Plain Living of the Stoics, the Original Minimalists
The idea that minimalism is self-deprivation is, I believe, incorrect. Self-deprivation has been around for millennia, starting with the ancient ascetics who owned nothing but a threadbare wrap and a begging bowl. The idea was to give up everything and to suffer, to use suffering as a way to enlightenment. Suffering is not the point of minimalism. What good is minimalism if it does not help you to live a better life? The ancient stoic philosopher Seneca (who lived about 2,000 years ago) had lots to say about what he called “plain living.” Plain living is, I believe, the essence of minimalism. Seneca believed that plain living was a sensible path, “Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga. One needs no silver plate, encrusted and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.“ This is not deprivation, but rather, avoiding excess. Seneca also added, “Just as it is a sign of luxury to seek out dainties, so it is madness to avoid that which is customary and can be purchased at no great price. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.” The stoics believed that it was their duty to improve themselves, and therefore improve the condition of all human beings. They believed strongly in leading by example to improve society as a whole. They felt a strong obligation to their fellow man and had a strong sense of community responsibility. This sense of responsibility to teach others how to live a better, more virtuous life led Seneca to warn against extremes, which would only turn off others and make the stoic way of life seem unreasonable, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”
The idea was not to shun basic luxuries, but not to covet or hoard them either, “He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. It is the sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches.” Seneca also believed that it was not proper to make a spectacle of yourself through your self sacrifice, merely to draw attention, “I warn you, however, not to act after the fashion of those who desire to be conspicuous rather than to improve, by doing things which will rouse comment as regards your dress or general way of living.” Seneca would approve of inspiring others through our actions but would not approve of being radical simply to draw attention to ourselves. Fame and attention is not the point of plain living.
Seneca understood that the quest for luxuries made slaves of men. He also believed that this was the source of most of society’s troubles, “Do you know what limits that law of nature ordains for us? Merely to avert hunger, thirst, and cold. In order to banish hunger and thirst, it is not necessary for you to pay court at the doors of the purse-proud, or to submit to the stern frown, or to the kindness that humiliates; nor is it necessary for you to scour the seas, or go campaigning; nature’s needs are easily provided and ready to hand.” The stoics believed that the ultimate life was one that was lived according to nature. In this case, Seneca is arguing that our “nature” only demanded those simple things. He argues that the excesses that we often seek are what bring us the most troubles, “It is the superfluous things for which men sweat—the superfluous things that wear our togas threadbare, that force us to grow old in camp, that dash us upon foreign shores. That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair compact with poverty is rich.”
Though these points seem contradictory, do not shun the simple, easily affordable luxuries, and nature only demands avoiding hunger, thirst and cold, they are not. Seneca, and the stoics, were always searching for the middle ground. “Plain living” perfectly describes what they tried to achieve, to live in compliance with the norms of society, in a way that others could understand and relate to, but without striving for excess.
So what does this mean in terms of your personal practice of minimalism? You must figure that out for yourself. Seneca would argue that plain living as practiced by the stoics was not a single way of life, but was varied, depending on the society in which a person lived. However, the guiding principals are universal.
Reference: The quotes from Seneca are taken from The Tao of Seneca, Volume 1. You can access the excellent series here.