By Jemome M. Segal
New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1999
ISBN # 0-8050-5679-3
261 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2010

Jerome Segal has given us a challenging, even exciting account of the nature of graceful simplicity, of why folks might choose it as a life-goal, and a sort of how-to guide for getting there. It might well be a book that will fall on deaf and uninterested ears in the contemporary U.S. where recent economic set backs have disappointed many and they seem to yearn only for the return of the so-called good old days of upward mobility. However, for those of us either already interested in the simple life, or who might see it an a strategy for living in this “new” world we seem headed toward, Segal’s book is both a hope and delight.

I am one of those who’s been interested in and living the simple life (though I called it voluntary simplicity, not graceful simplicity) for all my adult life. I was raised in working class simplicity, and didn’t really have much idea of what upward mobility would be like. After college, at age 22 I married and went off to the Bahama Islands to do human service at subsistence level living. In later years I developed my own conscious system of simplicity which I called either downward mobility or, at other times, voluntary economic simplicity. I was able to often teach a course a Webster University in voluntary economic simplicity and have written my own version of the central argument.

Given that background, when the Segal book appeared 11 years ago I got a copy, planning to read it and perhaps incorporate some material into my own course on that topic, but before I had time to think seriously about that I had retired and moved on to other things. The book sat on my shelf for those 11 years untouched. However, of late my partner and I talk a great deal about our very gracious and simple lives, thanking our lucky stars that in these days of a nearly collapsed economy and growing international decline of the U.S., that we are so utterly satisfied with our gracious simplicity, as we were then calling it. I chanced to see my copy of Segal’s book in my library, and have spent a delightful full month reading Segal’s version.

In the main I find myself in agreement on essentials with Segal, though there will be a few things about which I will have less positive comments along the way. Nonetheless, I found this to be a very useful and in general persuasive view of graceful simplicity.

The bulk of the book does focus in on issues of what is graceful simplicity and why would one want to choose it. But, in the preface he sets the stage for the argument by taking it back to broader philosophical issues about the meaning of human existence.

In the world today there is considerable confusion and uneasiness about how to live, in particular about those dimensions of life that are sharply impacted by the economic realm. Whether it be questions of overload, of hectic lifestyles and harried existence, or issues of materialism and consumption, or concerns over interpersonal competition, careerism, overwork, loss of leisure, or loss of security-there is a widespread skepticism that our fast paced, mass-consumption society represents the highest form of human social development. On the most visceral level, for many of us, something just doesn't feel right. We have lost any semblance of graceful existence, and we sense it, even if we can't articulate it. . . . . . The central theme of the book is that we cannot think coherently about economic life unless we situate all that is economic within a broader conception of human existence. Since this is not how we typically think of the economy and economics, we need to go back to basics and ask, "What is an economy for?" This question, I suggest, cannot be properly answered unless we can also answer some of the questions that once animated philosophers, such as "What is the nature of human happiness?" and "What is true wealth?"

Segal argues there are two fundamentally different ways of thinking about money.

  1. More is better
  2. Just enough is plenty

He points out that simple living has been a major part of the American dream from early Protestant simplicity like the Quakers under the leadership of John Woolman. There are many other examples of it in American past. Sumptuary laws, rent controls, various social services including education, health care and aid to the poor. Those later aspects are done at the government level. Segal was writing in 1998-99, and obviously things have changed in 2010 following the recent burst of the mortgage-lending bubble. For many the desire to have government help people with simple living is strongly declining.

After a boom period with the industrial revolution and beliefs in unending economic prosperity, followed by two world wars separated by a depression, there was less certainty about upward mobility. Thus began to shift back toward simplicity, enhanced by desires of life freedom in the 1960s.

But again in the 1960s there was a critique of the affluent lifestyle and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970s, with the energy crisis, this merged with a broad environmentalism. Many saw the energy crisis not as an economic or political problem to be overcome, but as an occasion for a spiritual renewal that would turn us away from the rampant materialism of modern life.

. . .

Today, when there is once again a great interest in simple living in America, it is mainly an apolitical enthusiasm. Most, though not all, of the literature is of a "how to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. The attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life is seen as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics. In the chapters that follow I will explore the limitations of this individualistic approach and argue for a "politics of simplicity."

This is where I part company with Segal. As I will indicate later on, my own version of simple living eschewed much of the political dimension and focused on individual life decisions, even where those advocated for other less fortunate. Such advocation and action for others may be done at either the very personal or more political manner. I almost invariantly chose the personal side of the battle.

But simplicity is not seen as simply spending and consuming less.

Simple living is not the residue that emerges when one consumes less; it is an achievement. It is what can emerge when as a result of subjecting the material dimension to a larger vision, one succeeds in creating a life that is rich and exciting in its aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and social dimensions.

Another central thesis is that a necessary requirement of Graceful Simplicity is one’s own willingness for it. That seems an essential insight. It is less something to “discover” than it is a way of life one chooses.

The author gets down to the nitty gritty with some practical strategies:

  1. Reduce one’s work for pay.
  2. Gain more time for choice activities.
  3. Try to have a peaceful household with accepted sharing of responsibility including kids.

But how much is really needed in the modern world, even for graceful simplicity? To address this question Segal has a list of NEEDED REQUIRED INCOME. (NRI). He is careful and clear to point out this list is not perfect or exact and others may do it somewhat differently.

He names seven core needs

  1. Housing
  2. Transportation
  3. Food
  4. Insurance
  5. Clothing
  6. Health
  7. Entertainment

I had developed a very similar notion and list back in 1984 in a paper called: DOWNWARD MOBILITY AND THE OTHER. I wrote:

What is our need?

I am not at all sure what is a need and what is a luxury. Needs change as technology changes. Needs are related to the society in which we live. The concept of needs must be clarified, especially in this interconnected world where needs and luxuries differ in various parts of the globe. My own tentative list of needs include:

basic nutritional food
adequate shelter and warmth
adequate health and dental care
educational opportunities
living in an atmosphere of safety and personal security
living in an atmosphere where one can grow as an individual

While my last three are not in Segal’s list, he talks a great deal out these in the book and seems to just expect those to be there as well. I find those often more difficult for people to acquire than the others. One thing that he spends a good deal of time on for our period was not quite as important in the early 1980s – insurance of various sorts. As we’re all seeing in these times, that is a significant expense for most middle class households.

Segal focuses a good deal on the politics of simplicity. The claim is that those of us interested in graceful simplicity will need to participate in a politics of simplicity, that is work toward creating conditions in the larger society which support and/or encourage simple living. His constant example is to point out that the direction of our society is seen writ large in the huge expenditures the U.S. government has put into the highways and roads system since WWII, as contrasted with the very paltry amount put into public transportation. The cars favor and encourage much of upward mobility from the auto and subdivision industries, to the abandonment of the cities to crime and miserable schools and deplorable infrastructure. The two visions are not necessarily always ad odds, but in the details differences are quite important. Segal says:

One preliminary point should be made. The two American Dreams - the dream of making it, of money and status -- and the Alternative Dream -- a life that is materially modest but rich in other dimensions -- have an important area of overlap that identifies them both as particularly American dreams. They overlap in their shared attachment to individual freedom, to pluralism, to the right to be different, the right to march to a different drummer.

What I envision is a society in which there will be a great diversity of commitments, one in which people will be deeply involved in very different life activities and life spaces. What they will have in common, however, is having been freed from the dominant engagement in getting and spending. A politics of simplicity seeks a world that is not hectic, not filled with anxiety. It is a world in which people have sufficient time to do things slowly and to do them right, whether what they are doing is building and enjoying a friendship, working on a sculpture, or studying scripture. Moreover, it should also be clear that I am calling for a politics of simplicity that seeks not to compel simple living, but to facilitate it. It seeks to make it easier for people who want to live lives of simplicity to do so, but it does not seek to prevent people from living lives of opulence and consumption, nor to prevent them from running themselves ragged in their hectic pursuits. At the same time, it recognizes that because social institutions and government policies are never neutral, no neat line between compelling and merely facilitating can be found. We are always tilting one way or another. Let us tilt toward simplicity.

But what is really possible POLITICALLY at this point in time?

I agree with Segal that it would be very useful to persuade the social world to embrace graceful simplicity and even more to enable it. However, I’m not convinced such activities toward that goal are worth it if the political world of the moment is as exceptionally hostile to the notion as it is now. I think we are now in such a national spirit, thus it would be better off to exert energies on the PERSONAL strategies, not the socio-political struggles.

When I first published my own essay, Downward Mobility and the Other, cited above, many of my friends made the same criticism as Segal’s book does. They argued that those of us wanting to live the simple life needed to organize politically and change society. I’ve never been convinced of that argument since I think it is a pipe-dream in our time – the desire for upward mobility is deeply rooted in the modern times and those of us wishing voluntary simplicity will just have to live on the margins. To get seriously politically exercised about it all is very disruptive to that simplicity and especially gracefulness that Segal so seeks. Thus I responded to that line of criticism with a second essay in 1986 whose title reveals the thesis: The Primacy of Personal Lifeform; A Challenge and Invitation

On the other hand, those of us who try to voluntarily live the simple life inside this society do get a significant number of free-benefits with this society – the consumer society has raised wages. This allows those of us – obviously a small minority – to earn a level of income to satisfy our more simple needs with less work. However, without the consumer society model would wages be able to stay high and employment as well? I doubt it.

Segal actually makes my argument in part when he continues with the transportation issue:

What happened with transportation is particularly unfortunate. It could have been avoided had there been clarity with respect to the appropriate goals of transportation policy. For instance, we would be living in quite a different world had it been a goal of national policy not to evolve into an intensely automobile-dependent society. Instead, over the last half century, as first one car and then two cars became a necessity for most families, the percentage of household expenditures for transportation has more than doubled. Today, as we have seen, the average husband-and-wife consumer unit (with or without children) spends almost $8,000 annually on transportation, or roughly one-fifth of their total spending. Put in different terms, we might say that, of the five days we work, one day is for transportation expenses. That is a tremendous price to pay in terms of wedding individuals to a work-and-spend cycle, a tremendous price to pay for the absence of good public transport and the collapse of the urban environment.

In 1974 when my wife and I returned to the U.S. with our six kids after a year in Austria on a sabbatical, we had become so used to the public transportation system in Graz, Austria, and deeply troubled by the rising prices oil and the ecological devastation the auto-centered society was causing, that we sold our car and never got another. Even on Segal’s argument that saved us something in the area of $8,000 in necessary earnings. Instead we purchased a number of weekly bus passes and laid them on a front table for any of us to use if we wanted to go somewhere. I shopped at the grocery with a wagon most of the time and even a sled in snowy weather. Now, retired in my 70s, I still live without a car. It is a 2 mile walk each way to my grocery store, but I have a little four wheeled cart that I use for my groceries and get my exercise as well. I am quite content with that form of simplicity and it allows me to live on considerably less money than otherwise.

I really enjoyed the Segal book. Above I touch on some of the central issues of his definitions of simple living and the politics and economics of it. However, he has a couple of sections that are a delight to read though rather tangential to the central theme. There is sort of a history of views of what the meaning of human existence is, especially in relation to the question of material needs, and an section he calls an INTERLUDE which was just wonderful, tracing the history of simple living in western society.

Toward the end he focuses in more tightly on his notion of “graceful simplicity.”

To live gracefully is to live within flowing rhythms at a human pace. It need not always be the same. There is gracefulness in fast dances and in slow dances -- but most of us are not dancing at all. In a graceful life there is time to pay respect to the value of what you do, to the worth of those you care for, and to the possessions you own. Gracefulness is not possible when life is frenetic, when we are harried, or suffer from overload, time crunch, and a vast multiplicity of commitments and pressures.

I know he is focusing on the material and attitudinal qualities needed, but one feature that seems to me inseparable to any gracefulness is the quality of harmony of at least one close interpersonal relationship. These are of a significantly different nature than all that Segal speaks, yet the relationships are critical to one’s over-all life-form.

Segal does argue, and correctly I think, that one has to have the courage to embrace this alternative and to desire this curious life of voluntary simplicity if it is going to work for a person or family.

We must free ourselves from the judgments of others with respect to externals -- that is, with respect to the main objects of economic life: income, wealth, fame, reputation, respect, and social status. The claim is that to achieve tranquility (a component of what I call "gracefulness") requires that we march to a different drummer. You have to live your life according to your own lights. If you cannot free yourself from the internalization of the other's perception of you, then even if you do live an externally simple life, it will not be one of inner tranquility. Thus, you must find a way to free yourself from what Sartre called "the gaze of the Other." It remains an open question as to whether this is really possible. Sartre thought it was not; the Stoics thought that it was -- though they admitted that few achieved such complete independence.

There is one place where he seems to agree that graceful simplicity requires the “close” other to be in harmony.

Thus gracefulness of being is inherently supportive of the simple life because generosity of spirit within the simple living community makes unnecessary the vast alternative project of attaining self-worth through consumption and social standing. This, I believe, is the key to the viability of Epicurus' Garden life. Essentially it was life within a community of friends who supported each other in their collective withdrawal from the dominant value system of their society and whose generous responsiveness to each other provided them with the ability to be different, as well as with the pleasures of their life together. When one has friends one has much of the wealth that the world can provide, and in forging these friendships one far more directly attains a sense of self-value, the search for which underlies much of our economic life. Thus, participation in a community of gracefulness, in the sense that includes this generosity of spirit, emerges not just as a particular kind of simple living, but as a central structure without which the project of the simple life is vastly more difficult.

In the end, one of his last warnings is that this life must be CHOSEN by one, not just decided upon and one tries to live it by following some rule. It doesn’t work that way.

The life of graceful simplicity is not a life that one can live merely by deciding to do so to live well in an art, and to live gracefully in time is to be particularly accomplished in that art.

At the outset I pointed out that, in the main, I find myself in agreement with most of what Segal says about the nature of and the virtues of graceful simplicity. Probably more so now than in my past. But, I am not as convinced that the primary dichotomy can just be the simple life vs. the life of upward mobility. For a huge number of us within this movement, and I think Segal himself, there are other related yet distinguishable concerns.

I see the life of voluntary economic simplicity, at least in my life, fitting in with other central concerns.

In my earlier years there were four factors:

  1. Voluntary economic simplicity
  2. Healthful living, eating and exercising
  3. Living with the natural world in greater ecological harmony.
  4. Living in peace, harmony, respect and encouragement to the others who live close to and with on.

Segal talks a good deal about my #s 2-3-4, but it was never clear for me of his view of the interrelationship of the four and the order of priority in potential clashes.

In my earlier days there was yet another important concern – a struggle to offer a freer, more fully acceptable lives for groups that were systematic excluded or disadvantaged. That included people of color, women and the poor. Thus I coupled my life with civil rights work, work toward the change of attitudes and behaviors toward women and activities to ameliorate the hardships of the poor.

I was in those years much less concerned with the “graciousness” of my simplicity than the fact that the voluntary economic simplicity of my life ENABLED me to have more time, energy and money to work on those other social issues.

A key example was that even with seven children to support, in 1989, at my 50th birthday, I was able to give up my fill-time tenured position at the university to take a half-time position, with only ½ my previous salary. That enabled me to spend a great deal more time in the country of Haiti where my former wife and I had established a small NGO doing economic develop projects, mainly in the rather remote areas of that poor nation.

However, when I took full retirement in 2000, I was about worn out! I tended to “retire” not only fully from paid work, but also from much of my social outreach work, and turned, without a name for it, to living what I soon began to call a graceful simplicity before even remembering the title of the Segal book I have had in my library since BEFORE I retired.

If I weren’t living such an economically simple (and inexpensive) life I would never be able to live this incredible life of peaceful and gracious simplicity. There are times when I regret that I no longer have the energy to enter much into the those areas of working to advance others which dominated so much of the 45 or so years of my life when I was active in various “causes.” But with Segal, I highly recommend that life of graceful simplicity. It is just so satisfying.

And were one interested in exploring the topic of graceful simplicity, Segal’s book would, indeed, be a wonderful place to begin. He is likely to challenge and excite most readers who come to the book with any sympathy toward the general notion, and he is likely to challenge one to want to advance oneself toward that joyous and delightful and peaceful world that he calls graceful simplicity.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett