Minimalism: A Modern Lifestyle Philosophy

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“He has the most who is most content with the least.” – Diogenes 

A propensity for excessiveness and material gluttony has become a problematic occurrence of the modern age. The issue is of particular concern for a large segment of the world’s population living in affluent countries with high standards of living. For example, compulsive hoarding has emerged a modern first-world phenomenon that’s well documented on TV shows including A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. In fact according to a 2016 Washington Post article “studies show that compulsive hoarding affects up to 6 percent of the US population, or 19 million Americans, and is twice the rate of obsessive-compulsive disorder” [1]. Compulsive hoarding, however, isn’t the only obvious manifestation of excessiveness today. Surveys on US consumer debt indicate that “nearly half of Americans are carrying at least $25,000 in debt, with an average debt of $37,000” [2] and in total Americans owe over $1 trillion in credit card debt, a figure greater than the GDP of all but 15 countries worldwide [3]. Furthermore, according to a 2017 New England Journal of Medicine study an estimated 30% of the world’s population (2 billion people) are now either overweight or obese [4]. Clearly our modern world is experiencing a widespread issue of material excess and overindulgence in general. Given the problem at hand, philosophy offers us a useful solution here, in particular through the insights of the Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes and the concept of minimalism.

Born in 412 BC and a student of the Greek philosopher Antisthenes, Diogenes (of Sinope) is famously regarded as the archetype of the Cynic movement, an ancient “Greek philosophical sect that stressed stoic self-sufficiency and the rejection of luxury” [5]. The Cynic philosophy advocated by Diogenes can best be described as one of finding joy in simplicity and basic subsistence. Much like the views of his teacher Antisthenes, Diogenes “taught that happiness consisted in satisfying only the most basic needs and in disciplining oneself not to want any more…Everything else [according to Diogenes] was to be renounced – riches, comfort, ordinary life – because none of it made one a morally better person” [6]. Diogenes’ eccentric and austere lifestyle was plainly evident to the citizens of Ancient Athens, as he was known for living on the streets in an earthenware tub, begging for his food, and adopting the moniker “the dog” (kyon) for his seeking of the uncomplicated and instinctive life of animals which, in his view, exemplified true natural values [6]. Despite his strange lifestyle and extreme asceticism, Diogenes’ Cynic philosophy would go on to be embraced by later Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, especially for “its emphasis on minimizing desires, avoiding excessive attachments, and regarding virtue as the sole good and sufficient in itself for happiness” [7]. Additionally, it can be noted that Diogenes’ exercise of asceticism is synonymous with later spiritual and religious ascetic leaders including Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Evagrius Ponticus, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi.

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Diogenes (c 350 BC)

While many today may regard the kind of asceticism advocated by Diogenes and other philosophical/spiritual figures as overly antiquated or irrelevant today, it’s interesting to note that austere and minimalist thinking is experiencing somewhat of a revival in modern times. Numerous media organizations (including The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post) have written about the emergence of a philosophical lifestyle movement known as minimalism and the inherent benefits associated with it [8,9,10]. Expressed in a way that surely Diogenes himself would approve of, minimalism is basically defined as a philosophy of life that advocates the idea that “less is more” by eliminating excessive consumption and unnecessary material acquisitions [11], with the ultimate purpose of rediscovering authentic freedom in our personal lives [12]. Examples of minimalism in practice include frugal spending habits, routine “spring cleaning”, donating away unused items, effectively organizing one’s time and responsibilities, living in the moment, and a breaking away from stresses of the corporate “rat race” or the “keeping up with the Jones” mentality.

The case for minimalist philosophy is really an easy sell in today’s fast-paced, consumer culture world. Particularly in affluent countries with high standards of living, people are constantly bombarded by the corporate-consumer marketing cycle that pressures us to purchase more and buy instantly. Yet, as alluded to earlier, this current hyperactive consumption cycle often leaves us feeling ironically unfulfilled, debt-ridden, and restricted from genuine freedom. Thus, the ascetic insights of Diogenes along with the contemporary philosophy of minimalism offers us a way to reevaluate our lifestyle priorities in order to find more authentic personal freedom and meaning within the modern world.

References

[1] Solovitch, S. (2016). Hoarding is a serious disorder – and it’s only getting worse in the U.S. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/hoarding-is-serious-disorder–and-its-only-getting-worse-in-the-us/2016/04/11/b64a0790-f689-11e5-9804-537defcc3cf6_story.html?utm_term=.7b8ce5d267a5

[2] Lamagna, M. (2017). 40% of Americans spend up to half of their income servicing debt. MarketWatch. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/40-of-americans-spend-half-of-their-income-servicing-debt-2017-04-27

[3] Elkins, K. (2017). Here’s how much the average US family has in credit card debt. CNBC. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/17/how-much-the-average-us-family-has-in-credit-card-debt.html 

[4] Sifferlin, A. (2017). Almost 30% of People in the World Are Obese or Overweight. Time. http://time.com/4813075/obesity-overweight-weight-loss/ 

[5] Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017). Diogenes – Greek Philosopher.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diogenes-Greek-philosopher

[6] Gottlieb, A. (2016). The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (pp. 170-171). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

[7] Bassham, G. (2016). The Philosophy Book: From the Vedas to the New Atheists, 250 Milestones in the History of Philosophy (p. 56). New York: Sterling.

[8] Jeffries, S. (2011). Less is more: The age of minimalism. The Guardian.  https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/11/less-is-more-age-of-minimalism

[9] Rosen, R.J. (2014). Living with Less. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/living-with-less/374544/ 

[10] Fifield, A. (2017). Can you declutter if you have kids? This Japanese dad says you can. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/can-you-declutter-if-you-have-kids-this-japanese-dad-says-you-can/2017/06/15/231e1488-4a67-11e7-b69d-c158df3149e9_story.html?utm_term=.f2ec288d7e3c

[11] K, Lidiya. (2013). A New Philosophy of Living: The Principles of Minimalism & Simplicity. Let’s Reach Success. https://letsreachsuccess.com/2013/06/20/a-new-philosophy-of-living/

[12] Millburn, J.F. & Nicodemus, R. (n.d.). What is Minimalism? The Minimalists. http://www.theminimalists.com/minimalism/

 

 

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