Book Review: Voluntary Simplicity

For years, one of my goals has been to achieve a “pastoral lifestyle”. This amuses my friends, but it's true. By “pastoral lifestyle” I mean that I want to create for myself a life that flows at a slower pace, a life removed from the concerns of the day-to-day world. What I hope to achieve is often called “voluntary simplicity”, and there's a whole movement devoted to the concept.

Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity is a cornerstone book to this movement, and I expected great things from it. I was sorely disappointed. Elgin begins with a nice explanation of voluntary simplicity:

We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon us and make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward. To live more simply is to unburden ourselves — to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically. […] The objective is not dogmatically to live with less, but is a more demanding intention of living with a balance in order to find a life of greater purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

I found this inspiring, and was anticipating a library of practical tips that might lead me to my desired destination. But on the very next page, without transition or definition, Elgin begins to write about “ecological living”. Huh? How did we jump from voluntary simplicity to ecological living? And why is the rest of the book devoted to the latter?

Ultimately, Elgin writes more about one philosophy of voluntary simplicity than any practical application. In fact, the book might have been more aptly titled Ecological Living than Voluntary Simplicity. Even so, there are some occasional gems here. For example:

The hallmark of a balanced simplicity is that our lives become clearer, more direct, less pretentious, and less complicated. We are then empowered by our material circumstances rather than enfeebled or distracted. Excess in either direction — too much or too little — is complicating. If we are totally absorbed in the struggle for subsistence or, conversely, if we are totally absorbed in the struggle to accumulate, then our capacity to participate wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in life is diminished.

Four consumption criteria, developed by a group in San Francisco while exploring a life of conscious simplicity, go to the very heart of the issue of balanced consumption:

  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
  • How tied are my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the earth?

This compassionate approach to consumption stands in stark contrast to the industrial-era view, which assumes that if we increase our consumption, we will increase our happiness. However, when we equate our identity with what we consume — when we engage in “identity consumption” — we become possessed by our possessions. We are consumed by what we consume.

The idea of “identity consumption” is interesting and worth exploring, but Elgin doesn't explore it. Instead he spends the next several pages talking about “an ecologically oriented economy”. I'm not opposed to a discussion of mankind's impact on the environment, but when I purchase a book on voluntary simplicity, I expect for it to be about voluntary simplicity and not about ecological living.

Other problems I had with this book:

  • One 55-page chapter is devoted to responses from a survey on simple living. These might be fine as blog comments, but they're out of place (and, in my opinion, worthless) in the context of this book.
  • Another 32-page chapter called “Civilizations in Transition” that has nothing to do with simplicity of any kind, and everything to do with the author's view (in 1993) that the United States is in a state of decay. That's an interesting viewpoint, and worth discussing, but I bought a book about voluntary simplicity, and that's the topic I wanted to read about.
  • There are no (I mean zero) practical suggestions as to how one can practice simplicity, just platitudes about living lightly on the earth and consuming less.

I believe it's important to read personal finance books even when the author's viewpoint differs from your own. Smart people can draw lessons from books of all sorts. But more than any other book, Voluntary Simplicty loses me with its New Age mumbo-jumbo. Here is one Elgin's tenets:

The universe is a living organism that is infused with a subtle life-force; it is important to act in ways that honor the preciousness and dignity of all life.

The book is filled with this sort of thing. Elgin makes an assumption that I don't buy — that ecological awareness is a necessary component of voluntary simplicity. I'm no anti-environmentalist — the opposite is closer to the truth — but it frustrates me when philosophies with which I want to agree proceed from what I believe are false premises.

If you want practical information to help work toward a simple lifestyle, you won't find it here. If you want a philosophical underpinning for a single branch of the voluntary simplicity movement (the ecological/New Age branch), then this is the book for you. Really, though, I think you can find better information for free on the internet:

Despite my complaints, while looking through the book again to prepare this review, I realized that it was instrumental for getting me to think and write about the Stuff in my life. Maybe Voluntary Simplicity isn't a bad book, but it is a bad personal finance book. Maybe I'm trying to make it into something it was never intended to be. I wanted another Your Money or Your Life, but I got something completely different.

Postscript: While researching this post, I found an article entitled “Why the simplicity movement isn't so simple.” Great stuff.

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Maitresse
Maitresse
13 years ago

How did we jump from voluntary simplicity to ecological living? And why is the rest of the book devoted to the latter?

That is obviously *her* idea of greater purpose and fulfillment.

Maitresse
Maitresse
13 years ago

Ha ha! I wasn’t paying attention at all to the fact that the author is a man!

Anyway, it is obviously *his* idea of greater purpose and fulfillment.

Reminds me of that Mennonite book from a LONG time ago, whose title escapes me at the moment.

brad
brad
13 years ago

I’ve seen Elgin speak and was similarly turned off by his New Age platitudes and lack of concrete focus, although he seemed like an interesting man. To me, the keys to voluntary simplicity are 1) reducing the number and complexity of your possessions (including “home improvements” that require a lot of attention and maintenance, such as hot tubs and swimming pools) and 2) reducing or at least focusing your commitments. The more of your time you commit to others, the more fragmented your life is and the more complex it becomes. The more possessions you have, the more time you… Read more »

Scarfish
Scarfish
13 years ago

I read this a few years ago and found it ok, then read Your Money or Your Life and was shellshocked. THAT was the book I’d hoped Voluntary Simplicity would be. I’ve also read The Good Life, which might give you more ideas for living natural and close to the earth through its narrative.

Julie
Julie
13 years ago

I, too, was disappointed with this book. It has been so long since I’ve read it, but I don’t even think I finished it. Your Money or Your Life and Affluenza were much more thought provoking to me.

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
13 years ago

Right on, J.D. His book is really a snore. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I highly recommend Janet Luhrs Simple Living Guide. I found it enormously influential in giving me new tools to look at my life. Basically, the VS message is edit your life, so you are not wasting time/money/resources taking care of things you don’t really need or care about. Basically the same message you put out, I’d say. My favorite vignette from her book is how silly is it to drive (using your time) to the gym (using your money) to exercise? Exercising… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
13 years ago

Perhaps the problem is that the best personal finance voluntary simplicity book is ‘Your money or your life’ and you’ve just read it already. If you’re not already busy enough, you might consider writing your own. 😉

Modern Worker
Modern Worker
13 years ago

Viewed a documentary recently on this “movement”. Good stuff!

Maitresse
Maitresse
13 years ago

JD, the “Mennonite book” to which I referred is called “More With Less”, I think.

Stacy
Stacy
13 years ago

I agree with MoneyChangesThings. The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs is a great resource full of tips for simplifying your life and might be more what you were looking for.

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
13 years ago

@ JD & Maitresse: The More With Less cookbook? Or another related Mennonite book? I’ve been looking forward to this book review. I’m also interested in vs (almost-postulant Franciscan tertiary) and periodically read books by people in/around the movement. So far, I haven’t found many that I like. Maybe I’m looking for too much of a how-to, but I already have philosophical/religious reasons, so unless I feel the need to strengthen my commitment or guilt myself, there’s little points to such books. Like you, I don’t think this book looks particularly useful. Maybe I’ll read the first chapter sometime at… Read more »

The Financial Philosopher
The Financial Philosopher
13 years ago

“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe I’ve never heard of Elgin or voluntary simplicity and I’ve not read his book but I do know that, based on the review here, the same knowledge (stated simply and in much less words) can be found with the likes of Lau-tzu, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, and more… I suggest completely bypassing the financial section and walk directly to the philosophy section in the… Read more »

Victorian Librarian
Victorian Librarian
13 years ago

I wonder if the Mennonite book in question is Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre (author of the More-With-Less Cookbook). It is definitely coming at the subject from the religious viewpoint, so it may not appeal to all, but I find it very inspirational. It has sections about food, housing, clothing, cleaning etc…both practical ideas and ideas for thought. I find myself re-reading it at least twice a year. It was published in 1980, but is still in print now (and may be at your local library).

DC Portland
DC Portland
13 years ago

J.D., I’ll confess that I have not read this book. However, I thought perhaps I could assist you with the “universe as a living organism” concept. By setting the context as the Universe, perhaps Elgin pushed it a little too far. However, personal and heartfelt recognition that the Earth is a living organism is an important piece of our transformation to a sustainable society, in order to achieve long term survival. If you have not done so already, please check into Edward O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis”. It seems strikingly true to me, and likely will to you as well. In… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Thanks, everyone.

DC Portland, I’m familiar with Lovelock’s GAIA hypothesis, and find it intriguing, but don’t know how I feel about the concept of “superorganisms”. (My own term for organisms comprising millions of much smaller organisms.) I know that one could argue that’s all human beings are, but… I love this concept in science fiction, but as an actuality? I don’t know. I’m still chewing on this…

Victorian Librarian, because I was raised for a time as a Mennonite, and because that’s where my roots are, I’m very intrigued by Living More with Less. I look forward to reading it…

JenK
JenK
13 years ago

JD, 2 things. 1 is from the Tightwad Gazette – some things are tightwaddy but not simple, other things are simple but not tightwaddy. There’s overlap but they’re not the same. Plus, some skills – like riding a bicycle or using a price book – take time to learn. If you don’t have a bike or know how to ride and maintain it, then riding a bike isn’t simpler than driving a car. Once you know how to ride and maintain a bike it may be simpler than dealing with a car and insurance and maintenance and gas. But that… Read more »

JenK
JenK
13 years ago

Gah. Title is Simplify Your Life, not Simply your Life 😉

mark
mark
13 years ago

The New Age mumbo jumbo you mentioned is actually getting more and more evidence in the latest discoveries in quantum physics, cosmology, micro and macro- biology and transpersonal psychology. These are the facts; the Cartesian-Newtonian world paradigm we hold so dear to our hearts and believe in as the absolute truth about the world we live in is changing and it can be depressing for a hard-core materialist to think that some of the New Age freaks are actually right. But people had a hard time realizing Earth is a round ball and not a flat disc too.

brad
brad
13 years ago

DC Portland, while I agree with your sentiments about sustainability, there’s a big gap between biophilia and the notion that “Earth is a living organism.” I’ve been following E.O. Wilson’s work since the 1970s (I even used to manage his grants and those of the rest of his department) and can assure you that he doesn’t view the planet that way. True, there are interactions among biotic and abiotic systems that make it seem as if the planet acts like a living organism, but I think it can be a dangerous metaphor in that it lulls people into a sense… Read more »

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

JD, it sounds like you found a resource you liked much better in the e-book reviewed in your subsequent post. But I’d like to recommend that folks interested in further reading on the ideas of voluntary simplicity look up the works of Cecile Andrews. Much better writer, much more inspiring!

DC Portland
DC Portland
13 years ago

brad,

I REALLY appreciate your comments. I have been presumptive in combining biophilia and GAIA as concepts. I can appreciate the difference, and recognize that “balance” is not “natural”.

How wonderful for you to have worked with E.O. Wilson. It is ironic that his work has become the basis of much business theory these days (see Peter Senge, Joseph Bragdon, etc.). I am a personal believer that biophilia is a real lever for moving people toward more sustainable living. As it pertains to this (great!) blog, sustainable living and good personal finance go hand in hand.

The Beagle
The Beagle
12 years ago

I recently read “Voluntary Simplicity”, and found it to be the biggest piece of fluff ever written. It is an aggravating read devoid of any substance. It completely eludes me how this book can be considered by so many to be a seminal piece of writing for the anti-consumerist crowd, and how it has gotten through so many editions since the early 1980s, unless it is targeted to those living a life of voluntary mental simplicity as well. For those looking for an intellectually stimulating book, I recommend Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class”, or even Stanley and Danko’s… Read more »

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