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.