An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness, and everyday ethics


Philosophers from Socrates to Thoreau have associated a happy life with frugality and simple living, but in today’s materialistic society, the simple lifestyle is hard to sustain. Emrys Westacott examines why enlightened philosophers have advocated spending less money… and why so many people have ignored them. In The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less, he takes an unprecedented look at a topic that has come into considerable vogue: simple living. Recently, Westacott answered some questions about his book.

What led a philosopher to write about frugality?

EW: A few years ago I taught an honors class at my university titled, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”  The theme was suggested by friends who knew of my own tightwaddish tendencies.  These honors classes meet for one evening a week, and are often experimental and a little quirky.  My Tightwaddery course made it into several lists of bizarre college courses, and some people who didn’t know anything about it assumed it was a perfect example of silliness passing for education.  If they’d bothered to look at the syllabus, though, they’d have seen that the course had plenty of respectable content.  We studied canonical philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Thoreau, as well as contemporary culture critics such as Sut Jhally and Judith Schor on issues such as consumerism, advertising, poverty, and the nature of work.  There were also practical components to the course, a few of which were admittedly not so serious.  Students were required to keep track of all their expenditures; they learned about matters such as unit pricing and dollar cost averaging; they had a go at cutting one another’s hair; and the course ended with a class banquet consisting of super cheap dishes that the students concocted.

Although the specific focus of the course was on frugality, the broader questions being asked really had to do with clarifying our most important values and our ideas about the good life–questions that have been central to philosophy ever since Socrates.  I’ve taught the course on frugality several times since. More recently I began teaching classes on Happiness, a topic which also obviously relates to questions about the good life.  And for many years now I’ve been writing about everyday ethics.  My last book, The Virtues of Our Vices, included essays on topics such as gossiping, rudeness, snobbery, and humor.

These overlapping interests in frugality, happiness and everyday ethics came together in a set of questions I found myself asking.  E.g. Why has frugality been praised down the ages as a moral virtue?  Are those who praise it right?  Is it possible that today, when the opportunities for consumption of all kinds are so much greater than in the past, and when our economy depends on millions of people constantly getting and spending, that thrift is an outmoded virtue, rather like chastity?  Should it even, perhaps, be included among what David Hume called the “monkish virtues”?

Once I started thinking about these questions, I realized that it was very difficult to keep separate the notions of frugality and simple living.  The concepts overlap, and so do the various arguments that have been put forward in favor of living a life of frugal simplicity.

Was the class popular?  Is simple living a topic that engages students today?

EW: Yes, the class was popular. (I might add that parents I spoke to were also enthusiastic about their offspring learning how to be frugal!) We hear in the news that the most popular undergraduate major in the US these days is Business, and that many graduates from Harvard and similar institutions head straight for Wall Street, following the money.  But I think there is clearly another movement, perhaps especially among young people, in the opposite direction.  A lot of people are critical of the prevailing consumerist culture, concerned about the environment, and interested in voluntarily structuring their lives around values like frugality, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. The recession of 2008 encouraged this trend since it made the frugal lifestyle a practical necessity for many who might not otherwise have been inclined to embrace it.

There are plenty of books out there about how we can and why we should live frugally or simply.  How is this one different?

EW: In several ways.

First, it’s not a self-help book or a compendium of practical advice.  If you want to learn how to make toilet brush holders out of used milk cartons, you should buy a book like Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Second, it’s a philosophically informed study that focuses throughout on the arguments that have been (or can be) given both for and against simple living.  There is a rich philosophical tradition going back to ancient times in which these arguments are advanced and debated.  One of the things I try to do is identify what I take to be the main arguments within this tradition and examine them in an orderly way.

Third, it’s not a polemic.  The message of the book is not: Your must change your life!  I certainly am sympathetic to the views and values of those I call “the frugal sages” (a group that includes, among others, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, Jesus, St. Francis, Boethius, More, Rousseau, and Thoreau). And in the last two chapters I offer reasons why it would be good for our society to facilitate and encourage simple living.  But I also recognize that there are some powerful arguments on the other side, arguments in favor of luxury and extravagance.  A failing of the frugal sages is that, for the most part, they don’t pay any attention to these arguments.  I try to correct this omission and to recognize that there really are cogent reasons for questioning the idea that the good life is the simple life.

What would you say is the guiding question of the book?

EW: There are actually three guiding questions:  Why do most philosophers advocate simple living?  Why do most people ignore them?  And who’s right?

What, exactly is meant by “simple living”?

EW: It turns out, when you think hard about it, that simple living is a complex notion.  It could include, or refer to, any of the following ideas:

  • fiscal prudence (as advocated by Ben Franklin)
  • living cheaply (using little money and few resources)
  • self-sufficiency (doing things for yourself; also not depending on others for favors or patronage)
  • living close to nature (like Thoreau at Walden)
  • being content with simple pleasures
  • asceticism, or self-denial (as practiced, for instance, by monks and hermits)
  • physical or spiritual purity
  • living according to a strict routine
  • aesthetic simplicity (e.g. shunning ornamentation, or preferring the rustic)

Some of these senses of simplicity overlap or support one another.  E.g. tending a vegetable garden is a simple pleasure that saves you money, makes you more self-sufficient, and brings you closer to nature.  But they can also conflict.  Diogenes the Cynic undoubtedly lived cheaply; his home was a large ceramic jar, and he kept all his possessions in a small bag.  But since he was a beggar he could hardly be described as self-sufficient.

Why do so many philosophers advocate simple living?

EW: Most of the reasons they give can be classified as either moral or prudential.

The moral reasons typically associate frugal simplicity with various virtues, such as hardiness, fortitude, unpretentiousness, temperance, and wisdom.  We still make this connection.   When the present pope was selected, lots of people pointed out that as a cardinal in Buenos Aries he had chosen to live in a small downtown apartment rather than the palace put at his disposal.  This was taken to be a sign of his integrity.

The prudential reasons are those that connect simple living with happiness.  The basic argument is that if you embrace frugal simplicity you’ll experience fewer negative emotions like anxiety, envy, frustration, or disappointment, and you will be more content with life.  You’ll need to work less, for instance, so you’ll have more leisure time in which to do as you please.  Once you get off the hamster wheel pursuing false goods such as money, possessions, status, fame, or power, you’ll find it much easier to achieve peace of mind.  You won’t be dissatisfied over what you lack, nor anxious about losing what you have.  You’ll realize that satisfying your basic needs is quite sufficient in order to be happy.  In fact, doing without luxuries can even enhance your capacity for enjoying both luxuries, when you occasionally experience them, and the humbler, everyday pleasures of life as well.  Epicurus champions this outlook on life as persuasively as anyone; in his view, nothing much more was needed for happiness than a cup of wine, a bowl of cheese, and a few good friends with whom to share the feast.

So why do so many people ignore the “frugal sages”?

EW: Well, there are quite a few reasons, and some of them make good sense.  One argument is that a serious commitment to frugality can have a morally objectionable aspect. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, for instance.  An ingrained habit of penny-pinching can lead to parsimoniousness, ungenerosity, and pointless self-denial. Another fairly obvious point is that having a certain amount of wealth offers a degree of security, and hence peace of mind.  Even the bible–which tells us not to toil after wealth–says that “a rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.”

More interesting, though, in my view, are the arguments that can be given in favor of what the frugal sages would view as extravagance–that is, getting and spending far more than is needed for a life of simple contentment.   Extravagance generally gets a bad rap from thinkers like Ben Franklin because they automatically think of it as imprudent.  And it often is, of course.  Look at the hundreds of billions of dollars in credit card debt that Americans carry over from month to month, paying exorbitant rates of interest.   But what about affordable extravagance?  Here, I think the situation is complicated, and I find that my own attitude is ambivalent.

On the one hand, like many people, I’m inclined to criticize the self-indulgence of the super-rich when they spend vast sums on tasteless parties where ice sculptures of Michaelangelo’s David pee vodka, or on satisfying ridiculous whims, like Paris Hilton building a replica of her own mansion for her dog at a cost of $325,000.  Given how much more usefully the money might be spent, this sort of expenditure seems callously wasteful–although, truth be told, most of us who are comfortably off quite often indulge ourselves in a similar way; we just do it more cheaply.

On the other hand, one has to admit that extravagance has its pluses.  Think about where tourists go.  They go to see the Taj Mahal, the palace at Versailles, the stately homes of England, the art and architecture of Florence, and countless other cultural treasures that the extravagance of long dead fat cats has bequeathed to us.  The fact is, extravagance fuels culture.  How many of us could honestly wish that the Medicis had been more frugal, or that the aristocratic patrons of Haydn and Mozart had dispensed with their court orchestras?

And there’s another problem.  If I ask my students whether they would like to live the good life as described by the likes of Socrates and Epicurus–the life of frugal simplicity, humble pleasures, and conversation with friends–some find it appealing, but many don’t.  And the reason is simple: they find this ideal boring.  They want to go places, see things, do stuff, have adventures, and make their mark.  From this point of view, the frugal sages fail to squeeze all they could out of life.  They content themselves with too little.  That attitude perhaps made sense throughout most of human history, when  life was terribly insecure for almost everyone, and both vocational and recreational opportunities were very limited.  But things are different today.  The quintessentially modern attitude is that of Faust in Goethe’s drama: he wants to experience everything the whole of life to the full.  So here is another reason for being extravagant: done right, it makes life more interesting and exciting.

Does this imply that the philosophy of frugal simplicity, the outlook championed by Epicurus, Thoreau, and the rest, is past its sell by date?  Or is it still relevant today?

EW: These are the questions I take up in the final two chapters of the book.  My answer is that there is still plenty of wisdom in the frugal tradition that we can apply today, but that we also have to recognize its limitations, given how dramatically the world has changed over the past two centuries.

Two changes in particular present us with issues that the frugal sages of the past never really considered: the size and complexity of modern economies; and the environmental problems engendered by the industrial revolution and the subsequent growth in human population.

Anyone who advocates a return to frugal simplicity has to deal with the problem that if enough people took this path over a short period of time, there would be a massive decline in demand for goods and services that one pays for.  But many people’s livelihood depends on this demand remaining high.  A modern economy stays buoyant because enough people are running around getting and spending.  So the question is whether we can simplify our lives in desirable ways without impoverishing ourselves and creating depression-era levels of unemployment.  I think we can.  But it requires government policies that positively support simple living. If, for instance, people enjoyed free universal health care, adequate state pensions, cheap public transport, and affordable housing, they could feel assured of a decent quality of life without the need to make lots of money.  In that situation, the prospect of working fewer hours and having longer holidays–the obvious solution to the problem of unemployment– becomes more inviting.

The way our material standard of living is tied to consumer activity poses a difficulty for the philosophy of frugality.  But the environmentalist problems we face suggest new arguments in favor of this philosophy.  Limiting consumption, cutting out waste, downsizing, and simplifying will, in most circumstances, reduce one’s ecological footprint.  Here, too, there are complexities and legitimate grounds for disagreement.  On the whole, though, the environmentalist arguments in favor of simple living are strong, for the need to combat problems like global warming and pollution is urgent.   And a shift toward simpler living might also be useful in helping us handle the social disruption and ethical challenges thrown up by constant rapid technological change with greater wisdom than we have managed to date.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York and the author of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less and The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton). Westacott’s work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, to name a few.