Don’t Be Distracted By the Minimalist Aesthetic

“This is not something, however, to which mere surroundings are conducive, unless the mind is at its own disposal, able at will to provide its own seclusion even in crowded moments.”

— Seneca, Letter CIV of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

When our lives aren’t in order it’s very tempting to look for external explanations and external fixes.

For instance, so many of us today have the sense that we are too busy, too distracted, too rushed and hurried. We wake up feeling that way and the day only makes it worse. We can’t think properly, we can’t read properly. There’s always a demand on our time to distract us from what’s important.

So when we come across a solution we’re likely to grab at it. For instance:

Minimalist House and minimalist aesthetic
Minimalist House in Okinawa, Japan. Photo from Deezen.

An image like this makes a promise, and embedded within that promise is a cause and effect.

It says: if you have an uncluttered physical space, your mind will be uncluttered too. Or, the reverse: your mind is cluttered because your surroundings are cluttered.

Solutions like this are so compelling because they tell us directly what we should do, and promise salvation. Just declutter your house, and you’ll declutter your mind!

They’re also compelling because of their aestheticism. We are wired to enjoy and to seek beauty in our lives, and we are naturally drawn to certain aesthetics.

There is a link between our lives and our desire for a certain aesthetic—but unfortunately it may not be the link we hoped for.

We are drawn to a minimalist aesthetic because of the clutteredness of our minds. Our desire for this aesthetic is a response to dissatisfaction with our lives.

But we cannot rely upon a minimalist aesthetic to solve the problems inside our minds. The problems are internal not external. As the quote from Seneca above shows, it’s an age-old temptation to look to external solutions for internal problems (he wrote around two thousand years ago).

At best the aesthetic is a kind of band-aid. It distracts us from our problems. Ironic, since it is meant to clear our lives of distraction.

Band-aids help. So too might a minimalist aesthetic in our lives. But let’s not expect it to solve our problems.

An internal problem requires internal solutions. (I know in saying that that I’ll lose most readers right there. It’s not the “change your life right here and right now!” advice that most blogs give).

An uncluttered mind will take uncluttering our minds, not just our houses. It’s not easy. It takes practise. It might just take a lifetime.

Marcus Aurelius explains why wanting a quiet spot in the woods won’t solve any of our problems

If only I had a quiet spot in a cabin in the woods or in the mountains where I could live for a while to write and to read, I often think to myself. (By the sea would be okay too). If I had that, everything would become clear. I’d be productive like I cannot be anywhere else. I’d focus on what is important, and I’d learn about myself and the world. I’d be re-energised, refreshed, ready once again to fulfil all my hopes and dreams. If only!

It’s a common lament. Few of us follow through. Some try. I only know of one to have succeeded.

Cabin Porn inspiration for your quiet place somewhere — Marcus Aurelius against travel and escapismPerhaps it’s becoming more common, too, as life appears to be getting more hectic and stressful. Cities compound the desire for escape to someplace quiet. Look at this Tumblr blog and I guarantee you’ll feel some pull towards what the site calls “Inspiration for your quiet place somewhere.” Check out this startup that helps stressed-out New Yorker-millennials escape to the woods for a few days.

But the pull towards somewhere quiet in the woods, the mountains or by the sea is also not at all new. Marcus Aurelius described it almost two thousand years ago—and in his Meditations, a series of notes to himself on how to and how not to behave, he also described to himself the foolishness of the ideal of “someplace quiet.”

“Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains—a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosophers, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind— the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself. 

Marcus Aurelius reminds us, whenever that pull gets too strong, that we cannot expect our internal state of mind to be fixed immediately by simply going somewhere quiet in the woods. Too often we will be stressed and won’t be able to go anywhere else. We need to work out how to find peace of mind in exactly the place we are in right now—and we can find that in our own minds, if we try.

I suppose Aurelius would have thoroughly disagreed with Thoreau—he is, essentially, calling his going to live in the woods “unworthy of a philosopher.” Thoreau wished to see if he could live “deliberately”, and maybe for that he needed to go to the woods. For the rest of us, though, Aurelius poses the question: do you really need to travel to find peace of mind? Are you making an external excuse for what is an internal problem?

As Seneca pointed out before him, “your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.”

On Sandals and Simplicity: G. K. Chesterton’s Case Against Minimalism

Lately I’ve been reading some of the work of the modern minimalism movement, or what was earlier called simple living. Minimalism is one of those ideas that seems to strike a nerve every few decades, pointing to deep fears of clutteredness, perpetual busyness, out-of-control consumerism and the sense that our lives are running away from us. It is not at all new, and modern incarnations largely repackage ideas that have been around awhile—much from Buddhism, as well as Leo Tolstoy’s late-nineteenth century search for a meaningful existence. But the ideas strike deeply at our fears and hopes, and simple living’s enduringness is a sign of its power.

Most people today discover minimalism through blogs like The Minimalists, Joshua Becker’s Becoming Minimalist, Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits, and Mindful. Usually we come across them because we’ve been looking for something like it. We didn’t have a word for minimalism or simple living, we didn’t know how to make sense of the draw we had towards that kind of life, but we knew we wanted something like it. Discovering one of these blogs can then be exciting, freeing, and is accompanied by a manic attempt to read every article on each blog.

But because we were already looking for something like it, it can be difficult to look at the minimalist lifestyle with a clear eye. It’s all too easy to think immediately, this is it, dismissing any alternative lifestyles as misguided. Many of the blogs above also propose immediately getting rid of many of your physical possessions, a drastic first step to take, albeit one easily taken in the excitement of discovery.

I think there’s a great deal of wisdom in minimalism and simple living, and I don’t write this post in outright disagreement with the philosophy. Minimalism will suit different people to varying degrees, and as with any philosophy, lifestyle or religion, everyone needs to work out what suits their own needs in life and what doesn’t. But also as with any philosophy, I think it’s necessary to look at a range of different perspectives to ensure we’re seeing it clearly. So I’ve spent some time looking for arguments against minimalism and simple living, in order that we can form a more nuanced, balanced view, understanding where it succeeds and where it doesn’t.

G. K. Chesterton Against Minimalism and Simple Living
G. K. Chesterton. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English writer, poet, philosopher (to name just a few of the things he could be called), wrote an essay in 1905 titled “On Sandals and Simplicity.” Taking as his starting point the simple living being advocated by followers of Tolstoy, whose philosophy focussed especially on Christianity, vegetarianism and pacifism, Chesterton argues that minimalists have their priorities wrong:

“If a perpetual talking about one’s own robustness leads to being less robust, it is even more true that a perpetual talking about one’s own simplicity leads to being less simple.”

Chesterton’s account flips much of the minimalist philosophy on its head, as though minimalists have been distracted by the outward signs of simplicity, forgetting that the outward signs ultimately do very little for one’s inward state of mind. Certainly the original simple living philosophy is often corrupted or altered into a specific type of aestheticism: Instagram posts of minimalist meals on pastel-coloured plates, houses stripped to their construction materials and wardrobes filled with just one of each item of clothing (even President Obama admitted to at one point living like this!) Yet, of course, aestheticism is not asceticism. Being consumed with talking about one’s minimalism can do much to undermine exactly that in oneself.

Chesterton goes on, continuing his argument against anyone advocating a simple, minimalistic lifestyle:

“The complaint against them stands, that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things. They would make us simple in the things that do not matter—that is, in diet, in costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter—in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection. 

Ultimately, for Chesterton, “It does not matter so very much whether a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind.” Or, to put the rather strange metaphor slightly differently, what matters is not what one’s home looks like or what one eats, but one’s state of mind about each of these things.

“The only simplicity that matters”, Chesterton concludes, “is the simplicity of the heart.” And what we need is “a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society; and if we were living eagerly and angrily in the enthusiasm of those things, we should, ipso facto, be living simply in the genuine and spiritual sense.”