minimalism as vice

Well it looks like The Joy of Less is in my near future.  I’ve been thinking about so-called minimalism over the last few weeks, and it’s been showing up here and there, and now there’s this new book-length treatment of the idea, which I’ll see if I can’t round up and read through.  But before I do, some preliminary thoughts:

Remember when Fugazi, at full stentorian tilt, told us that we aren’t what we own?  That was, oh, a little more than 20 years ago.  Or when the Beatles declaimed that all you need is love, or Kerouac hit the road?  And yet here we are, needing to be told the same thing yet again by Francine Jay.  I wish I had a good explanation for that, for why—after a series of counterculture movements from at least the ’50s onward—materialism seems to have been the juggernaut of our times.  But I don’t, and any good explanation is going to be very complicated.  (After all, minimalism’s ancestors have been present in Western culture for a long time in Christianity and Epicureanism and Stoicism and probably some pre-Socratic figures, and it’s not like people were never acquisitive in Western history.)

What I’d like to consider right now is the idea that minimalism is elitist.  No, actually that’s the second thing to consider.  The first thing is the name—’minimalism’.  One thing I don’t like about the name is its implication that the best kind of life involves the least number of things.  I’ve already argued that there are easy counterexamples to this idea, but there’s a deeper objection to make, which comes to us all the way from Aristotle.

One of Aristotle’s famous insights was that courage, for example, is not the absence of fear.  The absence of fear is a kind of foolhardiness or, at the limit, an inhuman character.  Courage is rather the right mixture of fear and confidence in the face of danger, and this is a kind of “mean state” between the excess of cowardice and the deficiency of foolhardiness.  This, Aristotle thought, is how character works in general: there are excesses and deficiencies, and the key to being virtuous is to spot the mean between them.  Of course, doing so requires training and practice and thoughtful reflection and so on, but then nobody said virtue was easy to come by.

So this is what comes to mind when I think about minimalism: it’s a state of excess (or, if you like, deficiency).  The self-styled minimalist isn’t thinking about finding the mean between two extremes, but only about minimizing, which is of course aiming at an extreme.  On that way of approaching the matter, the logical course of action is towards greater and greater poverty, to the point where one’s own life becomes literally unsustainable, and relies for its sustenance on the largesse of others.  Which isn’t to say that a mendicant life is never worth choosing (more on that in a second), but it’s obviously not something everyone can choose, and in any case the minimalists don’t see that as the logical endpoint of their ideas.

Here then is perhaps a way to diagnose the old point about “bonehead” minimalism: the whole reason it’s boneheaded, why it fails to reflect a conception of a life worth aiming at, is that it’s a trajectory toward one extreme instead of the mean.  And just as cowardice has a complementary vice—foolhardiness—at the other end of the fear/confidence scale, minimalism has its counterpart in (what we might as well call) “maximalism,” the familiar and oft-denounced idea that more (stuff, money, whatever) is better.  On this way of seeing things, both minimalism and maximalism are vices; the ascetic and the glutton are equally vicious; both attitudes are ways of dodging the difficult work of finding the mean.

All of which is perhaps a roundabout way to explain why the name ‘minimalism’ seems misleading at best; meanings can of course be stipulated where you like, but ‘minimalism’ too readily suggests the vice of bonehead minimalism.  We need a better name for the virtue that hits the mean between minimalism and maximalism, but the ones that occur to me—’sustainability’, ‘temperance’, ‘moderation’, ‘conservatism’, ‘modesty’—all seem unsuitable for one reason or another.  ‘Smart minimalism’ might do, but it’s not exactly concise or, more importantly, informative.  Barath suggests ‘thrift’, which I like but feels too financial.  ’Conciseness’ might be analogous but of course has to do with expression … suggestions here would be welcome.

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Responses to “minimalism as vice”

  1. Adam:

    I can’t remember the philosopher’s name, but I recall an Eastern thinker who advised “moderation in all things.” So the word I immediately thought of was “moderation.” But you’re not wild about that.

    My next thought was of the Taguchi Loss Function. Okay, it’s a stretch out of left field, but bear with me. I think the word that it gives us is “optimal.” Taguchi’s thought is that anything on either side of the optimum is “loss” or “waste.” I learned it in the context of process evaluation and improvement, but I can see it extended to the question of “where should I aim my life?”

    It would help a person avoid either extreme, as you describe, knowing there is an optimum. That optimum would be different for each person and could shift over a lifetime, but it would tend toward “moderation” for most of us and would aggregate toward “moderation” in most societies, I think.

    It would require us to understand variation, too, of course, because that is a fact of life as much as it is a fact of process output. That’s a whole ‘nother blog, though.

    My two cents.

  2. How about ‘prudence’? It has not only moderation but a kind of wisdom-foresight thing going on.

  3. Matt Brown’s mention of “prudence” reminded me of the Epilogue in Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”, in particular the Cardinal Virtue prudentia. You can read some of it here:

  4. How about “sufficientism” or even “enoughism”? I’m sure I once heard someone refer to themselves as an “Enoughnik”.

    Given that we share the root of the word with German…hmm, Genugism?