Simplicity in the 90’s

In the heyday of the simplicity movement (the 1990’s), the tone of many books on the topic was aesthetic, pragmatic, and psychological. The trend continues with most simplicity books, and magazines such as Real Simple, for example.

This approach avoided the ethical dimension, skirted economics, and ignored nature and the environment. Although it may have been all that a public slowly burning out from consumption, competitiveness, and middle-class ethos could accept, the lulling sense that one could be “simple” by making aesthetic adjustments to one’s household or persona led to a false ethic of simplicity.

In this version of simplicity, a too-feminine touch recurs in the search for nurturing reassurance, in the emphasis on home, family, and comfort, consciously avoiding the too-masculine attitudes of self-assertion, concreteness, and ego-boosting. In this era, men typically eschewed topics like simplicity and sustainability anyway.

A striking example of the domesticity of simplicity was the 1990’s series of books by Sarah Ban Breathnach titled Simple Abundance, which appeared as Daybook, Companion, and Journal. The author defined the wistful and increasingly self-satisfied mood of the mid-nineties: nostalgia for a simple past, for the good old days when the nation was great, life was slower, and people knew their station. This theme mingled with a New Age sense that as long as your thoughts were positive, very little mattered with regard to material conditions or the fate of the world.

The series offered many reassuring quotations from otherwise reliable sources, but gave the classics a bourgeois twist: Happiness is the most important thing in life, and the search for happiness means simplifying (at least a little), therefore a little attention to aesthetic detail will help make for happiness. Perhaps this summary is not quite fair in that some order and priorities are indeed necessary to anyone’s life. But the whole premise is an acceptance of the high status of one’s given culture and material conditions. We are otherwise lulled into ignoring that happiness in this context is merely a projection of our favorable material conditions enjoyed. Add to this the author’s soothing reassurance about simplicity’s ease and one concurs with a critic who described the author as “Martha Stewart on Prozac.”

The other maven of 1990’s simplicity was Elaine St. James, who produced several simplicity books (Simplify Your Life, and Kids, and Job, etc.) and made the celebrity circuits briefly. Her less pompous books are more practical and useful perhaps because she was in the real estate business. One critic described her books as “a pinch of Heloise and a dash of Buddha.”

The pragmatic approaches continued through the 1990s with Ish Oxenreider’s Organized Simplicity, Mindy Caliguire’s Simplicity, Linda Breen Pierce’s Simplicity Lessons, and Janet Luhr’s The Simple Living Guide. Notice that all of the authors are women. The only significant simplicity book by a male author is Duane Elgin’s classic Voluntary Simplicity, first published in 1981 and still the most insightful overview of the urgency for simplicity on a universal scale.

At least one conclusion from these forays into simplicity can be made. Ignoring ethical premises for what we buy, eat, think, say, or listen to leads to ignorant contentment and smug self-satisfaction. And when the favorable conditions that nurtured our false sense of well-being start to unravel, simplicity may help in practical terms. But the optimism of the 1990s that has been collapsing at the peak of 20 years of materialism in the Western world is closing off even the opportunity for practical simplicity to make a difference for many.

Simplicity can be approached with too many false pretexts and preconditions. Winnowing away at superfluities in what is in one’s closet or kitchen or garage is undoubtedly useful. But disengagement from pleasures and habits and objects grown comfortable is the best way to begin building an ethical framework to what one does every day. What the Chinese sages called “cultivating your virtue” is all that we need to do, and the rest of what is right will grow within us.

Modern crossroads

A recent entry here proposed that the modern Western malaise that culminated in existentialism was caused not by science and rationalism or a loss of religious faith — although these had their places — but by the challenge of a plethora of cultural ideas and beliefs impacting the Western point of view, overthrowing certainty in its monolithic self-confidence, even arrogance, the extensions of Western personality and culture. This encounter with cultures and ideas was not acquired benignly but through the waves of imperialism that have engulfed the West for a thousand years. But the cumulative force of this history is now highlighted by the technocratic state and the apex of modern societal and psychological fragmentation. Thus the Western world has been in a state of search for a system of beliefs or values in which it can believe, adhere to, find truth in.

Such an era is not completely unique to Western history. The apex and decline of the Roman Empire reflects a similar array of encounters with many cultures and belief systems, and finding the dissemination of information about them reaching all points of the dominant Roman society impossible to stop. For despite its civic creed of tolerance and open mindedness, the Western world has always been loathe to accommodate what it considered foreign influence, as in the coming of Arabic philosophy, or Renaissance humanist dilettantism, or the simmering wars of the Protestant reform when they engaged the Eastern European front, or the suppression of peasants for concentrated wealth in aristocracy, or the promotion of rapine technology.

The Roman era conveniently predates Christianity, as the latter is often viewed as the sole ethical wellspring in the West. In Rome, the argument of church and state is not relevant. The material and social conditions of Rome served both to extend Roman influence around the known world but also to introduce those elements of culture into the body of its culture and society that would be inimical and ultimately fatal.

The empire found that its original trajectory was to expand with the intention of conquest, not assimilation or cultural taint. But this was futile, for as expansion reached its limits of energy, exhaustion would — as in Spengler’s biological or morphological model — weaken it, make it susceptible to illness, ultimately sicken and kill the body. Similarly, modern Western powers, formally “post-imperial” today but only in name, have failed to maintain their self-claimed pristine motives, and now find their hubris haunting them with the specter of their crimes returning in the form of immigration, multiculturalism, financial crisis, environmental destruction, simmering social discontent, and the dissolution of optimism, culture, and faith.

The confidence of early Roman conquest was paralleled by the confidence of the European crusades and the era of discovery and occupation — and by the same built-in ethical contradictions. These contradictions eventually led to moral decadence in the home culture — and continue to do so. The ethical contradiction and inevitable abuses of imperial policy infected Western imperial cultures, demonstrating how the cultures could not sustain their historical faiths and their cultural self-confidence. A variety of tricks, deceptions, and economic and military ruses, of vast spectacles of sports, film, fashion, jingoism, Internet — bread and circuses — will continue to try to postpone the inevitable, will continue to give spurts of energy to the ancien regimes. But the course of transformation and mortality will continue, the resulting future being unpredictable.

In the era of ancient Rome, Gnosticism emerged as a syncretic philosophy, the intellectuals’ reconciliation of religion, philosophy, and cultural mood. Unlike the religions of the era that held tenaciously to a system of hope and optimism, usually in a redemption from the political and exploitative systems of the day, Gnosticism held no illusions about the inevitability of such structures. Gnosticism instead pointed the individual inward, to the heart, the soul, the mind. It urged a disengagement from a preoccupation with worldliness to a inner development of self. The external was not to be a deliverance; disengagement was the only route to wisdom.

The contention of the many faiths, from Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, Jewish, Christian, etc., only demonstrated to Gnostics that all these adherents were futilely seeking answers within their own given cultures. But each culture was already under attack from the flow of knowledge about other cultures. None could rest when they learned about the views and practices of others. Their reaction was a blind backlash or, in a few, a reflective syncretism. Not ostrich-like do we hide from the existence of other cultures, but we realize that they are the experience of different environments, different habitats, different social structures evolved to handle a specific niche. Hence the natural world can teach us as much as any culture can, the nature is is supra-cultural and contains within itself a larger epistemology.

But the niches of culture, like the niches of the natural world, are becoming extinct. The societal habitats are spoiled, broken, collapsing. This is not evolution so much as devolution. Cultures and beliefs, even historical ones, have exhausted themselves attacking and being transformed, transformed even beyond the recognition of its adherents just a few decades before, let alone centuries. As with the material and natural world, so the human world of societies, cultures, technologies.

What is left in modern times is analogous to the Roman era, for not only has the dominant power lost its moral justification but it has destroyed the rest of the world as much as possible, wittingly or otherwise, and in the process mortally undermined its own values and culture. The imperial West enriched itself by consuming its own material resources and those of the cultures it encountered. It proselytized its religion of faith and ideology, supplanting the traditions of those it encountered with the fast materialism of its modern technological civilization. Now there is little difference between states, cultures, traditions, habits, or patterns of behavior around the world. All are imitative of what the West has become.

A syncretism of classics and the thought of sages alone can be a model of personal behavior. There is no way forward, only back, in this limited sense. Nor can there be any more progress, only devolution. And for the solitary, who observes the whirlwind of disillusion and change that is the modern world, there is no way towards ethical engagement, only disengagement.