Monday, 3 July 2017

The dark side of minimalism – and how to make minimalism bright again


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Intellectual fashions are rarely perceived as dangerous until they have inflicted severe harm on their victims. This an unfortunate, but frequently observable aspect of human nature. Few people are willing to invest time in assessing the downside of their beliefs, and even fewer are willing to devote any efforts to preventing those risks.

The problem acquires a much larger dimension when intellectual fashions appear not only harmless, but beneficial; not only pleasant, but affordable; not only convenient, but also reputable.

Minimalism is a philosophical magnet that is attracting hundreds of new adepts per day because it looks harmless, inexpensive, and sophisticated, while in essence, it is nothing but decaffeinated Buddhism with a veneer of Stoicism.

Undoubtedly, millions of people today are looking for a philosophy to give direction to their lives. In doing so, these people are trying to embrace sustainable, understandable, and honourable principles.


A consistent philosophy constitutes an essential human need. However, one should not confuse chicken feed with proper human nutrition. Minimalism is chicken feed for the soul because it leaves major philosophical questions unanswered.

The dark side of minimalism is that it can render you less than human. If you choose to embrace the ideas that you only need a few things in life, that it's advisable for you to limit your ambitions, and that you should not try to do too much or travel too far, you are going to be restricting your chances of achieving complex goals.

Human happiness is all about exploiting your talents and possibilities. It's all about trying to achieve the best possible results with your life. Happiness is not about curtailing your dreams, limiting your vision, and rendering yourself as small as possible.

An added problem of minimalism is that it will tempt you to waste your skills. If you embrace minimalism after having spent years acquiring complex skills, you will be tempted to view those skills as useless, in the same way as Masha did, one of the main characters into Chekhov's play The Three Sisters. Here is what Masha said:

Knowing two foreign languages in a small town like this is an unnecessary luxury. Actually, it is not even a luxury. It is rather a useless encumbrance, like having a sixth finger on your hand. Unfortunately, we have spent so much time learning useless things.”


This is the kind of internal dialogue that takes place in the minds of minimalists. Minimalism has made them discard everything that is not strictly necessary. It has made them discard things that are unusual, expensive, and ambitious. It has made them waste the energies they've invested in acquiring complex skills.

I view minimalism as a dangerous philosophy precisely because it is less than a philosophy. It is only a short-term remedy to reduce the anxiety of those who lack a structured, integrated, rational philosophy.

When someone embraces minimalism, he renounces his ambition to pursue complex goals, expensive pleasures, and major success. In a way, minimalism turns him into a bipolar paranoiac, like the main character in R.L. Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a character who is on the one side peaceful and friendly, and on the other side, a wild, free-ranging monster. At a certain point, the peaceful side wants to renounce the wild side, and says: “I cannot say that I care what becomes of Hyde. I am quite done with him.”


Let me though qualify my warning against minimalism. I have nothing against simplicity and frugality as such. In fact, I highly recommend them if they are exercised in the right philosophical context.

I regard as a great idea to simplify your life in order to free up your time to pursue major ambitions. I also view frugality very positively because it enables you to accumulate resources for undertaking major projects.

The rational purpose of simplicity is to enable you to pursue complex goals. The rational purpose of frugality is to enable you to accumulate resources for pursuing major ambitions. In the right philosophical context, the purpose of minimalism should be to free up your time and resources for doing great things, not for staying small.

The greatest danger of minimalism is that it can keep you waiting forever. It can make you so obsessed with staying small that you will stop trying to do big things. It can put your ambitions, plans, and creativity on hold just for the sake of keeping yourself constrained.

Delaying your initiatives is not the right way to live. If you spend your life waiting, you'll render yourself less than human. If you use minimalism to delay your ambitions, you will be doing yourself a great disservice because, as Shakespeare put it in his play Henry IV: “delays have dangerous ends.”

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2014.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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