Why Modern Minimalism Misses The Mark

7 min read

Minimalism is a hot trend these days, as legions of bloggers lead the way by rejecting the trappings of society, hauling out their plump sofas to make way for petite and unassuming Japanese coffee tables. Others recapture their lost freedom by quitting their five figure salaries to take a campervan across the midwest, and far away from the rat race.

This is the liberation of the self, a brave stand in open defiance of consumerism. It’s stylish, it’s dripping with promise, and it can all get a little too sanctimonious.

But despite being bundled together with white privilege, these guys do have a point, if you can peer past the white-on-white interior decor.

The more things you have, the more you have to lose.

Ambition comes with an achilles heel. We are raised in a culture where success is measured by the possessions you can stockpile.

You stake our place amongst your peers by wheeling out the fancy new maserati that costs more than the mortgage you’re already forking out on, the carefully manicured front lawn in the middle of a Texan desert, or the legions of followers on Tik Tok that took endless hours of engagement bootcamping to hustle together.

This is what peak consumerism looks like. Modern minimalism seeks to take you across to the other end of the spectrum, by getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark real joy in your capitalism-riddled heart.

Less is more. By getting rid of your collection of unused designerwear, you gain some of that sweet self-liberation, dampen the inner chaos, and deposit anxiety out on the curb.

The Difference Between Modern Minimalism And Stoic Minimalism

minimalism vs stoicism

While the promoters of minimalism have a very valid point to make about a society hyper fixated on wealth and prestige, the solution they draw up misses the mark. You don’t have to go Marie Kondo on your house in order to feel fulfilled. Less doesn’t necessarily lead you to more.

The formula is suspect, because possessions aren’t inherently bad, and therefore, subtracting possessions doesn’t equal more good.

‘”It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things” – Epictetus.

That’s the point that the modern spin on minimalism, which is just a rehash of asceticism, can miss out on. Asceticism is about seeking satisfaction through deprivation, assuming that the less you have, the better you feel. Pleasure is there to be shunned, and in its stead, you reap the benefits of virtue signalling. This is the minimalism that is kept alive by social media.

marie kendo minimalism

Then there is traditional minimalism, which is about finding the sweet spot on the bell curve between possessions and happiness, also known as the golden mean. You enjoy what you have, while understanding that you need to exercise restraint and avoid suffocating yourself with small comforts that are ultimately meaningless in your quest for inner wellbeing.

If this sounds familiar, that would be because the practice of self-restraint, the avoidance of attachment to material objects, and an intrinsic source of wellbeing, are all essential teachings of stoicism.

Asceticism seeks to fulfil through deprivation, minimalism aims to avoid excess. The extreme end of minimalism is asceticism, but they are generally distinct from each other. There’s the minimalist lifestyle, which still allows you to play your part in society and enjoy the world’s pleasures, and then there’s the bare minimum of asceticism which demands that you hunker down and become a monk.

Why Less Doesn’t Mean More

why minimalism doesn't work

The modern stylised minimalism that you’d happen across in trend-setters like ‘Minimalism – A Documentary About Important Things’, is what happens when late-stage capitalism meets philosophy. It’s a commercialised solution for a real problem. It exists to sell the image of stylised living rooms with carefully placed, incredibly expensive decor. It pins the blame for your unhappiness on the possessions you own.

But your possessions aren’t the issue.

The ancient Romans took the ascetic stoicism of the Greeks, and improved on it by accepting that possessions aren’t inherently evil. It’s the stock you place on them that can compromise your wellbeing.

The two most famous stoic philosophers of all time, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, were unimaginably wealthy, wielding tremendous influence during their time. They just didn’t project their worth onto what they owned, and they kept a leash on the ‘finer things’ in life. They weren’t attached to the estates they possessed all across the mediterranean. And as such, they weren’t compromised by them.

So they were still minimalists, because they didn’t overindulge, and they weren’t reliant on external things to fuel their wellbeing. They didn’t need the coffee table to validate their philosophy. They didn’t have to give up the pool outside their villa. Minimalism, for them, was a mental pursuit. And I think that’s just how it should be, because it cuts straight to what makes minimalism work.

What Does A Minimalist Lifestyle Look Like?

minimalistic lifestyle guide

You might be assuming that I gave the green light for hoarding, because I just said possessions aren’t the problem.

Unfortunately, the key thing standing in your way is the minimalist principle of reducing attachment to external things. If you’re buying up every discounted item you come across, and attempting to assemble a fleet of motorbikes to squeeze into your garage, then there’s every chance that you’re getting a bit too caught up in the trappings of consumerism. If you’re grabbing a takeaway several times a week, that would suggest you’re a little emotionally attached to chow mein noodles.

The stoic path is to live simply and concentrate your energy on taming the self and changing society for the better. Reducing the clutter, and avoiding fixation on externals, help you walk along that path.

A ridiculously simple and efficient diet like carnivore frees up more of that time and energy. Having a neat and tidy home, where things live where they’re supposed to be, this accomplishes the same thing. Reducing possessions isn’t the end in itself, but it can help the situation by dimming the noise and making it easier to avoid becoming attached to externals.

At the same time, as you get less fixated on possessions, you’ll want for less, because you’ll come to realise that you already have everything you need. Minimalism and stoicism form a perfect feedback loop that prevent you from overspending, overindulging, and hoarding.

As Seneca wrote: “Is it not madness and the wildest lunacy to desire so much when you can hold so little?”. Whatever wealth and prestige you may be hoping to accumulate, it ultimately won’t play the decisive role in improving your wellbeing. So don’t count on them scratching your itch.

Modern minimalism attacks a real problem. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t provide the right solution. It offers an extrinsic remedy, for an intrinsic issue. You have to look within.

A Modern Minimalist

  • Believes that the fewer possessions they have, the better they feel
  • Displays their minimalism for others to appreciate
  • Doesn’t clutter

A Stoic Minimalist

  • Knows that the less they’re attached to their possessions, the better they feel
  • Keeps their minimalism to themselves, because it’s an intrinsic pursuit
  • Also doesn’t clutter

Further Reading On Mental Mastery – The Caveman’s Guide To Stoicism

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