Monday, July 12, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity

I have blogged about Voluntary Simplicity before. Today I realized that the term "Voluntary Simplicity" dates back to 1936 when it was coined by Richard Gregg in his article "The Value of Voluntary Simplicity". When I saw that the article is only 16 pages long I started reading. Considering it was written in 1936 it is far ahead of its times.

The most impressive thoughts of the article follow. The quotes are adapted liberally.
  • In Volume III of Arnold J. Toynbee's great Study of History he discusses the growth of civilizations. For some sixty pages he considers what constitutes growth of civilization, including in that term growth in wisdom as well as in stature. With immense learning he traces the developments of many civilizations—Egyptian, Sumeric, Minoan, Hellenic, Syriac, Indic, Iranian, Chinese, Babylonic, Mayan, Japanese, etc. After spreading out the evidence, he comes to the conclusion that real growth of a civilization does not consist of increasing command over the physical environment, nor of increasing command over the human environment (i.e., over other nations or civilizations), but that it lies in what he calls "etherealization": a development of intangible relationships. He points out that this process involves both a simplification of the apparatus of life and also a transfer of interest and energy from material things to a higher sphere. He follows Bergson in equating complexity with Matter and simplicity with Life.
  • The great advances in science and technology have not solved the moral problems of civilization.
  • ... science, technology, and money are on the quantitative rather than the qualitative side of life. The essence of man's social life lies in qualitative rather than quantitative relationships.
  • There can be beauty in complexity but complexity is not the essence of beauty.
  • I commented to Mahatma Gandhi that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, “Then don’t give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.”
  • Simplicity can also be applied to our eating habits. Knowledge will help us select food wisely so that we may be healthy while maintaining simplicity.
  • We need examples of people who, leaving to Heaven to decide whether they are to rise in the world, decide for themselves that they will be happy in it, and have resolved to seek—not greater wealth, but simpler pleasure, not higher fortune, but deeper felicity; making the first of possessions, self-possession.

He also argues that world is crumbling because morality is the base for everything. We have overdeveloped our technology and finance but we have not nurtured our morality. As a result our world is like a massive engine but it is supported only by two flimsy legs of morality. We are vastly out of balance and we should focus and strengthen our morality before we do anything else to once again create a sound foundation.

His article weighs pros and cons of individual voluntary simplicity, and then applies it at the level of a nation viewing nations just like a conscious being consisting of many individuals. He finds most arguments against simplicity as flawed and finds real benefits of simplicity at all levels, the individual as well as the national. In his opinion, a simple nation will be more satisfied and more moral nation.

He summarizes that voluntary simplicity is not enough. He says, In addition to the changes in consumption which widespread simplicity would bring about, it will be necessary also to develop great changes in the present modes of production. Decentralization of production would be one of these changes. The social effects of that would be far-reaching and profound. Many other great changes will be necessary, including a different control of large-scale production and of land, and changes in distribution and in money as an instrument and as a symbol.

Later, Duane Elgin built upon the thoughts of Richard Gregg. Duane wrote articles and several books on Voluntary Simplicity. Here is his home page, also the home of Voluntary Simplicity. A 40 page article from 1977 is entitled Voluntary Simplicity. This article looks at the goals and values of people embracing voluntary simplicity. It discusses who the people are, their living patterns, and plausible trends out to the year 2000. The paper then discusses the social and business implications of voluntary simplicity. It sounds promising. I will make it reading material for another day.

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