The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Simple Living Is Supposed to Improve Us

wisdom of frugalityThis is the second entry in an eight-part weekly series that provides a detailed look at the book The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott. If you’re new to the series, feel free to hop back to the first entry.

There is an underlying thread, both in philosophical writing and throughout history, that living a simple and frugal life is meant to improve us. Westacott tackles this idea in the second chapter of the book, digging deep into the idea that simplicity and frugality can be a tool for making us into better people.

He starts off by listing four distinct reasons for praising simple living.

First, the moral reason for simple living is that simple living is inherently good or fosters other virtues. A person who lives a simple life is just inherently seen as a good person and thus likely has other virtues that are shaped by their life choices. The “friendly, wise hermit” that often shows up in popular culture is a prime example of this. For example, I remember watching the television show Grizzly Adams as a child and seeing the main character as incredibly virtuous, which ran in parallel with his choice to live as a “mountain man.”

Second, the prudential reason for simple living is that it promotes happiness and well being. This is my primary reason for simple living – it’s a life that leaves me content and gives me a lot of free time to do the things I most enjoy.

Third, the aesthetic reason for simple living is that it can be quite beautiful. This is captured in the minimalist movement that many people are into these days, which is a particular flavor of simple living done with style.

Finally, the religious reason for simple living is that simple living is done in accordance with divine will. Think of people who choose to live a simple life for religious reasons, such as the Amish or Mennonites, if you want a prime example of this.

It’s worth noting that, in many cases, the third and fourth reasons often boil down to the first two reasons, so for the rest of the chapter, Westacott really just focuses on the moral and prudential reasons for praising the simple life.

At first glance, distinguishing between the moral and prudential reasons for simple living is really easy. Is it a moral duty for you? Or is it just a way to have less stress and more time for leisure and other joys?

The closer you look, however, the less clear it becomes. If you enjoy frugality and relish the challenge of it, is it a moral thing or a prudential thing? Is something that is personally hard – like becoming financially responsible or losing weight – always inherently a good and moral thing to do? It’s not easy to see.

For me, most real change that has occurred in my life has been both moral and prudential. I do it because it inherently seems like the right thing to do for some reason, but I also do it because I either enjoy the challenge itself or deeply enjoy the results of succeeding at that challenge. I don’t invest time and energy into things if it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do (moral), but I also won’t invest time and energy if I don’t enjoy doing it or deeply enjoy the results (prudential). I need both.

Another issue that Westacott touches upon here is how moral virtue is shaped by daily habits. If you force yourself to adopt a particular habit, over time it will shape the nature of your character. For example, if you force yourself to cut the snark out of your words and be kind to others while thinking positively of them, that’s eventually who you will become and you will eventually think of it as the “right way” to do things.

Does Simple Living Help One Avoid Temptation?

Subscribing to a lifestyle of simple living and frugality removes many of the temptations that people are exposed to in life. For example, if you choose to live a much simpler life that doesn’t involve shopping for anything other than essentials, you’re going to find yourself far less tempted to indulge in expensive and unnecessary purchases.

This is something that often shows up in literature and even sometimes in film. A “sophisticated” person is either forced to or chooses to live a “simple” life and, because of that situation, begins to find moral clarity. It’s a trope that shows up again and again, even in children’s movies – that’s basically the plot of the Disney/Pixar film Cars, after all.

Monastic life is another great example of this phenomenon. People often cut themselves off from parts of society in order to do deep work or to deeply reflect. It’s why many colleges are often founded in rural locations (though, sometimes, cities spring up around them).

So, what kinds of temptations are people trying to avoid by striving for the “simple life”? It might be as simple as trying to live within one’s means and avoid debt and financial hardship. A person might be wanting to avoid other moral challenges like alcoholism or drug abuse or some other addiction. It may be simply wanting to change a pattern of habitual buying and getting out of a sense of feeling overwhelmed by one’s own possessions.

Another reason why people might choose the simple life is that chasing wealth often forces people to end up serving causes and people that they consider to be immoral. In my previous career path, there were definitely jobs and positions that I considered immoral; there were also people in my field that I would not have wanted to work for. Coincidentally, some of those positions paid really well; by choosing a simpler life, I could avoid them. The same was true when I was making decisions regarding Google-X – I could choose to make less money (and thus have a simpler life) by avoiding some sticky ethical areas.

The thing to remember in all of this is that money is not inherently evil. Money isn’t the root of all evil – it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil. There are wealthy people and poor people who are virtuous and there are wealthy and poor people who are scoundrels.

The key here is to realize that you shouldn’t fear losing your wealth, at least not to the point of driving you to immoral choices. Don’t fear poverty as a life disaster or something to avoided at all costs. It’s not a disaster, but just a new challenge. If you’re willing to dive into immoral behavior just to avoid a period of financial trouble, what does that really say about your character?

Speaking of character…

Is There a Connection Between Simple Living and Good Character?

Westacott goes on to make the great point that practicing frugality and financial discipline fosters a bunch of character traits that tend to lend themselves well to other areas of life. Temperance. Prudence. Self-control. A strong work ethic. Those traits, once built, tend to help out in other parts of one’s personal life and professional life.

To illustrate this idea, Westacott refers to ancient Sparta, where the Spartans made simple living a core part of their culture. The “spartan” virtues of physical fitness, hardiness, self-control, straightforwardness, and lack of envy led to a cultural success that’s still highly regarded today.

Of course, the reverse perspective also exists: the idea that wealth and luxury erode meal character. The idea here is that people who have more are more afraid of material loss, which leads to selfishness and cowardice and other negative behaviors, which is a viewpoint strongly present in stoicism.

However, these impressions aren’t strictly true. Being frugal can lead to pride in one’s lifestyle, something I once felt quite strongly. It can lead to being very judgmental and narcissistic. It can also lead to miserly behavior and mistreatment of others. On the other hand, one only needs to look at a few examples of people with wealth and power who behaved with high standards of morality and values (such as Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, to name one) to see that wealth and luxury can go hand in hand with character.

The link between frugality and virtue isn’t a guarantee. Without a doubt, frugality can promote many positive virtues, but it is never a guarantee, and it can encourage some less virtuous elements, too.

Of course, this leads us into another problematic area.

Does Simple Living Promote Superior Values?

It’s easy to point at the cardinal virtues of western society and see how they line up – or at least aren’t contradicted by – living a simple and frugal life. Morality, integrity, friendship, peace of mind, wisdom – those are things that are acquired with few means.

There are two key problems with that idea.

First, there’s the problem of pleasure. Often, simple living seems to carry with it the idea that pleasure is somehow bad, but that’s not true at all. Simple pleasures aren’t inherently bad at all – it’s philosophers like Plato and religious movements like the Puritans that try to cast pleasure as somehow not being virtuous.

I tend to agree much more with Epicurus when he argues that simple pleasures are in fact the “first good” and that simple living enhances those kinds of basic pleasures. The feeling of warmth on your skin or grass under your feet or the taste of cold water on a hot day or the feeling of holding the hand of someone you love – those are incredible pleasures and it’s not a bad thing to enjoy them. In fact, I’d argue that simple living highlights them.

Second, there’s the problem of truth. The idea that some values are strictly good and desirable shows off the difference between philosophical and scientific truth. I often talk about what’s right and what’s wrong with my friends and my family rather than just subscribing to what I’m told to believe is right and wrong, which is a philosophical approach to truth. Do I subscribe to absolute laws set down by others? In general, I do, but it’s because I tend to agree with them and find them reasonable. I am not frugal because I am told to be frugal, however; I’m frugal because I thought through the reasons for it and talked about it often with Sarah and with my friends.

I view frugality as good and worth striving for because I personally see the value in it, not because there is a law or strong moral guideline in place that tells me to be frugal.

Is Simple Living a Sign of Integrity?

Most of the time, simple living is used as a sign of moral integrity in both philosophy and in culture. The person who lives simply is often assumed to have integrity, whereas that same assumption isn’t made of the wealthy person.

This is particularly true when people voluntarily choose to live a simple life. Part of the power of the story of people like Buddha, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and even Jesus of Nazareth comes from their choice to give up most of their physical possessions to follow a cause or idea they believed to be right. Famous people today will often do the same thing, choosing some act of simplicity as a way to earn some moral “credit” as a good person. “This celebrity is just like you!”

This works because the choice to live simply eliminates a strong avenue of hypocrisy, when a wealthy person with a luxurious lifestyle talks about how virtuous and superior the simple life is. If the simple life is superior, why doesn’t the person living in luxury practice it, then? It feels hypocritical, whereas the actual practice of living the simple life avoids that hypocrisy entirely.

A simple life also appears to be less corruptible, especially when it’s voluntarily chosen. If a person is content living a simple life, how are you going to corrupt that person? They’re likely not interested in bribery or other things that could be offered, whereas a person who enjoys luxuries seems much more desirous of the things that could be used to bribe them.

Are Extravagance and Accumulation Signs of Shallowness?

This is another idea often shared in culture. The person that invests a lot of energy and time seeking fulfillment through lavish spending is also signaling a lack of time and energy invested in building their moral, intellectual, and aesthetic capabilities. The idea that a person who shops all the time is “dumb” or “ditzy” is a very common element used in movies and television and books.

This is an area that many schools of philosophy dig into. The Stoics believed that people should be generally wary of happiness acquired through external means, and that the internal life is the source of true happiness.

Arthur Schopenhauer went a bit further and argued that extravagant spending was a sign of personal boredom and evidence of an unexplored inner life. Friedrich Nietzsche carried that idea even further and felt that people leading trivial and unconsidered lives were a displeasing spectacle and he actively avoided them.

This perspective that luxurious living is a sign of shallowness isn’t perfect, however. What does it mean to live a “shallow” life? Furthermore, it’s basically impossible to judge someone’s inner life by what possessions they own, because you don’t necessarily know why they own those possessions or what their thought process is. In the end, this type of judgement relies on the idea that some types of pleasure are inherently superior to others, trying to “rank” things that aren’t really quantifiable.

The reality is that in western society, people generally prefer to live an affluent life, and people who have lived both lives typically prefer the affluent one. This is true regardless of how well considered their internal life is. People want to live the “good life,” but the definition of the “good life” isn’t the same for everyone.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the connection between simplicity and virtue isn’t a guaranteed link, but a probable one. Living a simple life promotes many values that are considered a positive in our culture, but aren’t a guarantee of them; similarly, living a luxurious life might point to some values that aren’t respected, but aren’t a guarantee, either.

You do not have to be frugal to be a good person, nor does a good person have to be frugal. However, being frugal tends to encourage values that are considered “good” in our society, and the natural overlap of values that people consider virtuous tends to nudge people toward frugal living.

In the end, frugality and simple living tend to nudge us toward a set of values that are widely considered to represent a “good life” across many cultures and schools of philosophy. However, it’s not a guarantee of a good life, and luxurious living doesn’t mean a bad life.

Part of the difficulty here is figuring out what exactly the “good life” means – I take it to mean a contented life where you act as often as possible in accordance with the values you hold true. For me, frugality is unquestionable part of the “good life,” and I firmly believe that seeking frugality has been helpful in finding the “good” in other aspects of life, too.

Next week, we’ll look at why simple living is thought to make us happier.