Category Archives: consumerism

The Life of Stuff and the Life of Simplicity

by Dr. Norris Frederick

(photo/graphic above (on website only) by Ida Osterman,
Queens University of Charlotte, used by permission)

(1 minute 25 seconds)

In the video clip above[1], George Carlin asks with his inimitable humor, “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it: trying to find a place to put your stuff?”  In questioning “stuff” he’s making a very similar point to the question Epicurus asked in my most recent post about Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “why did you buy all this crap in the first place?”

I wrote last time about Kondo’s methods, my own desk piled with papers and stuff, why Epicurus thinks Kondo does not go far enough, and the ideal of simplicity.  Some of you wrote me that Kondo’s method and the feeling of control brought by keeping only what brings you joy really works.  Some wrote wittily that your own working conditions are quite different from Kondo’s ideal.  One friend wrote, “My desk is about like yours, and I like it that way-it is comforting and makes me feel attached to life; however, I do declutter now and then.”  Another wrote, “I have a dual approach to my cluttering/hoarding/neurotic stacks, piles, and general messes:  avoidance and denial, which has long served me well; and motion—every time I move a pile it gets smaller, motion = attrition.”  A third wrote, “I am inclined to delete this challenging email, so I don’t have to think about the stacks of stuff in my office until they start toppling over.”

Several of you shared in different ways this later-life sentiment: “Being executor of my brother’s estate and having to deal with his entire lifetime of voluminous and useless clutter has at least made me think: I DO NOT want to leave tons of useless stuff for my kids to have to deal with when I am gone.”  And another friend said, “When I travel abroad, and especially to places like rural India and rural Jamaica, my sense of how much ‘stuff’ is really necessary gets – well – turned upside down. Basic needs must be met, of course, but we Americans live in what is arguably the most materialistic culture on the planet and we are products of our culture, whether we like it or not.”

These last two comments bring us back to “useless stuff.”  Epicurus asks us a question that goes far beyond Kondo’s book:

Why do you buy all this crap in the first place?  Why have you bought an enormous home and then tried to fill every part of it with expensive items?  Aren’t you constantly worried about paying the mortgage and buying even more expensive stuff that you see on the strange screen where you stare at this enormous marketplace?  

The Hedonic Treadmill

(photo/graphic above  by Ida Osterman,
Queens University of Charlotte, used by permission)

One pervasive force in accumulating stuff is what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”[2] (“hedone” is Greek for “pleasure”) :  the belief that gaining that new car or new shirt or a 5% raise that I see in front of me on the treadmill will finally bring me happiness.  However, as Jonathan Haidt writes, “Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli, but gradually they ‘habituate,’ firing less to stimuli that they have become used to.”[3] Instead, over time and due to hedonic adaptation, that object attained loses its initial excitement and hope, and is replaced in our view by another object or later a bigger raise which we think will bring us happiness.  And our striving and stress on the treadmill goes on and on and on.

So perhaps we should do as Epicurus argues and focus only on the simple pleasures which have almost no negative consequences:  eating simple food and drinking inexpensive wine; reading; philosophical conversation; and friendship. In fact, however, the ideal relationship between material goods and the good life is complicated.  After all, even with all his emphasis on focusing in simple pleasures, the life of Epicurus and his followers required money to acquire the school he opened in the garden (“The Garden”) of his house.[4]

American History and The Ideal of Simplicity

A study of American history also demonstrates a frequent avowed love of simplicity but also the difficulties in living that life, as David Shi masterfully illustrated in his book The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture .[5]  The proper balance between achieving the necessities of life and following the higher calling of man, hoped the Puritan Governor John Winthrop, could make America a “shining city on a hill.” To help people achieve the good life, the Puritans enacted laws that prohibited the wearing of any vain accumulations of stuff:  gold buttons or silk scarves allowed.

So whereas the Epicureans invited followers to join them in choosing and living a simple life, the Puritans decided to cut out that cumbersome individual decision process and force citizens to live such a life.

The founding fathers of this country were strongly attracted to the histories of the late Roman republic which “portrayed the Republic as a serene, pastoral nation of virtuous citizens.” For a number of years, Thomas Jefferson hoped that the United States could be an industrial yet decentralized nation, and thus could maintain agrarian values. Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean, stating in a letter that “to be accustomed to simple and plain living is conducive to health and makes a man ready for the necessary task of life.”[6]

Of course Jefferson didn’t lead a particularly modest life, as knowledge of his slave plantation and a visit to Monticello make clear. But Jefferson stated an ideal that remained strong in America.

The individualistic spiritualism of the Transcendentalists in the mid‑19th century led to fascinating attempts to live out the simple life.  Emerson restates the idea of the Epicureans and Stoics when he writes, how “to spend a day nobly is the problem to be solved.”[7]  But Emerson’s home required domestic servants, which friend Thoreau criticized severely.  Thoreau went to Walden Pond (on land Emerson owned) to learn the necessities of life, and to write. His two‑year stay there relieved him of many illusions. The Indians and the farmers he met in his travels were not the noble children of nature his romanticism had pictured. He once was excited by meeting a Canadian woodsman who told Thoreau that if “it were not for books,” he “would not know what to do [on] rainy days.” Imagine Thoreau’s disappointment when he discovered that the man’s only books were “an almanac and an arithmetic” and that he knew nothing and cared less about spiritual views  or current social issues such as the antislavery movement.[8]

Thoreau decided that wilderness and the primitive life were necessary but not sufficient for the simple life, a view that became increasingly popular around the turn of the century and remains so today in somewhat different form, as we Americans climb into our “recreational vehicles” or take luxury cruises and either way take our computers with us on our return to nature, where often the first thing we do is to check the phone reception to see if it’s adequate for receiving internet.

What’s the Answer?

President Jimmy Carter addressed the growing consumerism of America in his famous “malaise” speech of July 18, 1979, saying, “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.  We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or meaning.”[9]

Epicurus pursues that meaning by focusing on some simple pleasures.  Instead of just carefully going through your stuff and getting rid of it, quit organizing your life around material possessions that ultimately distract you from a life spent on more important things, like friendship, reflection, memories that matter and the joy of being alive.

The Reverend Scott Killgore, once my student, now teaches me as he insightfully puts it all into perspective:

“I would argue that our cultural addiction to material possessions is a spiritual issue. Unless that spiritual struggle is acknowledged and dealt with, then we will find ourselves to be like addicts who struggle to break free, but repeatedly fall back into the clutches of whatever destructive addiction has taken hold of their lives.  Simplifying our lives in terms of material possessions is commendable, desirable, and something that would benefit most anyone. But, it may be more difficult to simplify our understanding of what makes us genuinely happy. 

“Simplifying our lives when it comes to material possessions is a good way to start, but it marks the beginning of a journey, not one’s arrival at a desired destination.

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[1] From YouTube, search “George Carlin Stuff.” Thanks to two friends who suggested this video.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 86.  Haidt attributes the concept of hedonic adaptation to Brickman and Campbell’s article, “Hedonic relativism and planning the good society” (1971).

[3] Haidt, 86.

[4] John Cooper, Pursuit of Wisdom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012),145.

[5] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[6] Shi, 77.

[7] Shi, 130.

[8] Shi, 147.

[9] Shi, 271.

Philosophy and Hope, in a Jar

by Dr. Norris Frederick

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Recently I was browsing the internet, looking at philosophy websites.  I came across one with a prime domain name:  philosophy.com.  I wondered what philosophers and topics were covered there.  Plato?  Sartre?  Perhaps a discussion of contemporary ethics?  So I clicked on the url, and was quite surprised to find that philosophy.com is a site for…perhaps you guessed it or knew…a line of products for beautiful skin.

I found myself thinking about philosophy.com for several days, wondering why it stayed on my mind.  And then it hit me that Soren Kierkegaard had given the diagnosis for this symptom long ago:

“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale.  Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.[1]

Kierkegaard wrote these words to open his book Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843, as an indictment of his native Copenhagen and Denmark.  His words and thoughts still ring true in American society today, where many of us not only want fast and easy food, but fast and easy ideas and beliefs.

Selling ideas for cheap

In every known epoch and culture the appeal of easy ideas has been powerful.  Why bother to struggle and think when the persuasive words of others can think for us?  In 399 B.C., at his trial on the charges of worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth, Socrates has to open his defense to his fellow citizens and jurors by saying of his accusers that “I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak.  And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true.” [2]  It takes a Socrates or a Kierkegaard to sting us into the realization that often our ideas are not our own and that we have bought for cheap vital ideas that can be earned for oneself only through long struggle.

Kierkegaard’s age was one in which commerce — the buying and selling of goods — was coming to dominate the culture.  In his eyes, society mostly consists of sleepwalkers following the vision of the collective society; those who realize this become insomniacs.

Our own age has surpassed Kierkegaard’s in selling ideas for cheap through the use of the image, brought to us through magazines, television, and now the internet.  Thanks to cell phones, images and persuasion can now reach us most anywhere and anytime.

In the images above and below, “philosophy” does not refer to thinking critically or to a coherent worldview, but to a line of skin care.  You can now buy philosophy from a bottle or a jar.  One can move out of despair and toward a good life by purchasing “renewed hope in a jar” for as little as $16!  The jar below tells us “philosophy:  live with optimism, renew with hope.”  Wow, I feel better already! (Let’s see now, the $16 jar buys 0.5 oz., but for $47 I can get 2.0 oz., oh yeah, that is the smarter buy!)

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Philosophy.com also offers to help us easily achieve with purchases of the products “purity made simple” and “amazing grace” what some people would consider religious and spiritual blessings.

The point is not that the advertisers and philosophy® Official Site‎ are evil, and it’s certainly not that there is anything wrong with wanting to look good and feel good.    The point is that this selling of philosophy® is just one visible image of what Kierkegaard described – the selling of ideas so cheap that perhaps there may not be any buyers.  The astonishing thing is how difficult it is to even have the thought that there is something a little odd about buying philosophy®, purity, and grace. (Wait!  Am I now violating trademark by even using the word “philosophy®”?  Should I be referencing those who own the word every time I mention it in class?)

Insomnia is not always a bad thing

Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that no one today can truly understand the gut-wrenching, fierce and raging struggle from which Abraham’s faith was forged in responding to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Kierkegaard writes that listeners in those comfortable pews are mentally asleep, and perhaps too the preachers.  And today, as we have learned, one can literally buy “purity made simple” and “amazing grace.”

Kierkegaard would tell us we need to wake up.  “I’m just fine!” we reply.  Kierkegaard, that physician of the soul, writes that “…the specific character of despair is precisely this:  it is unaware of being despair.”[3]  When we buy products such as “renewed hope,” we do not know that in the world of ideas one cannot get genuine renewed hope without doing the work, and the first step of the work is realizing that we may well be in despair, the complete absence of hope.  That despair is masked and soothed by a culture that tells us through images that if we just buy more, just buy the right type of product, earn or inherit the money to get the right house and send our kids to the right schools, all will be well.

Sometimes being disturbed by one’s thoughts is a good thing.  It’s really okay to have insomnia once in a while.  The hope that Kierkegaard offers is that in the world of ideas – unlike the world of market exchange where some inherit their wealth – in the world of ideas “only one who works get bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest.”[4] Getting through the anguish and insomnia to another resting place is hard work, but it is a truer and better place to rest.

 

 

(First posted September 26,  2016)

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[1] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay (New York:  Penguin Books, 1985), p. 49.

[2] Plato, The Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates  translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1975), p. 22.

[3] Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.

[4] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 57.

Philosophy Unlimited: Intelligent Pleasure

by Dr. Norris Frederick

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One of the joys of travel to another country is the discovery of new landscapes, new customs and cultures, and new people.  We find some ways in which the culture and people differ from our own, as well as ways in which they are similar.  If we are open, we find we can learn from both the differences and similarities. This is especially true if we are not just tourists (spectators) but are being-with the people of that country.  Upon return we think about some ways we might think and live differently, and are reaffirmed about other of our current habits of thinking and being.

The same is true of traveling to other philosophies and their worldviews (which is a darn lot cheaper than travelling to other countries, not that it must be an either/or).  Everyone has a worldview, and a key value of philosophy lies in helping us bring our worldviews to consciousness and thus enabling us to compare them to other worldviews.  Maybe I will name this type of travel “Philosophy Time-Travel Unlimited:  Experiencing Worldviews since 600 BC.”

If we reverse the metaphor of our travel abroad, visitors to the USA from developing nations are often overwhelmed by the vast array of goods in our stores.  If you are like me, you’re having a related experience as you enter stores from early October on: astoundingly, even though I know it happens every year, Christmas decorations and items are already appearing in stores.  Nerves tense, stomachs tighten, with the obligation to buy gifts that will bring the requisite pleasure to friends and family.  All this is just part of a bigger picture of the race for pleasure in which many of us engage.  “Buying and selling” has become so dominant that it threatens to enslave us.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with pleasure; in fact, a life without any would be very grim.   It’s just that we go about seeking pleasure in such an unintelligent manner.  We can learn much from philosophy traveling to Greece, about 300 BC, to experience being-with Epicurus, whose worldview is all about pleasure, but an intelligent version of it.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) taught that pleasure is the ultimate good, “the alpha and omega of a blessed life.”[1]  Although he was a hedonist (from Greek, hedone,  meaning “pleasure”), his hedonism is quite different from ours.    To experience his worldview, we need to listen to a few of his central ideas about his metaphysics (what’s really real) of the physical universe and the self, and his view of what’s valuable, which Epicurus says is pleasure

Epicurus was a materialist, writing over 2,000 years ago that everything in the universe consists of “atoms” (from the Greek word meaning “not divisible”).  Unlike modern scientists who used sophisticated equipment to discover the atom, Epicurus used only reason.  Take any object, such as a tree.  Divide that tree by cutting off its limbs and sectioning its trunk.  Start cutting a limb into as small parts as possible.  Ultimately, continuing this thought experiment, one gets to the point where the matter that is left can’t be cut any smaller: the atoms of the tree.  Not only the tree, but all beings in the world – including humans – are made of atoms.  Our minds consist of “fine atoms,” which register the sense-impressions of other atoms.

As the several types of atoms move through empty space they “hook up,” creating objects:  trees, cows, humans, you name it.  The huge oak trees in front of my university succumbed to disease last month and now they no longer exist.  Through one process or another, all beings – including humans – perish.  Only the atoms are eternal.  I will not live forever.

While not living forever sounds incredibly depressing, the realization of that truth can actually be liberating.  Epicurus teaches that if we reflect on our material nature, we see that we have nothing to fear from death.  When the atoms that form “me” are no longer connected, I no longer exist. “Death, therefore, thought the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”[2]

Epicurus certainly did not think that someone hearing or reading these words for the first time would be rid of their fear of death.  But the friends who lived with him in the community named “the Garden” outside of Athens learned to tame their fears by frequent repetition of the phrase:

“Where I am, death is not;
Where death is, I am not.”

But you, being a critical thinker, ask Epicurus, “Shouldn’t hedonists, even if they don’t fear death, bemoan the loss of future pleasure?” Not so, he replies, if we understand the nature of pleasure.  Seeking pleasure intelligently does not mean that we “choose every pleasure whatsoever, but we will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them.”[3]  Many of us are caught on the hedonic treadmill.  If I just had the next thing, I would be happy.  But then i get the next thing, and soon that’s not enough and I’m back to being unhappy, so I say to myself if I just had one more next thing I would be happy.  The process is repeated.   And I continue anxiously looking for the next thing that will make me happy.  Worrying that death will cost us future pleasures is yet another way of missing the enjoyment of the pleasures are right here in the present.

Instead, says Epicurus to his community, we should choose pleasures that are simple and that are not followed by painful consequences. “Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips.”  Simple food and wine, friendship, reading and thinking are the type of pleasures that make for a good life.   The expensive meals, cars, and houses not only don’t bring happiness because they are part of our being on the hedonic treadmill, but because they also bring about the anxiety of being able to pay for them.  We are enslaved by our desires and our objects.  Pleasure, properly understood, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”[4]

To our 21st century minds, Epicurus’ definition is not at all what we mean by pleasure: it’s not Disney World, or the new cell phone, or the ability to spend $5,000 on a dinner as celebrities are reported to do.   Epicurus’ pleasure is in a sense negative: the absence of pain physically and psychically.  What’s the good of that?

The good of an Epicurean understanding of pleasure is that it opens us to something broader and deeper and infinitely more satisfying, the awareness of being, the astonishing fact of being alive when I might not exist at all.[5]  Like everything else in the universe, I might never have existed, and I might not tomorrow, but I do now!  It’s astonishing to be here, in this place, right now.

I suggest you try going beyond just thinking about his ideas and try them out.  To experience his philosophy, remind yourself that you have all the simple pleasures you need.  Then step out into a quiet place on one of these cool fall mornings or nights, and contemplate these words of Lucretius, a Roman follower of Epicurus in the first century B.C.E.:

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by the mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been.  Yet think how no one now, wearied with satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky![6]

 

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References and Credits:

[1] Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” translated by Robert Drew Hick, http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html
[2]
“Letter to Menoeceus”
[3] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[4] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[5]  Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?,  translated by Michael Chase, 126 (Belknap Press, 2002).
[6]  Luretius, On The Nature of Things, as quoted in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. by Arnold Davidson and translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell, Publishing 1995), 258.

Photo Credit:  Norris Frederick