Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Professor Irvine on consumerism & Stoicism

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(c) Oxford University Press.

I recently finished reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by philosophy professor and Stoic practitioner William B. Irvine. It’s a wonderful book explaining the essence of Stoicism, with an emphasis on how to practice Stoicism in your life, and it’s a very easy-to-read book I’d highly recommend.

I have been meaning to address the issue of consumerism in my own life and in my articles for some time. I have nothing against reasonably regulated capitalism, and in fact, see it as highly relevant to personal liberty; but my concerns are more on the individual effects of consumerism on a person. There is an element to our consumer based society in the United States today that is not only of concern because of what it means to the environment and our natural resources, but also because of how it effects our freedom and how much control we lend to corporations over our lives and even or very culture. I was therefore struck by what Irvine wrote on the topic because it touched on Stoicism more intimately than I had expected:

“The Stoics, as we have seen, recommend simplifying one’s lifestyle… If you start dressing down, people will notice. Likewise, people will notice if you keep driving the same old car or – horrors! – give up the car to take the bus or ride a bike. People will assume the worst: impending bankruptcy, perhaps, or even the early stages of mental illness… And if you explain to them that you have overcome your desire to impress those who are impressed by a person’s external trappings, you will only make matters worse…

Since becoming a Stoic my desires have changed dramatically. I no longer want many of the things I once took to be essential for proper living…

I read that many of my fellow Americans are in deep financial trouble. They have an unfortunate tendency to use up all the credit that is available to them and, when this doesn’t satisfy their craving for consumer goods, to keep spending anyway…

I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. When I go to the mall, for example, I don’t buy things; instead, I look around me and am astonished by all the things for sale that I not only don’t need but can’t imagine myself wanting. My only entertainment at a mall is to watch the other mall-goers. Most of them, I suspect, come to the mall not because there is something specific that they need to buy. Rather, they come in the hope that doing so will trigger a desire for something that, before going to the mall, they didn’t want…

Why go out of their way to trigger a desire? Because if they trigger one, they can enjoy the rush that comes when they extinguish that desire by buying its object. It is a rush, of course, that has as little to do with their long-term happiness as taking a hit of heroin has to do with the long-term happiness of a heroin addict.”

I need to begin finding ways to simplify my own life in terms of possessions and material needs. My wife and I already do a fair job of living well below our means, but sometimes the amount of ‘junk’ we collect can be a cause of frustration. I also have been thinking about how one might phrase a short collection of simplified principles and behavioral standards that could help guide one away from consumerism and toward alternatives that can be even more fulfilling, especially around times like Christmas.

Irvine’s book has a lot more about Stoic thought, values, and practices in it a person can use to begin their journey. At times when discussing practice, he seems a bit preoccupied with the danger that others may ridicule you for practicing Stoicism, and this may be colored by his own experiences. But all in all it is a solid read for beginners and philosophers.

Written by DT Strain

March 21, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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