Yes, the simple life is an excellent opportunity—like Gnosticism in the Ancient World and Manicheism in the Dark Ages—to practice that time-honored bait-and-switch in which we teach men to think of themselves as angels, only to reveal the truth to them too late. You may recall some of Screwtape’s classic advice on using human chastity: let them think they’re above it all, develop sense of pride about where they stand as opposed to ordinary people, and then, when they’ve become just complacent enough to imagine that they’ve developed some kind of virtue in the area, shoot off a volley of your best imagery and watch the fireworks go. Certainly, you can approach the matter of simple living in the same way.
But the appetite for possessions, unlike the reproductive drive and the desire for nourishment, does not provoke the same level of visceral disgust in human beings as gluttony and promiscuity. Because it is more closely connected to their rational than their animal natures, it is difficult for even the most excessive manifestations of the appetite to become so obviously subhuman. Exceptions exist, of course—the extremes of hoarding reported by American TV, or the excesses of certain public personalities in the matter of statuary and gold leafing may, perhaps, trigger something like the instinctive revulsion that the refined man feels at seeing another man “pig out”; but by and large it is far easier to tempt a person to despair after an impulse towards gluttony or unchastity than after an impulse buy.
On the whole then, I do not think the sudden attack is helpful against those who practice Simple Living—in which group I include everyone from the strictest minimalist to the casual recycler. Anyone who sees good in using or wasting little is a potential target: one has only to take the good of frugality and make it contrastive. From Mrs. DeForest wanting to leave her grandchildren a healthy planet to Mrs. DeForest looking down on Mrs. Frimp for putting bottles in the wrong receptacle is one short step for mankind, one great leap for Our Father Below. This is the kind of thing that the virtue Simple Living most naturally lends itself too: the minor sins of vanity and uncharitability which, taken to their natural conclusion, can eat up a lifetime of good works like a carpet of ivy on a crumbling brick wall.
It is also possible, of course, to simultaneously make the obvert choice of Simple(r) Living a shield under which the native human condition of greed can take cover. Is it possible, you ask, for someone who owns only fifty items in his Spartan apartment to be greedy? Oh, Wumpick, it is. Do you recall a certain man, known for his singularly uninteresting clothing and his habit of emblazoning every product his company produced with a faux-humble lowercase “i”, whose once-bare apartment was adorned by a Tiffany lamp? A single necessary item can become an object of great indulgence for those who live simply. And of course, this kind of hypocrisy is not limited to secular people: one recalls the nun whose vow of poverty forbade her to use more than one pin, but who confessed guiltily to her superior that she had been keeping a second one. Her conscience was bothered. But there is no reason that the ordinary Simple Liver’s should be.
An additional use of Simple Living is of course as an incentive to pride. Vanity, and uncharitable comparisons to one’s neighbors, I have already mentioned. But pride—not the desire to be seen as better, but the deep-seated belief, needing no assurance, that one is better than, indeed on a whole different level from other people—that should be the real goal of a tempter whose patient shows an inclination to the Simple Life. Comparisons will be necessary; fortunately, as I suggested in my last letter, many are already beginning to be culturally established. A previous generation, for example, would simply have thought Gothic Cathedrals in bad taste, or (if they belonged to the stricter sort of Puritanism) said that it was a wicked thing that the money wasn’t rather given to the poor. But our simple secularists see the very act of living well as being something to be ashamed of. Take care that they compare that living well to their well-living, and do not notice the similarities. Like Mrs. DeForest, let them begin by imagining that they are doing this for others, but do not let them think about it too much. They know intellectually that no amount of abstemiousness on their part will—in and of itself—guarantee a bowl of rice for one more child; do not let them ask what would. If the question crosses their mind, let the little well of warm emotions radiate briefly—they are thinking of others, after all!—before dissipating it quickly with a question about whether Uber or Zipcars are less extravagant. And of course, make sure that they determine the answer through extensive calculations leading to an arbitrary and contingent conclusion which no amount of argument with their friends can shake. Let them think that they have mastered the art of simplicity; purified their nature to the point of an almost angelic abstemiousness.
For they do aspire to be like angels, Wumpick—make no mistake about that. That is what lies at the root of this attraction to simplicity after all, just as it lies at the root of the love of mammon. Both the outrageously wealthy and the unbearably simple are after one thing: autonomy. No human being, of course, can ever really be autonomous. But we can tease them with the prospect, encouraging them as they divest (or increase) themselves one good at a time to think with each object that they are becoming more and more independent from the world and the flesh. What a surprise it will be to learn, finally, that all the time their “autonomy” was a mere pale and impotent emulation of the autonomy of that third and greatest enemy against whom the old monks, those earlier and more dangerous Simple Livers, so carefully guarded themselves.
Then, if you like, there will be despair—not the despair of having sinned through weakness against the god Simplicity that they worshiped, but the despair of knowing that, in the end, no human being is worthy or capable of measuring up to the glorious self-sufficiency of Our Father Below.
Your affectionate uncle,