Graceful SimplicityOne of the weird ways that I deal with complex ideas is by reading multiple books simultaneously. When I find intertextual references that are unfamiliar, I have a huge compulsion to track them down.

In Segal’s  “interlude” chapter separating his discussion of a politics of simplicity and his discussion of philosophy, there are many.

In the prior chapter, Segal suggests that education in the liberal arts be given priority over math science (STEM) education. Funny, but in the decades since this book, no one has taken him up on that.

I realize that this is a popular press title, but the lack of rigor in his citations is a bit disturbing to this reader, who is indeed a qualified liberal arts graduate. He has big habit of citing texts within texts rather than the primary texts themselves; and relying on the secondary text’s reading as his guide for interpretation.

I wasn’t familiar with the Satire on Trades (called The Instruction of Duauf by Segal). It’s a Middle Kingdom Egyptian exercise that’ I’m shocked doesn’t crop up in writing studies literature more. It may be that there are too many variant copies of this thing to make clear readings possible. Disturbingly,  Segal doesn’t treat it as a satire, but rather unironically as a polemic regarding the superiority of books/writing to trade occupations.

Segal seems to believe that rather than pursuing competitiveness in science and engineering, we’d be better off with more philosophers and literature students. That’s a tough sell in any decade, especially when you misread your own evidence.

Reaching back to 2,000 BCE to find the attitude towards “books” that you’re selling is less compelling when that attitude is found in an exercise slavishly copied by students to please their teachers. Segal asserts: “It is this writing of Duauf himself that, for us, is the book that opens up the inner world of ordinary people at the time of the Pharaohs, opens up their beauty, their love, and their anxieties” (123). As a former writing teacher, you’ll have to imagine the smirk on my face when I read that.

I must admit, the text is a hoot. It’s pretty much a “don’t be a fool, stay in school” screed from antiquity. It shows up retold 200 BC in the book of Sirach, and one interpretation I read postulated that it was just one of many examples of a text reflecting an anxiety towards the manual trades in ancient Egypt, a representative of a “genre” as much as a glimpse into anyone’s “inner world.”  The fear of craftsmen and manual laborers is also present in the literature of ancient Greece, and I’ve been collecting examples for a while. Outright hostility towards artisans seems to be the rule of the ancient world, but this is more my research project than Segal’s.

Segal simply summons this parable as defence of the liberal arts model before launching into a discussion of “golden age” rhetorics and ideas of progress, an important component of any sort of philosophy of “graceful simplicity.” The ideas are fairly easy to accept and array in bullet points (I’ll spare you).

I was impressed to find that Thucydides tells of a transition from a subsistence economy in Hellas into a trading economy, framed as “progress.” I haven’t taken the time to track down Segal’s assertion that Thucydides embeds in his tales of “progress” a narrative of improvements in technology and custom to drive these changes. What I do want to delve into though, is his treatment of Seneca and the Stoics.

It took me to figure out where he was getting his text. Segal’s citation of Seneca comes from a reader on the idea of progress, copyright 1949. There is no other identifier of the source text or identification beyond the compilation. I finally identified the portion that most interested me as Seneca’s Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 90.

Segal is interested in Seneca because “What distinguishes Seneca’s vision is that , unlike the seventeenth and eighteenth-century apostles of progress, in Seneca, and in the intervening centuries, there is no broad assumption that progress with respect to knowledge means in increase in human virtue, well-being, or happiness” (130). Citing the letter 90, Segal attempts to make the same tension I marked earlier, the separation of educated people from artisans, into something that is a completely different issue:

Here, 2,ooo years ago we have the link being made between a doctrine of progress and a philosophy of simple living. With progress in ingenuity, that is, technology, we have a variety of new products and processes. We have apartment houses and architects and aquaculture! Invention, mechanical skill, ingenuity, labor, or, to call it what it is: economic growth. All of this emerges from human vice and foolishness. Before such luxury we were free and there was little need for labor. The path of wisdom and happiness lay elsewhere. (131-2)

Seneca’s epistle is deliciously complex, ambiguous, and nuanced. It’s not at all about “economic growth,” it’s about the role of philosophia (wisdom) in human affairs. Yes, Seneca works at length to separate wisdom from ingenuity—but it comes across to me more as wanting to deny the artisan any purchase on wisdom. The foil for the letter, Posidonius, has proposed that wise men were responsible for the improvements brought about by craft/technology, either by teaching artisans or inventing the tools; Seneca argues that these developments are not improvements, simply examples of ingenuity that man has no need of. Wisdom is another matter entirely and has nothing to do with craft.

That’s fascinating to me, much more so than Segal’s argument. I’d like to examine this letter in some detail:

Accordingly, in that age which is maintained to be the golden age, Posidonius holds that the government was under the jurisdiction of the wise. They kept their hands under control, and protected the weaker from the stronger. They gave advice, both to do and not to do; they showed what was useful and what was useless. Their forethought provided that their subjects should lack nothing; their bravery warded off dangers; their kindness enriched and adorned their subjects. For them ruling was a service, not an exercise of royalty. No ruler tried his power against those to whom he owed the beginnings of his power; and no one had the inclination, or the excuse, to do wrong, since the ruler ruled well and the subject obeyed well, and the king could utter no greater threat against disobedient subjects than that they should depart from the kingdom.

In a sense, it seems as if that in this version of the golden age (a common mythos) that the “superior” wise men/kings ruled over the weaker/dumber/cowardly folks telling them what crafts and technologies were worthy of perpetuating, making for an ideal society where everyone has plenty and the worst punishment is simply to vote the offender off the island of perfect living. Seneca can go along with this, but he just can’t abide by the part where “they showed what was useful and what was useless” to the artisans, or addressed any other mundane concerns:

Up to this point I agree with Posidonius; but that philosophy discovered the arts of which life makes use in its daily round I refuse to admit. Nor will I ascribe to it an artisan’s glory. Posidonius says: “When men were scattered over the earth, protected by eaves or by the dug-out shelter of a cliff or by the trunk of a hollow tree, it was philosophy that taught them to build houses.” But I, for my part, do not hold that philosophy devised these shrewdly-contrived dwellings of ours which rise story upon story, where city crowds against city, any more than that she invented the fish-preserves, which are enclosed for the purpose of saving men’s gluttony from having to run the risk of storms, and in order that, no matter how wildly the sea is raging, luxury may have its safe harbours in which to fatten fancy breeds of fish.

It seems to be Seneca’s position that nature provides adequately for everyone without the interference of man. That the strong should rule over the weak, no problem. Who needs houses or delicious food though? These things are luxuries:

What! Was it philosophy that taught the use of keys and bolts? Nay, what was that except giving a hint to avarice? Was it philosophy that erected all these towering tenements, so dangerous to the persons who dwell in them? Was it not enough for man to provide himself a roof of any chance covering, and to contrive for himself some natural retreat without the help of art and without trouble? Believe me, that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders!

Apparently, sleeping on rocks under trees was just fine as far as the Stoics were concerned.

All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born, – this matter of cutting timbers square and cleaving a beam with unerring hand as the saw made its way over the marked-out line.

The primal man with wedges split his wood.

For they were not preparing a roof for a future banquet-ball; for no such use did they carry the pine trees or the firs along the trembling streets with a long row of drays – merely to fasten thereon panelled ceilings heavy with gold. Forked poles erected at either end propped up their houses. With close-packed branches and with leaves heaped up and laid sloping they contrived a drainage for even the heaviest rains. Beneath such dwellings, they lived, but they lived in peace. A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.

Civilization, as we know it at least—not simply economic surplus—was what Seneca seems to be railing against here. It’s not just these opulent buildings, but buildings in general that he’s against. And as for technology, well:

On another point also I differ from Posidonius, when he holds that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men. For on that basis one might maintain that those were wise who taught the arts

Of setting traps for game, and liming twigs

For birds, and girdling mighty woods with dogs.

It was man’s ingenuity, not his wisdom, that discovered all these devices. And I also differ from him when he says that wise men discovered our mines of iron and copper, “when the earth, scorched by forest fires, melted the veins of ore which lay near the surface and caused the metal to gush forth.” Nay, the sort of men who discover such things are the sort of men who are busied with them. Nor do I consider this question so subtle as Posidonius thinks, namely, whether the hammer or the tongs came first into use. They were both invented by some man whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted; and the same holds true of any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground.

The real anti-artisan attitude shines here.

How, I ask, can you consistently admire both Diogenes and Daedalus? Which of these two seems to you a wise man – the one who devised the saw, or the one who, on seeing a boy drink water from the hollow of his hand, forthwith took his cup from his wallet and broke it, upbraiding himself with these words:  “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!” and then curled himself up in his tub and lay down to sleep?

Real men don’t need no stinking cups! That’s the Stoic attitude at least. Of course, having found this passage I then had to look up the story of the invention of the saw. It’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book VIII: 236-239

As he was consigning his unfortunate son to the grave, a noisy partridge poked its head out from a muddy ditch, and, called, cackling joyfully, with whirring wings. It was the only one of its kind, not seen in previous years, and only recently made a bird, as a lasting reproach to you, Daedalus. Your sister, Perdix, oblivious to the fates, sent you her son, Talus, to be taught: twelve years old, his mind ready for knowledge. Indeed, the child, studying the spine of a fish, took it as a model, and cut continuous teeth out of sharp metal, inventing the use of the saw. He was also the first to pivot two iron arms on a pin, so that, with the arms at a set distance, one part could be fixed, and the other sweep out a circle. Daedalus was jealous, and hurled the boy headlong from Minerva’s sacred citadel, claiming that he had fallen. But Pallas Minerva, who favours those with quick minds, caught him, and turned him into the partridge, masking him with feathers in mid-air. His inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet, and he kept his mother’s name, Perdix, from before. But the bird does not perch above the ground, and does not make its nest on branches or on high points, but flies low on whirring wings over the soil, and lays its eggs in a sheltered place.

Okay, that’s as far as I should go digging into this for today I think. The inventor of the saw, despised for his ingenuity, was transformed into a partridge. I think that pretty much illustrates my point about the perception of the artisan in the ancient world.

Public and Private Beauty

Graceful SimplicityThere is a distinct abuse of bulleted lists in Segal’s book. Nonetheless, many of the concepts buried in these bullets deserve close attention and comparison with other variations on the general ideas.  The “graceful” aspect of Segal’s formulation of graceful simplicity is steeped in aesthetic values which converge and diverge with earlier deployments of the concept.

It amazes me just how frequently these basic concepts can be traced directly to William Morris, Ruskin, and the intrusions of industrial capitalism. William Morris lamented the shoddy products of his time and the lack of aesthetic beauty in the lives of the many.

Segal implicitly agrees with Morris, though he never cites him. There are however many   divergences on a path to a quite socialist conception of the problems. Segal places the lack of the beauty into the public sphere, rather than the private though he does bulletize the household first:

  • Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is a beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
  • A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
  • One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrift shops knows that there are great things to be found—beautiful objects, not noticed or not valued by others.
  • Things of beauty exercise a special power—they radiate within their spaceand as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions be beautiful, only that some things are. (68)

The first point, about an “architecture of time” seems more unique, or at least reactive to the “slow” movements that were emerging around the time that he composed his book. The second, third, and fourth points are eerily similar to Yanagi Sōetsu’s concepts of mingei and the intimate nature of craft beauty, which probably had Morris as their original source. Ultimately, it seems as these concepts flow through many mouthpieces who differ largely only in emphasis rather than substance. Where Segal really breaks ground, in my opinion, is in next few bullets

  • One of the inexpensive sources of beauty is in our own creative ability. In part, this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, or to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique. But within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangementwhether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towelswhat we find in every space is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has traveled in the Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by an exceedingly beautiful display, formed with fifty loves of bread or with a few dozen shirts. (68-9)

I’ve got some serious issues with this section. First, it seems really horrible to suggest that photography, playing music, sculpting, etc., are somehow latent in people and only need to be summoned by practice and technique. Photography, for example, is largely (in my opinion) a matter of disabusing oneself of the notion that you actually know anything about it simply because you’ve seen a lot of it. It’s not latent, in fact, it is perhaps the most opposite of a latent skill I can possibly think of.

Photography is a recording technology that you might think you understand by simply being exposed to it: it only takes a few stabs at imitation before you figure out that maybe you don’t know so much about it after all. It’s hard, at least if you’re doing it right. Skill isn’t an internal matter of getting in touch with yourself and your hidden talents; it’s about understanding a variety of technologies from the pencil to the chisel, including perhaps also the piano and the camera. Practice and education are far more constituent of “talent” than any innate quality, at least in my opinion. In design and arrangement however, things might well be different.


I remember stopping at Buc-ee’s in Lulling, Texas a while ago and being struck by this wall of products. It struck me then that it didn’t represent real choice, but rather the illusion of choice. Though there are a multitude of flavors listed, they’re pretty much the same product (salt, sugar, soy, etc.) with just a touch of different in the chemical/spice treatments added. As I’ve learned to do more with basic food products like rice (which comes in a myriad of varieties with completely different properties) it occurs to me that the knowledge of how to transform raw materials into meals presents a more impressive array of choices than the wall of flavor powders. But I digress: the display was beautiful in a bizarre way.

Though I find the reference to the beauty of Third World markets a bit condescending and imperialist (ah, those simple peasants and their displays), Segal is onto something with the beauty of arrangement. Of all that he’s mentioned, arrangement is as close to a “latent” talent that most people can be said to have. While it can be developed through education and practice, we all “know what looks right” if we give ourselves half a chance. The fact that he chooses an economic locus (the market) as an example of commonplace beauty is a bit like a Freudian slip; lusting after products in a shop window is a beautiful thing.

I recall my mother, being a woman used to living on very little, would just revel in moving her furniture around from time to time to “improve” her surroundings. Furniture arrangement was probably the only “artistic” pursuit she ever attempted. Crafts, like needlepoint or knitting, though popular with most of her sisters, always reminded my mother how much better they were at it. She didn’t find it relaxing in the slightest. But furniture arrangement, well, that was just her way of getting in touch with beauty. So, I think Segal’s point is a good one even if it is clumsy in its expression.

But the real breakthrough, I think, is in the final bullet of his list:

  • The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to us and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards, gardens; the pavement of the streets; the shops; the trees; the skyline; or access to the sunset. In economist’s terms, these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

It is this point that really merits discussion at greater length. It’s not really something that can be addressed by individual action. It’s a question of social beauty, not of individual or consumer beauty. I hadn’t really thought of beauty as a social concept before.

I must admit that I felt “happier” living in the Twin Cities*, though I was of lower economic means then.  With the highest per capita arts spending of any major metro area and a park system pretty much second to none, Upstate New York suffers by comparison. Natural beauty is widely available here, and wonderful— but the lack of civic beauty is hurtful to the spirit. I live in a beautiful enclave, accessible only to those with means. And my heart sinks when I step outside of it.

*There is a rebuttal to the linked article, but I stand by my opinion– it’s the best place I have ever lived.

I may not be graceful or simple, but I’m trying to be persistant

Graceful SimplicityOne of my deepest difficulties as a reader and a researcher is my tendency to chase footnotes and citations, sometimes until I wander off permanently from the primary text. It was a real pain in grad school, because it usually ended up with other people thinking I was showing off my extensive reading. That’s not really what I was after; mostly, I just get curious. For example, even though I read and didn’t really care for Thoreau’s Walden, I just ordered a cheap dover copy since I hate e-books and PDFs. I blame Jerome Segal. It may not be obvious that’s what I was doing when I wandered down the alleys of some of the recent posts.

I’m still trying to process the Segal (and EP Thompson’s book on William Morris too, for that matter). It’s hard to try to focus when there are so many interesting topics at hand. To recap a bit, I summarized the basic framework Segal establishes for impoverishment and listed his criteria for a so called “Aristotelian approach” to political life.

Segal invokes Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech , focusing particularly on the lines:

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”

There are some interesting rabbit holes to fall down in this book. I had encountered Edward Bok before in a journalism independent study back when I was working on my master’s degree, but didn’t realize until Segal brought it up that his magazine, Ladie’s Home Journal, was a big proponent of “simple living” at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ve trolled their archives on ProQuest for a while, finding all sorts of things that I won’t get lost in here. As Zoe Nyssa once remarked, my mind is a strange and mysterious place.

Segal summons John Woolman, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau to establish a different version of the “American Dream” that begins with simple living. It’s an alternate sort of economics, which he sums up:

The point of an economy, even a dynamic economy is not to have more and more; it is to liberate us from the economic—to provide a material platform from which we may go forth and build the good life. That’s the Alternative American Dream. (22)

The material that follows isn’t really as interesting as the primary sources he cites. He’s got a survey of various “simple living” self-help books, and some political policy arguments about the state of NRI (needs related income) and the difficulties of simplifying things when it’s actually harder to get enough money to maintain a basic standard of living than it has been in the past. Segal has some unique and concrete policy ideas working within existing government programs, like the earned income credit and medicaid, to assist people in finding a better basic quality of life. The general conclusion, after exploring the increasing costs of security, education, transportation, housing, etc. is this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting these needs has increased dramatically.

This is quite a different picture than is commonly portrayed of our affluent society. For most Americans, their subjective experience that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflation in their appetites or standards of decency (e.g.”I must have more square feet, a newer car, better furniture, new gadgets, or I’ll just die), but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. (65)

It’s Segal’s framing of these “unmet” or “long-existing” needs that I find most fascinating. He actually discusses aesthetic impoverishment. It’s not something you see much outside of Morris and other Arts and Crafts literatures. In a long series of bullet points he frames a social conception of beauty that has some interesting twists, which I’ll turn to next. It’s almost socialist in its approach rather than individualist; coming on the heels on so much about standard economic needs, it’s a surprise. Rather than the conventional “ugly American” indictment of consumerism, Segal is on to something quite different.

Crisis of Confidence

Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do?

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: “We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.”

Full transcript

Treating the household as the center of the polis persists from Aristotle to Jimmy Carter and beyond. Jerome Segal points to Carter’s speech for its indictment of the excesses of material wealth and their impact on the psyche of the American people. This speech wasn’t effective at the time, but it’s an incredibly interesting thing to revisit.

As global energy markets are disrupted not by OPEC, but with the overwhelming efficiency and superior technology of American energy companies. We’re producing too much now, and instead of lines at the gas pumps we’ve got falling prices. But we still have, by most measures, a lack of faith in the future.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.

Unnatural Wealth

Graceful SimplicityReturning for now to Jerome Segal’s book, there are some interesting leaps from Aristotle. I do not really understand some of the leaps he makes to declare some perspectives “Aristotelian.” Taxonomies that appear in Aristotle are frequently sketches that are contradicted elsewhere, deployed as matters of argumentative convenience.

What seems clear in my reading of Book I of the Politics is that Aristotle builds an analogical argument from nature, with the household as the central “natural” unit of human interaction and structure.

Economics, as such, is an element of only passing interest. Economics is important because it plays a part in the management of the household, just as it does in other political units. In the household, economics is of lesser importance. The status quo of power relations is of the most compelling interest to Aristotle, and it is unlikely that the status of economics is generalizable across all fields of political endeavor. Nonetheless, Jerome Segal identifies an Aristotelian approach to a “politics of simplicity” in neat bullet points:

  • There is no distinct economic realm
  • Economic institutions and policy must be judged in terms of how they affect the good life and the healthy personality
  • The central institution to be supported by economic life is the household (which in turn supports activity in the larger world).
  • The good life is not one of consumption, but of the flourishing of our deepest selves
  • Absorption in a life of acquisitiveness distorts the personality out of all recognition.
  • What we need for our well being is only a moderate supply of material goods. As we acquire more, material possessions are of diminishing value. (9)

What troubles me most is his first point: “There is no distinct economic realm.” I just can’t see where he gets this. Aristotle actually divides “economics” into two types. There is an economics of wealth given by nature which is essential to supporting a household. However, there are those who cannot restrain their desire, in a manner somewhat analogous to drug addiction (my comparison, not Aristotle’s):

The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited, they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit. Those who do aim at a good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealth: and so their arises the second species of wealth getting. For, as their enjoyment is in excess, they seek an art which produces the excess of enjoyment; and, if they are not able to supply their pleasures by the art of getting wealth, they try other causes, using in turn every faculty in a manner contrary to nature. (1: 9, 1258b)

The “contrary to nature” part is the key—Animals seldom kill more than they can eat, for example. It isn’t that the “economic realm” doesn’t exist, so much as the danger of managing wealth in a manner that is unhealthy. In Book 10, Aristotle continues to explain that just as a weaver must know how to tell good wool from bad, and know how to take it from nature and use it, so must the head of a household deal with the getting and spending associated with household goods. It is a part of household management, and as such is “natural.”

As for the problem of excess, in a later treatise, Economics, once attributed to Aristotle but now thought to be by a pupil of his, the problem is compared to trying to haul water in a sieve. There is no need for wealth that one cannot protect or use effectively. That’s where the “diminishing value” thesis is actually based: it’s not really commensurate with a “too much wealth is bad for you” admonition. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad to Aristotle’s schema, only that it can be unnatural and not worth the effort.

Instruments of Action

Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he is provided with necessaries. And as in the arts which have a definite sphere the workers must have their proper instruments for the accomplishment of their work, so it is in the management of a household.

Aristotle, Politics 1:4

Segal’s book refers to the Politics mostly for its theory of marginal utility, i.e. the assertion that managing money is a part of managing a household, but it’s possible that a surplus of money is damaging to a household’s well being. In short, money isn’t everything. But when I looked back to Aristotle’s Politics, which I’ve only encountered in passing before, I found a lot more to consider.

When I was studying rhetoric, in a terrific ethics class taught by Art Walzer, we spent quite a bit of time with book six of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I suppose that’s where my obsession with in techné began. Techné is usually translated as art or craft; rhetoric is one craft among many. In class discussions, Art pointed out that rhetoric was actually considered by Aristotle to be a sub-art to politics; I didn’t really know what to do with that, and we didn’t really delve too deeply into the implications of that as I recall. Now, I feel like I need to get a better translation of Nicomachean Ethics. There are some really confusing parts about the structure of politics, which comprises household management and military tactics, mentioned in the same sentence as rhetoric.

Reading Book one of the Politics I was amazed how central that household management was to his structure of the ideal state. That’s refreshing, after recently reading Bellamy’s complete dismissal of household duties as if “in the future” we need not worry about things like cooking and housework. In a sense, Aristotle treats politics as a craft, but not the same sort of productive craft as rhetoric or carpentry. Rather than being productive, politics is practical. I read a bit about these topics (techné and phronesis, or practical wisdom) on Art’s suggestion. Part of the problem is that since the time of Plato, those forms of techné are given second class status, hence the “sub discipline” status for rhetoric, military tactics, and household management. Though they are only a part though, they are an important part.

What I was most interested in was the depiction of “instruments” as being central to household management. By instruments, Aristotle isn’t talking about money, or vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. In his schema, these instruments include your wife and your slaves. They are instruments of action, not just possessions. They are your property, not to covet or sell for profit, but to deploy toward your ends. That’s why money is largely of secondary importance to Aristotle, not because money is evil but because it isn’t how you accomplish the good life; having people to satisfy your needs is essential. The necessaries of life are delivered by using your “instruments,” and owning the correct tools is important— more important than having an excess of money.

Cutting to the chase, what “the good life” was all about wasn’t wage slavery, but actual slavery. A practical man, Aristotle didn’t have a problem with that.



Graceful Simplicity

Graceful SimplicityJerome M. Segal’s book was published in interesting times. First publication was in 1999, with a second paperback edition prepared for publication in 2002, in the aftermath of September 11th.

The preface to the paperback raises interesting issues around the “why do they hate us” line of thinking that was prevalent, and highlights the relevance that Segal finds in thinking about what a philosophy and politics of simplicity might look like. In a world increasingly filled with haves and have-nots, questions about the concentration of wealth are certainly still relevant.

The first chapter attempts to bring a philosophical underpinning to things, traveling first to Aristotle’s Politics and on to the usual touchstones such as Thoreau, but with an odd dalliance on Jimmy Carter, which I will revisit later. Turning from here, Segal makes an interesting point that the literature on simple living tends to largely be of a “how-to” variety. I find an curious parallel there with most crafts, such as rhetoric, whose history is filled with more how-to manuals than philosophies; philosophy is hard to come by when it comes to the productive arts.

Segal spends some time dismantling several popular selling books on frugality in the second chapter, but by the time he reaches the third he starts to dig into a core question: What is wealth, actually? Or better, what does it mean to live in poverty? His foray into Aristotle solves the problem of equating wealth with money to a certain extent, so we get to the core of his project. Rather than define what wealth means, Segal isolates some potential forms of impoverishment:

  • Material impoverishment
  • Intellectual impoverishment
  • Spiritual impoverishment
  • Aesthetic impoverishment
  • Social impoverishment

Most of these are straightforward, and obviously the book spends much time discussing them. Material impoverishment occurs when the “needs required income” falls short of what we need to fit certain basic requirements such as food, housing, health care, transportation, etc. Segal argues that rather that Americans, contrary to popular conception, frequently have less than they require because although incomes are high, the basic cost of these areas has risen so much that they wipe out most of the gains, not because of inflation per se., but because of shifting social requirements. It is increasingly difficult for people to afford houses in good school districts, or live close to where they work (thereby increasing transportation expenses). In areas where spending has remained constant or declined (food and health care, for example) the social costs of maintaining the food system or health care system have increased so drastically so as to erode any improvements.

The access to education, again, hasn’t increased in cost nearly so much as our need to achieve much higher levels to be “secure” in our income earning potential, not to mention simply being good citizens. Spiritual and social impoverishment are real things that don’t get much discussion, but I find it interesting that the Nearing’s book on “simple living” enumerates among their failures their failure to adequately address the need for social involvement and enrichment. It’s not just about money; in fact, poverty is quite a variegated problem.

Most interesting to me, however, is the inclusion of aesthetic impoverishment as a crucial factor. The lack of beauty in our lives was also an overriding concern of William Morris, and is deserving of much discussion. But the first part of the book is largely devoted to the material and social needs of the population more so than the spiritual or aesthetic.

The summation of the first three chapters boils down to this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting those needs increased dramatically.

This is a quite different picture than that commonly portrayed with respect to our affluent society. For most Americans their subjective experience—that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflations in their appetites or their standards of decency but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or an increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. This is true of housing, transportation, education, and income security. Collectively these increases have kept us concerned about money despite income growth. (65-66)

While I really enjoyed the Nearing’s book, and am a bit bemused by Thoreau’s Walden, I have no rich acquaintance who would allow me to move into their backyard, as Thoreau did, and land in Vermont can no longer be purchased for $30 an acre or so. Most “back to the land” options are off the table for the majority of people. Segal suggests that the problem isn’t necessarily that our sense of “needs” is inflated (though I do have a great difficulty accepting that part of his thesis) but that our political structure makes attempts and simplicity nearly impossible, hence his turn to formulate a “politics of simplicity. I don’t disagree with that.

I dug back into the Aristotle, among other things, at Segal’s prodding, and these things are worth writing about at more length.

Le pouvoir de la vie

Graceful Simplicity I find it really choice that the cover of Graceful Simplicity by Jerome M. Segal is a shell. Shells, or more specifically, brachiopods, were my first introduction to the problems of simplicity.

When I reentered college years ago, I needed to select a science to fulfil the requirement for my BA. I had lots of background (from high school) in biology and chemistry. I did ecological field study on microclimates and served as a lab assistant preparing everything for the other students labs in chemistry. Like most kids, I dabbled in explosives and such to keep high school interesting. Then, I was a science nerd.

But that had been a long time, at least twenty years. So, in order to try something different I took geology. I pretty much aced physical geology and I need a “lab” component so I took historical geology as a follow-up. I love the class, but hated the the associated lab. It was mostly sketching fossils and trying to draw conclusions from them.

I remember getting really frustrated with the idea that you could date fossils (in the case of the specific lab, brachiopods, by the level of complexity. The simpler the shell, the older the fossil. The general rule, dictated by the teacher, was that things always proceed from simple structures to complex structures over time. I wasn’t sure why he insisted that was true. I think I either missed, or didn’t fully grasp, the importance of Lamarck.

Le pouvoir de la vie, or “the complexifying force” was a construct Lamarck proposed in the early 19th century as a driver for evolution. This, along with L’influence des circonstances (the adaptive force) were imported from alchemy to explain why fossils seemed to progress in this manner. Of course, the adaptive force has been discarded (the idea, for example, that giraffe’s necks get longer because of their eating habits) but even though this “complexifying” doesn’t hold up under scrutiny either, it persists in our popular grasp of paleontology.

To be fair, the teacher only presented it as a “rule of thumb,” but it still it bugged me. Little did I know that I was actually pressing on one of the difficult bits of paleontology that is still being bantered back and forth. Why is more complex commensurate with “newer” and “more fully developed.” In other words, why does complexity always get read as “better” than simplicity? It still bothers me.

Segal’s book tickled this old, old, memory. I bought the book for a penny (plus $3.99 shipping) used from a Goodwill store. The subtitle, “The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream” was intriguing and the copy when it arrived was highly underlined as if it had been used as a textbook. I wonder what class it was for? The reason why I was interested in the book was mostly that it claimed to have a philosophical (rather than a how-to) perspective on the simple living movement.

It’s been a good buy that has also jogged me to read some other texts I skipped over in past years (like Aristotle’s Politics) and made me revisit some political history (like Jimmy Carter’s presidency). I realize that I’ve not really provided any sort of introduction to the book itself, but I’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll just chuckle about the fact that the book is worth next to nothing, but the transportation of it can happen for a modest fee. It’s the complexifying force at work, I suppose.