Frugality has been abandoned, and with it, the wise words of the sages, from the Buddha to Socrates and from Thoreau to Gandhi. The idea of simple living is now deemed insufficient, unexciting and even uninteresting by a significant portion of the global population. As the lure of purchasable pleasure entices people into relentless earning and spending, a culture of unceasing consumerism has pulled those with resources away from frugal simplicity. Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University, tries to explain why frugality has not become a global norm––despite so many wise people having championed it over the years.
Westacott sees a deep contradiction in the idea of individuals pursuing happiness within a competitive consumptive society. Competitiveness fuels jealousies. Any attempt to distinguish oneself by acquiring products as badges of social position only creates a false and temporary sense of happiness. In extreme cases the propensity to acquire and hoard can turn pathological, dominating a person’s life until they require treatment for a psychological disorder. Epicurus and Plato were convinced that securing material wealth was unlikely to bring happiness and that living simply was the key to moral purity.
It appears that the idea of frugality has fewer and fewer takers because the concept of simple living has turned out to be quite complex. Pursuing frugality in the current world restricts the pursuit of excitement and adventure in a world loaded with such opportunities. Further, we are living in a time when the economic imperative to grow has meant that a minimum level of economic activity must continue to keep several fellow beings busy so they can make sense of their gainful existence. Despite most of us, at one time or another, feeling some sort of moral pressure to embrace frugality, the world is stacked against us. The Wisdom of Frugality isn’t a polemic urging people to change their lives by embracing simplicity, but rather a broader investigation of both frugal and luxurious living. We are each left to draw our own conclusions, regardless of how confusing the choices may be.
Many people jump on and off three different treadmills: the hedonic treadmill for pursuing happiness, the status treadmill for satisfying consumption, and the working treadmill for generating income. All this on and off come at an enormous cost: physically, mentally and emotionally.
Why can’t people break free of the shackles of false happiness? Westacott acknowledges that our culture is torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable trait that bespeaks false values. Beyond that, though, there is no further explanation.
Freedom has been central to the idea of the good life offered by philosophers of every generation, but consumerism has reinterpreted this through the lens of false values. In the interconnected world of growing individualism backed by the availability of a myriad of economic choices, argues Westacott, freedom needs to be exercised in the context of contributing to the public good. Given the problems of pollution and global warming, we need to live more frugally and less wastefully in order to protect natural resources. That’s in our own interest and the common interest. Technology may be of some help, but it, too, adds to an ever-increasing demand for more goods and services. Frugality is a possible antidote to over-development, one that the world can hardly ignore.