Marie Kondo, Me, and the Philosophy of Simplicity

by Dr. Norris Frederick

Marie Kondo is quite the thing these days.  Her New York Times #1 best seller book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and her Netflix series on the same topic both appeal to the desire of countless Americans to get rid of much of their material stuff and to live a less stressful, simpler life.  Kondo’s magic focuses on several intriguing ideas, including keeping the things in your house which “spark joy.”  As you can see from the picture of the shelf behind my desk, it’s apparent I really need help!

The method works well, according to many who have tried it.  Kondo explains it very clearly and appealingly:   declutter first, by category, starting with all your clothes, then books, then papers, etc., going by category through the entire house, holding each article and keeping only the ones which bring you joy.  Then organize.  She takes the reader and viewer through every step.  What’s most interesting to me is why the whole process of discarding objects and organizing our lives is so attractive to us.

Kondo says that the “magic of tidying” is that it gives you “a new start on life.”[1]  As we declutter and look at the piles of bags we’re filling up we will ask, “Why on earth did I bother keeping all this stuff?…If you tidy up in one shot, you can dramatically change your mind-set.”[2]

Okay, that is appealing.  A new start on my life…changing my mind-set.  Because what do I find when I study the picture above? Going from left to right, a pile of CDs accumulated over many years, an office phone that I use about once a month, a stack of papers awaiting shredding, family photos, a radio and CD player (yes, you do need a player for the CDs) which has another stack of CD’s in front of it (which I used months ago in writing about my friend David), a box of Kleenex — useful for weeping students as we discuss their grades  – carefully wedged between the CD player and the 3-hole punch to keep apart these two well-known antagonists, and finally a jumble of manila folders crammed into the vertical file intended for a few ready-to-hand topics.  Whew!  I need help!  What’s wrong with me?

Kondo suggests that attachment and anxiety may be the cause of my messiness:  there are really only two reasons we can’t let go of an item that does not bring us joy, “an attachment to the past or anxiety about the future.”[3]

How about that I am a stereotypical philosophy professor who is often oblivious to my surroundings?  Until the mess suddenly starts to drive me crazy and I tidy up…some. To be fair to her, she’s right that there is definitely an attachment to some of the CD’s.  And perhaps an anxiety that if I discard any of them…or the “invaluable” contents of those manila folders, I will realize with alarm that I needed that!

Kondo writes, “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy…..[4] Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time,” so “your real life begins after putting your house in order.”[5]  These first two statements make good sense to me, even if the one that “your real life begins” is hyperbolic.  Just as we can have a limited number of complete friendships, as opposed to acquaintances, so it is with the objects we really need.

“The true purpose of tidying up is, I believe, to live in the most natural state possible.  Don’t you think it is unnatural for us to possess things that don’t bring us joy or things that we don’t really need?”[6]  There does seem to be something “unnatural” in having more objects than we need, although the idea of what’s “unnatural” and “natural” needs a good deal of analysis.

Happiness and What’s “Natural”

Marie Kondo touches on two ideas that are important not only in the traditional culture and philosophy of her native Japan and Asia, but also in Western philosophy.  The proper place of material things in our “happiness” can be traced in Western philosophy at least as far back Socrates (c. 469 – 399 BCE), whose indifference to fancy clothing and wealth inspired both the Epicureans and the Stoics, both schools of philosophy and life that began in the latter part of the 300’s BCE.  Epicurus taught his disciples that we are by nature creatures who seek pleasure, but since we are also by nature creatures who can think, we need to pursue pleasures as rationally and intelligently as possible.

He argues that simple pleasures are the best pleasures.  Luxuries, in addition to being vain, call for feeding unnecessary longings and for a constant striving that inevitably brings anxiety and stress.  Pleasure is “the state where the body is free from pain and the mind free from anxiety.”[7]  In such a state, one can enjoy the amazing simple pleasures of friendship and of the joy that I exist, now, in this day.

So just as anxiety plays a role in the thought of Kondo, it always plays an important part in the thought of the Epicureans.  If Epicurus somehow time-travelled and showed up at your door with a translator to help you declutter your house, – as Kondo  does in the Netflix series — he would not only be a swarthy man instead of a lovely Japanese woman with an charming accent, but he also would be saying something quite different to the home-owning couple.

Instead of saying, “Now let’s put all the clothes in your house into a central location so we can go through them and then tidy up,” he would say, 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?  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, and the joy of being alive?

What a downer!  His book will never be a best-seller! The truth is that most of us really want it both ways:  we want to have both an uncluttered life and also an abundance of never-ending material pleasures.  We don’t want to start a whole new life.  If we feel down or bored, just let us buy some new clothes, a new tennis racquet, or one of the latest-generation electronic gizmos.  Then we feel better.  For a while.

I feel pretty good that about my connecting and contrasting Kondo and Epicurus.  But as Kondo might remind me, all that stuff is still sitting in my office, exactly as it was when I took the picture.  Maybe the philosophizing just delays my doing the real work of de-cluttering or pushes down my anxiety.

Next time:  more about what the best simple life looks like.  And for added fun, maybe a little more about anxiety.


Photo: Norris Frederick

[1] Kondo, 7

[2] p. 16.

[3] p. 181.

[4] p. 38.

[5] p. 203.

[6] p. 197.

[7] Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus.

7 thoughts on “Marie Kondo, Me, and the Philosophy of Simplicity”

  1. George Carlin had it right, I believe, when he spoke of our houses as primarily “a place for our stuff.” 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. We would all do well to de-clutter, but that will need to be followed by continual resistance to the temptation to RE-clutter.
    As a pastor, 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.
    If individuals can ever figure out – truly figure out – what makes them happy, then many other aspects of life (including material possessions and how they are viewed) will fall into place. 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.

    1. Scott, as usual your insightful comments make a fine post in their own right. I totally agree with you that ultimately the matter of our attitude toward spiritual possessions is a spiritual issue. I think that given our culture of consumerism, the struggle with that spiritual issue is one that too few of us are willing to take on.

  2. After I retired, I began the process of simplifying through decluttering my belongings. However, seeing your desk helped me to remember that the discarding of all my career leftovers was the hardest challenge I faced in my sort through. Not because I was particularly attached to all the files, memo’s, resume-backup documents and other materials that had accumulated over a span of 45 years. It was just the fact that discarding it all meant I was really “throwing in the towel” on my prospects of ever working again in my chosen field.
    Given some time however, I am now happy NOT to see the boxes and files. I still have my memories and my work friends and but now I have the joy of a clean desk, an empty IN Box and “owning” my time to use as I choose. My husband Ron is still working and still having fun at it. Finding the joy is what it really is all about
    Norris, I always love to read your essays and I appreciate the time-consuming effort on your part to create these gems.

  3. Rebecca, your insightful comments are very timely for me. I will be retiring from teaching in May of next year, after 47 years. Your realization that “discarding it all meant I was really ‘throwing in the towel'” helps me to realize I’m experiencing some of the same feelings. It’s encouraging to me to know that you are now enjoying deeply the joy of a clean desk and “owning” your time. That is a lovely vision.
    Thanks so much for your kind comments about my essays, which encourage me to keep writing.

  4. Response to Norris Blog on Marie Kondo

    The essay on Marie Kondo is a fun one. For Norris, probably fun to write and fun for we readers to think about.

    As I read the quotes and paraphrasing of Kondo’s ‘magic of tidying up,’ two possibilities emerge. Declutter if the items do not bring you joy. Declutter if the items are no longer useful to you. Thus, one might suggest, as I do, Kondo equates joy with utility. Is that a stretch?

    As Norris surveys this desk filled with items, is he assessing each one as to the joy it brings to him or to the usefulness it serves as a professor of philosophy?

    The wise professor introduces the ‘pleasure man’ Epicurus. As many of us know, the reincarnations of epicureanism has severely diluted the fellow’s original thought. Most recently it has transformed to calling for nightly bacchanals weekend orgies, but we are saved from such misconceptions by Professor Frederick. Yes, authentic Epicureanism proposed we naturally seek pleasure yet as rational humans we ought to pursue pleasure rationally. I might add such a view implies the Golden Rule.

    To wrap up this fun and pleasurable journey, is the author equating joy with utility? Is he suggesting that what might bring one joy is due in part to its usefulness?

    A pleasurable question to play with.

    John H. Clark

  5. John,

    Thanks as always for your good comments. I don’t think that Kondo equates joy with usefulness. As one might expect in a how-to inspirational book, the book’s philosophy jumps all over the place, and at some places she talks about joy and in a few places utility.

    I think that while sometimes indeed joy comes from a thing’s usefulness, the concept and experience of joy is distinct from usefulness.

    1. Yes, the two as concepts are very distinct, yet if one were a Jeremy Benthamite, pure joy would flow from acquiring an item of usefulness or discarding an item of little use. Thus in certain circumstances, depending on what brings one joy, the two notions can merge.

      And sometimes, one could keep an item on a cluttered desk, not out of joy but simple utility. I’m thinking of Professor Frederick’s box of tissues, useful for teary students receiving bad news.

      Thanks for very much for your blog entries, my good friend.

      John

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *