The 4th century Greek philosopher Socrates believed that the wise person would instinctively lead a frugal life. Apparently, he didn’t possess much and didn’t even wear shoes, yet he constantly fell under the spell of the marketplace and would go there often to look at all the wares on display. Intrigued by this practice, one of his friends asked him why he does so. Socrates replied, “I love to go to the marketplace and discover how many things I am perfectly happy without.”
16 centuries later, I find wisdom in what Socrates said. His values are relevant even today, perhaps more than ever before. The more I think about the wisdom of Socrates, the more I am convinced about the pointlessness of our heavily consumption-oriented world. Ironically, we are consuming more and more and getting less and less satisfaction from it. Consumption has become a malaise, an epidemic gone unchecked that has led to a massive imbalance of resources and caused widespread discontent. Worse, it has made us a slave of the very things we seemingly own.
There is a widespread conviction that we will be happier when we buy more stuff. When we buy into this belief, we fall into a vicious trap—in order to buy more stuff, we must make more money; in order to make more money we must work harder or longer; in order to work harder we must compromise on our priorities—round and round in circles we go, even life is reduced to hankering after stuff that we want, never really stopping to reflect if we really need it.
More stuff = less joy
I know from experience that stuff never brings happiness. Sure, it brings momentary pleasure but only to give way to a feeling of dissonance along with the desire to get the next item on the endless list that is freely fuelled by our consumer-oriented society. Desire, by its very nature, is insatiable. That means I am never satisfied with what I have—there’s always something better, bigger, more advanced and with more features out there that I must own… a more lavish apartment, a bigger car, a more hi-tech handset, more clothes, shoes, ties, belts and so on.
But do I really need them? This question brings me to the values of frugality that Socrates practised. In today’s context, we could call it minimalism: owning only those things which are absolutely essential to live comfortably.
What truly matters
To me, minimalism seems to be a sensible way of living. It leaves me with ample time and resources to explore the many dimensions of life that are veiled by my obsession with consumption. Because I don’t have to care for my possessions, I am left to care for myself and what I truly value—my loved ones, my health, my personal growth and this vast, beautiful, breathtaking world. What’s more, it frees me up from the stress of having to make more money to buy all those things that I probably don’t need. It also allows me to give away my stuff and my time freely, leaving me with a feeling of abundance.
How do I go about discerning my needs from my wants? By understanding myself. Socrates advocated that individuals should strive to know and understand themselves and unless they do so, their lives have no real meaning or value. Once I know and understand myself, I know what and how much I need. No unnecessary clutter, no wasteful expenditure, no stress, no dissonance. Only a life that is rich with love, joy and peace. Hence, the mantra for maximum living is “minimise your possessions”.
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