Language -- Simplicity, Voluntary and Non-Voluntary and Poverty

Bob Corbett

Most people in the world, especially outside the United States and Western Europe, live lives of material simplicity. That is, they live lives close to the basic necessities which sustain life. However, they do not, in the main, live this way out of choice. They live simple lives because they have no alternative. Many do not even know of an alternative and simply accept traditional life as the way life is.

In the literature on simple lifestyle, one reads much of the celebration of a life of poverty. I find this language confusing. What is poverty and why should one celebrate it? When this confusing language is understood in the sense intended, I often find myself in agreement with it. But, in order to avoid confusion, I choose to use a different language. Rather than distinguishing between a life of poverty and non-poverty, I will distinguish between a life of material misery and non-misery. By misery I mean a condition where people struggle with extreme effort to merely stay alive because they do not have the basic necessities to continue life. I am not referring to conditions of illness or death in a natural state. Illness and death will come to all, rich and poor alike. In this latter sense all of us struggle for existence. But, a life of misery in my sense is when one struggles mightily for survival itself in the face of NOT having access to the basic material goods necessary for survival. This is truly misery.

The overwhelming mass of people on this planet live in simplicity. Millions of them, hundreds of millions, if not billions, live in misery. In the United States we are among a select group of people. Most of us in the U.S., and those in Western Europe, are among a tiny elite of all nations. We do not live in misery. Nor, for that matter, do many of us live in simplicity. Many of the poor in our country do not live in material misery when misery is defined as a mighty struggle day by day just to sustain life. However, the poor of the U.S. do live in forced simplicity.

It is my contention that we should be voluntarily living more simple lives, though none of us should aspire to live lives of misery. The aim of this course is to clarify some of the issues of what a simple life is, and to develop the reasons which lead me to believe that it is a duty, not a choice for us.

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Bob Corbett