Bob Corbett
Sept. 1993

In the last class it became clear that I had introduced some confusion into the issue of voluntary simplicity because of my emphasis on simplicity for social justice. Thus I want to clarify that confusion and move on.


Voluntary simplicity is a form of life chosen by people for a variety of reasons, which include:

Any one of these aims or any collection of them may well motivate any particular seeker of voluntary simplicity.

There is no "right" motive, any "better" way than another. Nonetheless one can learn and point out that for most of human history those who were practitioners of voluntary simplicity did so for religious reasons. Then in more recent times, especially the 1960s and 70s there was a movement in which most of the participants were moving toward voluntary simplicity for reasons of social justice. Two important books were instrumental in this movement: Frances Moore Lappe and Joe Collin's FOOD FIRST and E.F. Schumacher's SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL. In more recent years, the simplicity for justice movement has become less the dominant motive and today the central thrust of current literature seems to be simplicity for ecological harmony. This is the dominant thrust of Duane Elgin's book, VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY.

These are simply facts to note not arguments that religious, or justice or ecological reasons are better or more privileged than more personal motives.

What perhaps confuses some of you is that I happen to be a person who, while originally attracted to voluntary simplicity as a tool for living a less stressful personal life, soon shifted into voluntary simplicity for social justice. Thus, when I wanted to teach a course in voluntary simplicity here at Webster University, it was to share that vision and challenge with students. It certain is, and will remain, the central thrust of this course, but in no way do I argue that it is the most important or privileged reason for choosing voluntary simplicity.

This strategy is not much different than any instructor's choice of thrust. In a literature course that deals with some theme -- let me make up fictional examples lest some colleague think I'm picking on him or her -- a faculty member might decide to offer a course in novels that deal with the theme of suicide. There would be dozens, which might be chosen, which deal with that theme. But the instructor would be most likely to pick those that emphasized the particular thesis that got him or her interested in this topic. Or, a professor of psychology offering a course in child psychology -- where there are many many theories -- might well choose a text that most closely fit his or her own perspective.

In each case the professor would probably try to let you know about other perspectives, but his or her own thrust would be central to the course, and normally would be there in the original course description for all to see what they were getting into when taking the course -- which is exactly what I do. It's not much different.


Regardless of WHY one chooses to seek voluntary simplicity, even if one views it as an arbitrary choice (simply a preference of lifestyle), or if one views it as morally binding, there are some common features. I want to spell out some of them.


The simple life is neither a place nor a particular set of practices. Many people do it differently (even when motivated by the same motive) from other practitioners. On the other hand it is not nothing either. It may sometimes be hard for another to recognize that one is living a life of voluntary simplicity, but I believe there is a criterion, which any person can use to discover whether or not he or she is living such a life and where one is in it.

The measure is not one of PLACE, but of DIRECTION. The way to use the criterion is this: sit down at any given moment and do a careful assessment of one's lifeform. This would include a careful listing of such things are:

These sorts of questions are guidelines for an overview assessment of where you are. It would be quite useful to write this sort of assessment down in a journal for later use. And to do the assessment with great care and honesty. It is not one that other people could ever use to you; it is only for the self.

Then the crucial test begins to come later. I think one could do this assessment every six months. The issue in the second assessment is this: OVERALL, IN WHICH DIRECTION AM I MOVING? There are three basic possibilities:

In the first case one's life is becoming simpler, in the second case less so, in the last case it hasn't changed much. Such an assessment seems to me possible, relatively quantifiable and quite informative. It can be (has certainly been for me) a powerful motivation. It is a way to make one's life more voluntary in the philosophical sense, in Socrates' sense of "an examined life." It can call attention to sloppy unthinking habits, which tend to creep into any of our lives, and in which habits we tend to find sneaky and self-deceptive ways of not facing ourselves. The Existentialists make this same distinction calling it authentic and unauthentic living.

One of the very difficult things about ANY life goal is that there are often gaps between what we say and believe we want and how we act. Such a self analysis is not only a procedure to know how we are doing on narrowing the gap between our stated (and presumably believed ideals) and our actual behavior, but is often a push, a motivation, an aid in narrowing the gap, which, for many people is an important criterion not only of a voluntary life, but of a moral life.

My own view is that most people espouse decent values, no matter how different and contradictory they are to other peoples' values. The general problem of morality, as I see it, is not holding decent values, but in LIVING them.

Thus the procedure I recommend seems to me to not only help one to know what sort of life one is living, but helps one to want to move to narrow the gap between one's own ideals and one's actual behavior.


Often times when I teach this course, or give lectures about voluntary simplicity or simply talk with individuals about it, and when the individuals are leaning in the direction of voluntary simplicity (for any reason whatsoever), but are relatively inexperienced in it, they ask for recommendations for how to get started and how to keep moving. The criterion, the assessment procedure recommended above is one very important tool. But, as I argued in my paper: DOWNWARD MOBILITY AND THE OTHER, there are some general steps I recommend to people. Below I reiterate those which seem to apply to virtually every version of simple living. These are:

  1. I believe that a primary task is to reduce the amount of money it costs you to live. Of all the measures in one's personal "evaluation," this is the easiest one to use; it's a hard number.
  2. Associate with other downwardly mobile people (you can find them if you work at it!). This provides you with external support and motivation, plus a group of relatively sympathetic people to try out new ideas on, or to discuss puzzles, struggles etc. Note that this strategy is also relatively easy to measure. You can note just how much time you spend with such people and to what extent that is a set of people with whom you do or don't find common interests.
  3. Reduce the possessions you own. Once again this has the advantage of being relatively easy to check out in one regular assessment. You can simply take a physical inventory (in writing) and do the check list like a business does it's regular inventories. It gives you some "hard" data.
  4. Be reflective and critical about your LIFEFORM. Virtually everyone has gaps between his or her ideals and actions. Most people like to lie to themselves and to hide those gaps. The easiest way is not to do any serious reflection and assessment of where one is. I believe it is crucial to any "voluntary" life -- simple or not so simple -- that one develops an honest and regular method of assessment in order to try to lessen the self-deception in one's own life.
  5. Read and inform yourself. Were one to want voluntary simplicity one is not alone. It is certainly a movement of a small minority. But it is a movement of a rather articulate minority. One source that is an excellent jumping off point, since it points the way to many many other sources, is the UTNE READER, which bills itself as the Reader's Digest of the Alternative Press. The Utne Reader usually has some articles on some aspect of voluntary simplicity in each issue, and is a wealth of connections -- book reviews, ads from groups and organizations in this area etc. Though, careful. Getting "into the movement" can be another form of upward moving itself!
  6. Take some large, important, even if mainly symbolic, task. Use this task to motivate yourself and keep you critically aware of where you want to go. You are fighting a tough enemy -- upward mobility. Not only does society reinforce upward mobility, but even nature seems to drive us in that direction. I find the large symbolic task is an extremely effective device in keeping oneself motivated and focused.

All through these 6 steps I've tried to avoid any suggestions that are specific to any one reason for seeking simplicity. I did this to underline the position that there are no specific "musts" in this task. But let me at least give a few suggestive examples to illustrate what I mean by this last recommendation.

The point here is not to recommend any one of these examples. But, to point out that taking some task, any task, which not only moves one in the direction of material simplicity, but disrupts one's old pattern in some significant manner, can become an internal rallying point of both motivation and some immediate measure that "I'm DOING something, I'm moving, and it feels good." If it ceases to feel good, or if one cease to do it, then a difficult symbolic, but very disruptive item seems called for.


One position that I argue on the basis of experience is that the task of shifting from living a life of less simplicity to living move simply must achieve a serious level of JOY with one's new LIFEFORM or it won't stick.

Often times other things than joy can motivate the change -- just a general dissatisfaction with one's current life, or too much tension, detestation of one's job, the desire to live more justly, or ecologically etc. It doesn't matter what.

But, being motivated SHORT-TERM to seek a change, and choosing voluntary simplicity is one thing. Remaining in the LIFEFORM long-term seems to me to require that one's life is joyful, happy, exciting, fulfilling. It does seem that a life of material ease -- upward mobility -- has, for most people, a very strong attraction, and succeeding at it brings joy to many. Thus if one wants to voluntarily simplify, especially in a culture that so values the joys of material ease, one must cultivate and succeed in finding an alternative sense of long-term joy.

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Bob Corbett