The nostalgic appeal of simplicity

by Emrys Westacott

Nostalgia is a fascinating and remarkably common phenomenon. We have all heard older people comparing the present unfavorably with the past in spite of–or even because of–obvious material improvements in the standard of living. Most of us over the age of twenty-five have probably done this ourselves. Often the fond remembrance involves some account of how we lived more cheaply, were closer to nature, were more self-sufficient, enjoyed uncomplicated daily routines, or contented themselves with humble pleasures. The underlying idea is that things were better because they were simpler. The_Golden_Age_(fresco_by_Pietro_da_Cortona)

But nostalgia for simplicity is not confined to individuals reminiscing; across cultures it is also a persistent motif in oral and written literary traditions. In religion, philosophy and literature, it has often taken the form of harking back to an unsullied past or a golden age of happiness and virtue. The biblical account of Adam and Eve in paradise is paradigmatic, but there are many other examples. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing over two and half thousand years ago, laments the sorry condition of the world he lives in compared to that inhabited by the first humans, a “golden race of men,” who lived “free from toil and grief…..for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly.”[1] The Roman poet Ovid similarly describes a Golden Age when

…..of her own accord the earth produced

A store of every fruit. The harrow touched her not,

Nor did the ploughshare wound her fields.

And man content with given food,

And none compelling, gathered arbute fruits

And wild strawberries on the mountain sides…..[2]

The lines underscore not just the absence of toil or tools but also the way people desired little and lived harmoniously with nature. In these idyllic circumstances there was no need for laws, since “rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed.”

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, in looking back to a happier era, diagnoses the reason it passed away:

the age before architects and builders was the happy one. It was burgeoning luxury that gave birth to the practice of hewing timbers square [and various other needless excesses]. Thatch protected free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.[3]

In the 6th century Boethius uses nostalgia even more explicitly as the basis for a critique of the present:

O happy was that long lost age

Content with nature's faithful fruits

Which knew not slothful luxury.

They would not eat before due time

Their meal of acorns quickly found,

And did not know the subtlety

Of making honey sweeten wine,

Or how the power of Tyrian dyes

Could colour shining flocks of silk.

A grassy couch gave healthy sleep,

A gliding river healthy drink;

Men did not plunder all the world

And cut a path across the seas

With merchandise for foreign shores.

War horns were silent in those days…..

Would that our age could now return

To those pure ways of leading life.

But now the passion to possess

Burns fiercer than Mount Etna's fire.[4]

Here again we find the same themes: closeness to nature; contentment in simple pleasures; absence of luxury; lack of acquisitiveness; and moral purity. The desire to possess more than is necessary shifts people away from a life in harmony with nature to one where they seek to “plunder all the world.”

From the Renaissance on, a yearning for simplicity and purity informed the idealizations by many Europeans of the lifestyle and character of the so-called “primitive” peoples encountered by explorers in Asia and the Americas. Perhaps the most eloquent representative of nostalgia for a lost world of idyllic simplicity is Rousseau. Imgres-1 In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality he imagines man in the state of nature:

I see him satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that furnished his meal; and therewith his needs are satisfied.[5]

This is the fancy that underpins Rousseau's moral and political philosophy. What we think of as civilized humanity exists in a fallen state, for which humanity itself is to blame:

most of our ills are our own work..…we would have avoided almost all of them by preserving the simple, uniform, and solitary way of life prescribed to us by nature.[6]

Rousseau's vision is rather peculiar in imagining human beings to be happy with a “solitary way of life,” but like many others he takes the key to this happiness to be the limited character and scope of the individual's wants: “His desires do not exceed his physical needs, the only goods he knows in the universe are nourishment, a female, and repose”[7] (in other words, dinner, a hump in the sack, and next day a late breakfast). Whereas Seneca and Boethius see the seeds of dissatisfaction being sown when people start desiring luxuries, Rousseau blames the introduction of private property. This led to the division of labor, which reduced self-sufficiency, and increased specialization led to greater reliance on labor-saving devices. Rousseau describes these as “a source of evil” for future generations since they led to the production of yet more commodities that people sought to acquire, grew accustomed to possessing, and hated to be without. One imagines he would not have approved of the smartphone.

Interestingly, nostalgia for simplicity is not confined to oldsters; it can kick in surprisingly early in life. One of Bob Dylan's earliest songs, “Bob Dylan's Dream,” written when he was twenty-two, is a classic expression of this sentiment. ImagesThe singer tells how he dreamt of a happy time in the past when he and his friends hung out together around an old wood stove, chatting, laughing, telling stories, and singing songs; a time when

we longed for nothing and were quite satisfied

Talking and joking about the world outside.

Key to this happiness is the lack of moral, material or aspirational complexity in their lives, something that makes possible a cherished social unity. Like the feeling of nostalgia itself, the song is ambivalent: it both celebrates and laments what has been lost. But the dominant mood, which comes through, especially at the end, is sadness and regret:

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain

That we could sit simply in that room once again.

Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat,

I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.

We should not forget, though, that what has been described is a dream, a framing that leaves open the possibility that the memory is an illusion.

Bucolic scenes have long been a favorite subject for visual artists also, presumably for the same reasons that they appealed to poets. Nor is this sort of nostalgia unique to Western art. Today in China, for instance, amid urbanization and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, the most widely reproduced sort of art, hung on restaurant walls and sold to tourists, depicts unsullied natural landscapes in which if there is any human presence it is likely to be an old man in peasant garb sitting tranquilly with a fishing pole by a river. Imgres

Nostalgia for a simpler and more stable existence is certainly not confined to philosophy and the arts; it is a pervasive phenomenon that manifests itself in many and varied ways: politicians harking back to a time before the country went to the dogs; teachers remembering how students used to be more diligent and respectful; parents recalling how as children they played all summer long outside rather than hunched over electronic devices. Yet as we are all aware, it is only too easy for nostalgic recollections to be rose-tinted and self-serving; so a dose of skepticism is usually in order. Corruption and incivility are hardly new in politics. If children were more respectful and obedient, it was perhaps because their elders punished transgressions so brutally; and one reason they played outside so much was because small houses inhabited by large families were overcrowded. It may be true that when an old Ford broke down you could fix it on the spot with a nylon stocking and a ball point pen, whereas today's cars are more like computers on wheels that require expensive hi-tech servicing; but then today's cars are far less likely to break down in the first place.

People readily trace dissatisfaction with their own lives or with the world to ways in which they have moved away from simplicity—in their routines, relationships, circumstances and lifestyle. The sense of loss that accompanies this dissatisfaction is presumably likely to be more common, and more pronounced when the complicating changes are radical and come quickly. Since, as Marx pointed out, constant change is a defining feature of modernity, we can expect it to trigger a longing for simpler times, and we see this longing expressed not just in a large body of literature but also in the deliberate lifestyle choices that some people make: downsizing, downshifting, going back to the land, growing one's own food, choosing greater self-sufficiency over consumerism, and seeking to preserve or revive traditional crafts like basket-weaving and quilt-making. A similar motive has given rise to the Slow movement, a general term for the various ways in which people seek to combat the frenetic pace of modern life including Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex (all originating in Italy), the Sloth Club (Japan), the Society for the Deceleration of Time (Austria), and the Long Now Foundation.[9]

The nostalgic component that generally seems to be present in any “back to basics” movement invites the criticism that the philosophical outlook associated with it a) rests on a rose-tinted view of the past, and b) is unsuited to the modern world. This distrust of the nostalgic sensibility is understandable. While it's undoubtedly true that modern lifestyles produce various forms of alienation—for instance, from nature, work, tradition, and community–another kind of alienation is to be estranged from one's own time and the culture one lives in. We recognize this readily in some spheres. To be an engaged scientist is to be au fait with the most recent theories, discoveries, and technologies. The most important artists and writers of today participate in some sort of dialogue with their contemporaries, and their work speaks to contemporary issues. Few people would think it particularly admirable for a person to read books while refusing to watch films, or to listen to classical music while remaining ignorant of more recently evolved musical genres. But analogous arguments can be made with respect to lifestyle. To live “off the grid,” metaphorically speaking, may limit our understanding of and ability to participate in the world we happens to have been thrust into.

On the other hand, champions of simple living can respond to this criticism with the well-taken point that it is no bad thing to be alienated from the worst aspects of contemporary culture—materialism, consumerism, individualism, technology-fetishism, shallow hedonism, or the cult of celebrity. The fact that the internet this afternoon is humming with the latest gossip about Kim Kardashian's cosmetic surgery is and should be of supreme indifference to anyone who has a life worth living. The fact that millions eat junk food, watch junk TV, buy lots of unnecessary stuff, and waste inordinate amounts of time messing about with their smart phones to no great purpose, is not a reason to do the same. From the perspective of the simplifiers, what they are embracing is not an outmoded philosophy sunk in nostalgia but a reorientation of values that, if adopted, will help people live happier and more meaningful lives.

There is another important positive aspect to nostalgia for the way things used to be done that should not be overlooked. It sometimes arises from a desire that people feel to be connected to their forebears, to the daily activities and patterns of life practiced by previous generations. Establishing this connection is satisfying, especially when one is also passing along certain sorts of knowledge and experience to the next generation; it expresses a kind of respect, a kind of loyalty; it maintains the chain; and it places individuals within something greater than themselves, rather as saying prayers or participating in rituals does. This is one reason why people will sing traditional songs and tell old folk tales to their children, pass on the simple games they used to play when young, make their own maple syrup rather than buy it in the supermarket, or go to the same place each year for their vacation rather than somewhere more exotic.

The strangest thing about nostalgia is its ambivalence, the way it is simultaneously both painful and pleasant. Our attitude to the way nostalgia is used should also be ambivalent, since there are good reasons to be both sympathetic and skeptical. Using the past, and perhaps even idealizations of the past, as a basis for criticizing present trends is legitimate; but fond memories, both individual and collective, typically contain within themselves the temptation to wallow uncritically in self-serving illusions.

[1] Hesiod, Works and Dayslines 133-9.

[2] Ovid, Metamorphosis, I

[3] Seneca, Letters, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, trans. Moses Hadas (New York: Norton, 1958), p. 228.

[4] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V. E. Watts (New York: Penguin), pp. 68-9.

[5] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the origins of inequality in Jean Jacques Rousseau, First and Second Discourses, trans. Roger D. and Judith B. Masters (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964), p. 105.

[6] Ibid., p. 110.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Ibid., p. 149.

[9] See Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (San Francisco: Harper, 2004).