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Against Minimalism

My house, and my room in particular, is cluttered with things.

I have too much stuff by any standard, and it would seem that I could improve my life and learn a lesson in frugality by embracing the philosophy of minimalism. Minimalism is touted as a way of breaking free from consumerism and learning to live with less. On its face, no one could disagree that our society is in need of developing such habits. However, as the Art of Manliness recently wrote, minimalism is largely only for those who are already rich. If one reads through articles at The Atlantic or New York Times, in which people testify about minimalism changing their life, you will quickly see that the common denominator is wealthoften young wealthand lives spent accumulating meaningless things.

These people are certainly in need of some sort of conversion, but mere division and subtraction of material possessions cannot be the final answer. The problem is not that there are too many things, but too many meaningless things and no meaningful things. There are some things that have meaning, even if they are redundant, and this is why minimalism would never apply to someone like me.

There are a hundred things, which I may not need in the strictest sense, cluttering up my room. Things I could live without, just as I could live on soylent paste without all the ritual we put into preparing our meals. Most minimalists try to make exceptions for books and things that have family connections, but in my house that category encompasses most everything.

On my desk is a wood book podium, hand made by my great-uncle. He still makes them to this day. Its only practical purpose is to hold a collection of papers that I’m currently pondering. The same job could be accomplished in much less space with a file-tray from Office Depot.

On the opposite corner of my desk is a mason jar that I stole from my grandmother’s house, half filled with coins. It reminds me of the larger one filled with pennies that used to sit in the corner of the third bedroom at my grandparent’s house, and of the story involving a mason-jar, a broken gas pump, and my embarrassed uncle who loves to re-tell the story at every family gathering.

Open my desk and there are old note pads and letters, full of thoughts and memories. Some of those thoughts are better than others. Some of those memories are better than others. But they are all there. There are multiple pairs of sunglasses. The gold ray-ban aviators that my dad gave to me. The Steve McQueen replica Persols my mother knew that I wanted and had saved up for.

There are at least half a dozen pocket-knives. The minimalist would have me throw all but one, or maybe even all, away. But how would I decide? There is the first swiss-army knife I was given and remember bragging about to my younger cousins. The two blade Old-Timer just like my Papa used to carry. I used to never leave the house without it. The K-bar that I’ve taken on many hikes. Which memory to discard?

On the wall hangs the .22 rifle I was given on my 13th Christmas, as is tradition in the South. Above it is the Mossberg Shotgun I was given before going off to college. Beneath that gun sits a bookshelf. On the bottom shelf is a humidor, usually empty, but occasionally filled with Rocky Patel or Romeo y Julietas. Many a good conversation has sprung from that magic box. Behind it is an old cigar box filled with match-boxes, lighters, pipe tobacco, a corncob pipe, cigar cutters, lighter fluid, and everything else you need for late-night talks with good friends. Besides the Bourbon, of course, which is downstairs.

On the other side of the room is a dresser. On it sits a palm cross that has remained there since Palm Sunday. Next to that is a bust of Aristotle and an empty bottle of 2005 Chateauneuf du Pape. It was my first bottle of what would become my favorite wine. It was imbibed with good friends in a New York hotel room off Times Square. You can still smell the soil of Southern France in the bottle.

Behind that is a bowl filled with corks, or rather, of memories. If the humidor incensed many a conversation, the bowl is proof that they were also well oiled. Bourbon, Scotch, Wine, cheap and expensive, good and awful, all there. Mixed in with the corks are a few match-boxes from Little Taste of Cuba, a cigar shop in Princeton, to which friends and I went every day for two weeks in the summer of 2013. After that we would stop at the wine shop and buy a few bottles of Chateau Recougne. I remember that name because a torn label from one of the bottles remains pressed between the pages in my Book of Common Prayer.

I’ve never been of much use in the kitchen, and most of my belongings there could probably afford to be lost anyway. I have too many coffee mugs, for one thing. But then again I drink too much coffee. There is the Elvis mug I bought on a trip with my grandmother. The Branson Missouri mug I bought when my grandfather took me there. A few years later he would die there. But there it is, still in my kitchen.

In the living room is a stack of DVDs. I could probably do away with them all now and find them on Netflix or some other site or venue. But even these movies have memories. When she left I tried to throw out all the memories of her, but I never succeeded. White Christmas was the first movie watched together, and years later I found a love letter she had etched on the inside cover. She’s gone. The memory is still there.

All throughout the house are random piles of books. So many books. The shelves and tables that are stacked with them could probably all be replaced by a Kindle, I suppose, if reading were only about the words on the page. But the hard volumes have character. The margins are marked, both by me and by previous generations of owners. There are the notes of the priest who used to own my copy of the Summa Theologica. There is still the odor of a previous owner’s cigarettes rising from the pages of Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity. Then there are the bibles. Yes, the Kindle store has my beloved King James, but not these. On top sits a black-leather bound Old Scofield study bible. I hardly believe a word of the dispensationalist propaganda found in its notes, but it is part of my heritage still. It’s the same study bible my dad had on his desk, and that my Papa had on his. Beneath that is my first Bible: a blue leather-bound volume I used to carry to Sunday school. Next to these is an old Jerusalem Bible. A gemnot available on the Kindle storethat J.R.R. Tolkien helped to translate.

All other books sit in piles of seemingly chaotic order; yet there is an order. Cicero and Burke belong together. As do Roger Scruton and John Paul II. Eliot is the antidote to Camus. And John Henry Newman has more in common with John Wesley than most would realize. A room without books is like a body without a soul. Having a kindle might clean the place up a bit, but the soul of this house would follow the books.

I could go on. “Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about things in my pockets,” G.K. Chesterton mused. “But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.” Minimalism only makes sense once we accept certain modern assumptions: Chiefly, that things do not have any intrinsic meaning. For the modern man who lives without meaningful things, minimalism makes perfect sense. It makes no difference whether we live with a thousand things or a hundred things if all of them are meaningless. Modern man’s greatest problem is not that he has acquired too many things, but that he has discarded all the meaningful things and the spiritual depth needed to appreciate them.  For those who strive to surround their lives with things that cannot be reduced to numbers, the minimalist proposition is at first perplexing, and then abhorrent.

We should strive to cut down on the meaningless things in our lives, but unless we replace them with something meaningful, such reduction will be a Sisyphean task.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Dylan Pahman

    While I agree that some forms of minimalism are actually modern luxuries (e.g. http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2013/12/04/solar-powered-simplicity-first-world-luxury ), I’m not sure that the idea “that things do not have any intrinsic meaning” is truly a “modern assumption.”

    The Stoics, for one, believed all but virtue to be indifferent—all other things were only meaningful to the extend that they could be used for virtuous ends. Following this distinction, many Church fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom, St. John Cassian, and St. Basil the Great, agreed.

    For example, in his Conferences, St. John Cassian records the following from one Abba Theodore: “Altogether there are three kinds of things in the world; viz., good, bad, and indifferent. And so we ought to know what is properly good [righteousness], and what is bad [sin], and what is indifferent.” He continues, “Those things are indifferent which can be appropriated to either side according to the fancy or wish of their owner, as for instance riches, power, honour, bodily strength, good health, beauty, life itself, and death, poverty, bodily infirmities, injuries, and other things of the same sort, which can contribute either to good or to evil as the character and fancy of their owner directs.”

    Now, I suppose you could argue that all your things do serve a virtuous end by reminding you of relational bonds you have with other people. Fair enough, but that would not be the same as being intrinsically meaningful. The meaning is accidental, though not for that unreal or insignificant.

    As for minimalism, poverty is one of the three traditional monastic virtues, and simplicity is pretty universally recommended throughout the history of the Church.

    • Brian Miller

      The point regarding the difference between intrinsic and contingent meaning is well taken, and an oversight on my part for using that phrasing. I would also never dispute the virtues of poverty and simplicity, but I would argue minimalism is not those things. We have both seen it is not truly about poverty, and simplicity is different from efficiency.

      • Dylan Pahman

        As for stuff with meaning, your post also reminded me of this scene from the movie Ostrov (1:04:00 – 1:12:00) http://youtu.be/ms4TXwIDutM?t=1h3m59s. It’s clearly tailored to the severity of monastics, but it still makes a good point.

  • Rural Guy

    Minimalism reminds me of Calvinist Churches. No, no, no.

    • MJ

      So does that mean that Catholics and Anglicans are materialists whose religion is simply defined by its adherence to stuff?

      • Rural Guy

        What you call stuff does bear meaning, may I refer you to the article.

  • amyyoungmiller

    Oh. Thank you. I’ve stated quite openly (after trying for years to become one) that I am NOT a minimalist. There are too many meaningful things in my life. For example. My mother uses an old covered dish for her butter, it’s a hen on a nest. I collect old hen-on-nest covered dishes because of this. Today I was in a museum where I stood in front of a display cabinet full of hen-on-nest covered dishes, filled with longing for the one with the blue head. Things have meaning. Therefore I refuse to rid my life of them, in the unending quest for . . . what?