Thursday, October 6, 2016

Emrys Westacott's "The Wisdom of Frugality"

Emrys Westacott is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Western New York. He is the author of The Virtues of our Vices (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular publications.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More - More or Less, and reported the following:
The Wisdom of Frugality is a philosophical reflection on why so many sages, from Socrates to Thoreau have claimed that the good life is the simple life, and why so many people ignore them. It examines both moral and prudential arguments in favor of frugal simplicity, considers counterarguments in defense of luxury and extravagance, and concludes by arguing that we could use a good dose of the ancient wisdom today to deal with contemporary economic and environmental problems.

Page 99 of the book is fairly representative. The claim under examination is Epicurus’ thesis that all we need to be happy is to have our basic needs satisfied–i.e. such things as food, clothing, shelter, friendship, and liberty. Today, in prosperous societies like the US, most people’s basic needs of this sort are met. Indeed, on most counts even the poor today enjoy a higher material standard of living than ever before. So why aren’t we all wallowing in Epicurean contentment?

One problem that interferes with our ability to embrace Epicurus’ teaching is that it’s difficult to maintain our self-respect if we find ourselves at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. In pre-modern societies this problem was less acute, both because the great majority was poor, and also because one’s social standing was viewed as something largely outside one’s control. The idea that we now live in a meritocratic society may be a myth; but if people believe it, that is likely to make them more dissatisfied with occupying the position of “losers.”

I’m not saying that everyone living under capitalism is hopelessly caught up in a materialistic rat race. Most people have no desperate burning desire to be rich or powerful or famous. But to live with nothing but the bare essentials invites pity or contempt. Hardly anyone enjoys being looked down on, and being continually subjected to this continually will usually affect our sense of self-worth.

But Epicurus isn’t completely wrong. His argument prods us into reflecting on the way we live with an eye to identifying wants and habits that are foolish, wasteful, unnecessary, or inauthentic. And he’s right to suggest that the key ingredients for happiness are usually within easy reach for those of us not mired in awful circumstances. When we fail to realize this, we assume that happiness lies in the acquisition of what we currently lack. This is the mistake that leads us to step off the path toward contentment and onto the hedonic treadmill.
Learn about Westacott's five best books about bad habits and five top books on philosophy & everyday living.

The Page 99 Test: The Virtues of Our Vices.

--Marshal Zeringue