Charlie's Blog: The Problem With Minimalism


The Problem With Minimalism

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.

I have read many books and learned many things, and I have come to agree with the author of Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. Minimalism proposes to be a new thing under the sun, but I see it as an old thing dressed in a new outfit. This old thing is Epicureanism. And because minimalism is actually an old thing, it has an old problem.

Before Epicurus, there was a school of crass hedonism among the ancient Greeks. This would be the school of the Cyrenaics. The Cyrenaics believed in pleasure with physical pleasure being superior to mental pleasures. They also believed that pleasures can only be enjoyed in the present, so they placed little value on the pleasures of the past or the potential pleasures of the future. Needless to say, this school of hedonism lasted about a century before Epicureanism offered itself as a superior form of hedonism.

Epicurus was the first minimalist. He observed correctly that the things you needed for life were few and easily obtained. Wanting things beyond the necessary only led to frustration, anxiety, avarice, and many other negative traits and emotions. Here is a bit of that Epicurean wisdom:
If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people's opinions, you will never be rich.
When it comes to material things in life, Epicurus was a genius. Epicurus chose to live a simple lifestyle that seemed almost ascetic. But Epicurus stopped short of pain. Epicurean refined hedonism holds that happiness does not reside in the abundance of pleasure but in the absence of pain. Since Epicurus was satisfied with a loaf of barley bread and some water and time spent in his garden with friends, he pursued and achieved the closest thing you can have to a painless existence in this life. Then, he suffered terribly from a massive kidney stone that would eventually kill him.

Today, minimalists who have probably never read a word of Epicurus have embraced the Epicurean philosophy for a modern time. Here is a nice quotation from the minimalist Leo Babauta about living with less:
Such a simplified lifestyle can be truly wonderful - you'll finally have time for the things you really love, for relaxation, for outdoor activities, for exercise, for reading or finding peace and quiet, for the loved ones in your life, for the things you're most passionate about. This is what it means to thrive - to live a life full of the things you want in them, and not more. To live a better quality of life without having to spend and buy and consume.
Epicurus would agree 100% with this. Today's maximalist consumer is a modern day Cyrenaic slaving away to earn money to buy unnecessary things that give momentary pleasure and chronic stress. The minimalist is the modern day Epicurean who rejects the consumerism of today's Cyrenaics. The pleasures of massive consumption are not worth the pain that consumption brings.

Minimalism solves a lot of problems. Because you need very little to survive and even thrive in life, the minimalist is set free from clutter, buying more stuff, buying flashy stuff to impress people they don't like, and spending more time and effort to earn more money in order to buy more stuff they don't need. There is no question that this strategy of minimalism is superior to the maximalist consumer alternatives.

A typical minimalist will downsize from the McMansion to the studio apartment. He gets rid of all of his furniture except his couch. He pares down his wardrobe to the 3 shirts and 2 pairs of pants he actually wears day to day. He makes them all the same color in order to not think hard about matching his clothes. He makes his life as spare and as spartan as possible. Then, he spends the rest of his time posting pictures of his empty apartment on Instagram.

This lifestyle works on the material level. When you need less stuff, you need less money. Needing less money means zero debt and having savings in the bank. Needing less money means needing to work less. And working less means you have more time to spend in your empty apartment alone with your thoughts. This is where we discover the problem with minimalism.

The problem with minimalism is the non-material world of our own minds. You can be a minimalist, but this will yield little tranquility if you are paranoid and delusional. It doesn't help if you feel like a loser in life. Minimalism means nothing if you are in constant fear of death, or you've been diagnosed with a fatal illness. Epicurus recognized this own deficiency in his simple lifestyle which is why he turned to philosophy.

When we think of philosophers, an image of a dour faced guy like Nietzsche springs to mind who thinks deep thoughts about many things that torment the mind. Or, we think of a profound man of wisdom like Aristotle who knew a great deal about many things. But Epicurus was not this type of philosopher. For Epicurus, the goal and purpose of philosophy was to alleviate and banish the pains produced in our own minds. Philosophy was not pursued for its own sake but for the sake of happiness which Epicurus defined as a pleasant life. Here is what Epicurus wrote about the purpose of philosophy:
Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering.
Today, this Epicurean philosophy looks like self-help. The entire self-help industry exists in service of the pursuit of human happiness.

If you read early posts from the archives of Zen Habits, you will find very practical advice for conquering bad habits and living a simpler life. Then, you end up reading current posts about meditation and mindfulness which are all geared to banish stress and negative thoughts from your life while trying to cultivate tranquility. Many of these insights are derived from Eastern religious traditions like Zen Buddhism. But they essentially reinvent the wheel Epicurus gave the world. Here is what Epicurus wrote on tranquility of the mind:
He who has peace of mind disturbs neither himself nor another.
Virtually any Zen Buddhist would agree with this statement. In addition, the goal of minimalism is to achieve this peace of mind. Obviously, consumerism does not achieve this peace of mind. But does minimalism do this? Does minimalism achieve its aim of tranquility?

The first and most basic mental disturbance we all reckon with is our mortality. We are all going to die. The Epicurean antidote to this problem was simple--ATHEISM. Once you deny the existence of God and reduce all religion to superstition, death is reduced to nothing more than the cessation of sensation. Here is what Epicurus wrote on the matter of death:
Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death. Therefore the true belief that death is nothing to us makes a mortal life happy, not by adding to it an infinite time, but by taking away the desire for immortality. For there is no reason why the man who is thoroughly assured that there is nothing to fear in death should find anything to fear in life. So, too, he is foolish who says that he fears death, not because it will be painful when it comes, but because the anticipation of it is painful; for that which is no burden when it is present gives pain to no purpose when it is anticipated. Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist. It is therefore nothing either to the living or to the dead since it is not present to the living, and the dead no longer are.
For Epicurus and modern day atheists, death is the end of consciousness on par with going to sleep, going under anesthesia, or the blank nothingness of our lives before we were born. If there is no afterlife, there is no pain in death. Pain can only be experienced in life which explains why atheists are so quick to commit suicide when their lives become painful and unpleasant.

But what if God exists? And what about spending eternity in Hell? If God and Hell exist, then death is to be feared. Not all minimalists are atheists. Some are Christians who embrace the simplicity of the lifestyle as they pursue their religious aims. I don't think minimalism and religion are in conflict. Minimalism may help you where you spend your money, but it doesn't answer the problem of where you will spend eternity. That issue of death will cause you more emotional turmoil than a bit of clutter in your closet.

Before you die, you will suffer pain like Epicurus did with that kidney stone. No trick of the mind is going to make that pain go away. The simple fact is that disease and injury are as certain as death. And the anticipation of disease, injury, pain, and massive hospital bills are enough to demolish whatever tranquility you derive from owning just two pairs of shoes or deleting apps from your iPhone.

Epicurus also put great store in having friends. Here is what Epicurus wrote about friendship:
It is not so much our friends' help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.
I interpret this to mean that Epicurus liked to borrow money from his friends and was a moocher. That may just be my cynicism, but I have never understood how Epicurus could derive such confidence and pleasure from his friendships. The reality is that most people are selfish and inclined towards evil. They will use you for money and forget you in your time of need. You can never have confidence that they will help you or even refrain from not hurting you.

Minimalism does not address the issue of friendships and relationships except to lament living with someone who doesn't share a minimalist lifestyle. Then, there are the neighbors who disturb your tranquility with their bad habits, your awful boss at work, your backstabbing coworkers, and even the idiots on the highway you have to deal with on your commute. Minimalism may help you to eliminate crap from your life, but it doesn't help when it comes to other people's crap.

But let's imagine you can banish all of these negatives from your minimalist lifestyle. You have perfect health. You will live forever with no fear of death. You won the lottery which sets you for life and reduces your social interaction to greeting the people who deliver food to your home and the garbage man who takes away your trash. What do you have left? This would be boredom.

When people see the sparseness of a minimalist's living space, they think one thing. This person must have a boring life. You could watch television except there is no television. You could read books except there are no books. There is the laptop and the smartphone except these things are devoid of apps, links, and all the rest. The minimalist discovers that the tranquility he has found is what everyone else calls boredom. Life is reduced to sitting cross legged on a yoga mat and meditating.

That is the problem with minimalism. It is good at dealing with clearing out your living space, but it is useless for that space between your ears. Once you have emptied out your life, you are left with an empty life. At least the maximalist could cover over the emptiness with a lot of stuff.

Life leaves you with two options--pain or boredom. Minimalism offers boredom as a superior path to pain. Then, it attempts to relabel that boredom as "tranquility." If you try to alleviate the boredom with activities, this ends up requiring you to buy some things. I live a very simple life, but it still requires four different pairs of shoes.

Accumulating a lot of useless material goods is not the path to fulfillment. No wise person disputes this. But banishing material goods from your life doesn't lead to fulfillment either. Minimalism just relieves you of stress and burdens in life while leaving you with emptiness.

People who go down the minimalist path inevitably turn to something to solve the emptiness problem. For Leo Babauta, it was Zen meditation and mindfulness. Others turn to hobbies and travel. Some turn to religion. Still, others turn to ancient philosophies like Stoicism. Virtually none of them remain in an Epicurean state of being a bum. The blank wall inevitably ends up with a picture on it.