Voluntary Spiritual Simplicity

October 24, 2006

Well I sure blitzed through this book. That should be somewhat of an indication of the clarity of Duane Elgin’s exposition. But as usual, I have some curt words to say about it. I just first say how enormously well-written and thought-out the book is and how comprehensive it is as a manifesto for voluntary simplicity. It has its problems, in part due to naiveness and in part due to Elgin’s sophmoric sociological theory of social change. It’s just a bell-curve and a graphically uninformative one at that.

I’ve realized that the spiritual aspect of this movement has much more of a rich history than I had previously envisioned. The “personal”, “spiritual”, and “inner value” that simplicity champions is far too embedded into the movement. Elgin does a great job, however, of not making this aspect a dogmatic one. He illuminates that golden rule and if not universal morality then at least the grand shared belief among Judeo-Christian, Hindu, and Buddist faiths. If I were to write book about this subject, and hopefully I will, I will most likely leave out the spiritual. It won’t be because I have some disdain for spirituality – spirituality and religiocity can be noble insights – but simply because the spiritual aspect of simplicity (the concept itself) is not important nor necessary. You do not need a spiritual backdrop in order to develop an ideology of simplicity.

The reason spirituality is used, however, is because it is a convincing and persuasive counter-part to heathenistic materialist consumption philosophies. Of course “the inner” is more grandly beautiful and truly satistfying (theoretically…) when the alternative is only pointless materialistic consumption of mostly unnecessary things. One of the most poignant examples of this is people who suffer from obesity AND malnourishment.  That’s the real fuckin’ irony.

Spiritualism is being used as the magnate which attracts people into simple lifestyles.  But spirituality is not a necessary virtue of simplicity. So then the problem becomes a question of whether or not simplicity or simple living have enough merit as ideologies in themselves to be favorable alternative views/lifestyles to Capitalist over-consumerism. Essentially, if Elgin and Gregg had believed that simplicity was worthy as an alternative economic lifestyle then they wouldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, have used spirituality as a necessary virtue of simplicity especially when it isn’t.

I think I’m ready for Eliot Sober’s book Simplicity now. The voluntary simplicity psuedo-religious movement has really begun to sound repititious and pedantic.  It’s far too “new age”-ish. Elgin’s book is great, but is overly spiritual and it doesn’t rigorously outline a definition of simplicity or simple. And if you can’t understand simplicity from an objective standpoint (Gregg and Elgin both consider the aesthetic judgment of simplicty to be almost entirely introspective) then it won’t be useful as a collective ideology. If everyone was running around saying stuff is simple because it’s simple “to them” then it isn’t a collective movement at all, it’s anarchy all over again. The malnourished fat guy probably thinks that his 2 mpg Hummer and 15lb box of twinkies are “necessary” to his livelihood either to psychological gratification (which is SO easily confused with spiritual wellness) or to his economic stability. And really, what kind of bullshit is that for a movement of simplicity.

Richard B. Gregg’s 1937 essay that truly breathed life into this movement was excellent. It wasn’t so dependant on spirituality, but it did support spirituality as a necessary virtue, but more importantly, it was a much more all-encompassing analysis of simplicity. The simplicity is very ubiquitious and pervasive – it can be applied anywhere. Because of this, Gregg’s essay fails. John Madea insightfully said that for certain things you cannot and sometimes must not apply simplicity. On ODN (online debate network) I wrote a little counter-argument to Gregg’s application of simplicity to politics. I don’t perfectly remember the argument but I think I first said that it would be unrealistic to apply it considering the fact that a democractic government has to consider the opinions of numerous people. The system is innately complex and simplifiying it might cause injustices but more importantly vulnerabilities. I think my counter-example was something like how a military in a simplistic government will almost always lose a battle. You want and need surplus in an army.

So really, because I’m somewhat fed-up with the naiveness and unecessary spiritualism of the voluntary simplicity socio-political movements I’m going to now start on simplicity in regards to the philosophy of science. It’ll be really interesting to see in what way scientific simplicity might be able to resolve the faults of the socio-political perspectives.


One Response to “Voluntary Spiritual Simplicity”

  1. Joe said


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