Today’s simplicity movements are ostensibly a reaction against materialism. However, they can easily slip into materialism themselves.
That’s the point David Brooks makes in his latest column for the New York Times entitled “The Evolution of Simplicity”:
“One of the troublesome things about today’s simplicity movements is that they are often just alternate forms of consumption. Magazines like Real Simple are sometimes asking you to strip away your stuff so you can buy new, simpler stuff. There’s a whiff of the haute bourgeoisie ethos here — that simplification is not really spiritual or antimaterialism; just a more refined, organic, locally grown and morally status-building form of materialism.”
I’ve noticed this same trend myself in some of the mommy blogs that my wife follows. Bringing greater simplicity into one’s life apparently means buying several books on simplicity, getting rid of plastic toys in favor of expensive wooden toys from some German company, putting in hardwood floors, spending an inordinate amount of time searching for antique shabby chic furniture… and, of course, taking photos of quaint corners of your house for your audience to envy. In all of it there seems to be an exaltation of the aesthetic above other values.
In line with one of Brooks’ points, Brett and Kate McKay over at The Art of Manliness explain that minimalism (which is usually synonymous with simplicity) is also something of a luxury:
“Basically, minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat. If you’re not so well-off, however, having duplicates of your possessions can be necessary, even if such back-ups ruin the aesthetics of owning just 100 possessions.”
All of the above is not to say that I don’t sympathize with the simplicity movement. I do. Like many others today, I'd like my life to be simpler.
But it's important to remember that simplicity is ultimately a means of creating space for a deeper, higher good. I think the modern simplicity movement goes wrong when it conceives of simplicity as a purely external pursuit and as an end in itself.
Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.