a forest, a clear view of the stars -- is given little value by modern culture.
Yet it is to the "unpriced" that we must go if we are to discover genuine simplicity, which is to say genuine contentment. Segal's book is a good outline to the context to be taken into account in pursuing that path.