Beyond the Stoa: Minimalism and Platonism

Stoicism is often taken up alongside minimalism as if they are two columns holding up the same minimalist Scandinavian-design portico.

My best guess for why they come together is that both were rising in media coverage at about the same time, and at the most material level, each is a decent coping mechanism for dealing with late stage capitalism and its many problems.

Minimalism + Stoicism is not the only option, though. Flowing from the principles μηδὲν ἄγαν (nothing in excess) and γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself) and from some basic things I’ve been reading lately about Platonism, I think much can be said for considering minimalist mindsets that have less to do with consumerism when taken in the context of something like what was taught and interpreted from Plato’s writings in Late Antiquity by the philosophers. Hopefully, this post is a good first attempt at doing that.

Stoicism

What got me thinking about this was seeing a notification about a recent episode of the Minimalists’ podcast where they interviewed Stoic philosopher William B. Irvine about the usefulness of the philosophy for minimalists. Other Stoics have been guests on major minimalist podcasts before, including theirs. I frequently see quotations from major Stoics in aesthetic typesetting with soothing backgrounds on minimalist hashtags on this very world wide web. Since I recently committed to a school that is not Stoicism, I notice these things way more now than I once did.

The Stoicism that finds its place in minimalism is the current wave of secularized new Stoicism, begun in earnest in the first decade of the 2000s with the publication of a few books that resonated with a lot of people — especially stressed and overworked people lacking control in our lives. I graduated from college in 2009 just after the economic collapse and started attempting Stoic techniques, especially those popularized in events like Stoic Week, in the early 2010s. Stoicism’s push for public engagement fused with the life hack and self-help/productivity stuff coming out of Silicon Valley, which really helped Stoicism’s popularity. There was literally a point when you could sign up for a popular lifehacker’s email list and be emailed beautifully-formatted PDFs of several volumes of Seneca’s writings. There are thousands of titles written by modern writers, such as The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (Ryan Holiday), A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control (Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez), and so on.

Irvine backs up my semi-outsider observations with his lived experience, as he was one of the first people publishing books for non-specialist audiences during the current wave (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, 2008) and has now gone on to write The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient (2019). In his interview with the Minimalists, he emphasized repeatedly that Stoicism is extremely plug-and-play — techniques can be learned in a weekend. He stressed modern Stoicism’s integration of contemporary psychology and brain science into the techniques and the rich opportunities for quantitatively proving that Stoic mental exercises work via psychology research. Negative visualization improves our sense of gratitude for what we have and helps us avoid taking things for granted; recognizing impermanence and/or engaging in exercises of deprivation keep us resilient for what Fate brings. I agree with him about the perils of dopamine highs and the addictive nature of unlimited technology, which I have often mentioned on this blog.

Interestingly, Irvine chose Stoicism over Zen Buddhism because he wanted immediate results, and he thinks that immediate-result philosophies are the most suitable for most people. Irvine is also secular. While he refers to “Stoic Gods,” he means them as a conceptual tool, not as real individuals that impact his life. When asked about criticisms of Stoicism at one point in the extended podcast, he only lists Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Buddhism as competitors. The marketing pitch is very Instant Gratification 2-Day Shipping.

Much can be said for techniques that can easily fruit. By contrast, I have spent over two years seriously reading Plato and the Platonists after a bunch of failed starts and stops in my 20s (my interest dates back to reading Sallust at 20). I still know very little, although it’s starting to come together. The idea of committing to a philosophical school in a single weekend is terrifying. I had a religious experience last May while reading Hermias and wrote “Platonism = 💗” on my Twitter profile only several weeks ago because I realized I was retweeting someone’s advert for her new Stoic reading group and wanted to be clear I am not a Stoic.

Platonism and Minimalism

Minimalism, at its most basic, is about ordering physical and digital spaces and engaging in self-restraint. While the media stereotype of a minimalist is a man in his mid-30s wearing black shirts and medium-fade jeans with his 30-item backpack, the real picture is more balanced, perhaps even tipped towards women. Young adults (18-35) use minimalism to budget and get control over our lives in the context of our student loan debt and professional obligations. Mothers of all ages, by contrast, often seek minimalism to reduce second-shift household labor so they can have more time for themselves. Environmentally conscious individuals use minimalism to reduce consumption because our planet is on fire and flooding at the same time. If the new Stoicism discussed seeks to order the mind to be resilient in our Late Capitalist world of stressful work situations and the skewed abundance/scarcity around us, minimalism is about creating lifestyle and financial resilience against the things that eat our time and other precious resources.

There is another way to view minimalism in a way that is not Stoic, and that’s by diving into the messy beauty of Platonism, where the bookshelves are always full because it’s hard to look up passages in ebooks — where the monographs and their contents spark joy to the point of ecstasy:

We hymn, we hymn the light that raises man aloft,
on the nine daughters of great Zeus with splendid voices,
who have rescued from the agony of this world, so hard to bear, the souls who were wandering in the depth of life
through immaculate rites from intellect-awaking books,
and have taught them to strive eagerly to follow the track leading beyond the deep gulf of forgetfulness, and to go pure to their kindred star
from which they strayed away, when once they fell into the headland of birth, mad about material lots.
But, goddesses, put an end to my much-agitated desire too
and throw me into ecstasy through the noeric words of the wise.

Proclus, Eis Mousas, ln. 1-11, trans. van den Berg, in Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary

In other words, embrace the library, for the dryads of the shelves will lead you through the forests and up to the high mountaintop that fully embraces the sun.

Jokes about owning many books as a minimalist aside, while I am definitely nowhere near an expert (and am actually just knowledgeable enough to be dangerously ignorant instead of simply ignorant), I’d like to work through some thoughts on Platonism and minimalism. One piece of imagery that I have returned to again and again during my reading is the concept of the three-part soul at 588b-589 in Plato. Proclus unpacks this at 211.4-217.5 of Essay 7 on the Republic, which does not yet have an English translation. There, he discusses the virtues of each part of the soul in relation to one another:

La raison donc, dont il a été montré qu’elle doit seulement commander, a pour vertu du commandement la prudence, selon laquelle elle détermine pour elle-même et pour les autres parties les règles des actions. Le concupiscible, qui est seulement un commandé, a pour vertu la tempérance, selon laquelle il règle ses appétitions en se tournant vers la raison, et cela même, se tendre vers la raison, il l’a reçu de la raison grâce aux habitudes qu’il a prises et à l’éducation. L’irascible, dont nous avons montré que par nature il est commandé et commande, aura d’une part, comme commandant, le courage par lequel il abaissera le concupiscible et se gardera invulnérable aux coups qu’il en reçoit, et d’autre part, comme commandé, il aura aussi la tempérance, dans la mesure où, une fois éduqué, il aspire lui aussi aux règles issues de la raison.

Proclus, Essay 7, 212.9-212.20, trans. Festugière, in Commentaire sur la République, Tome II

At the root, we have the many-headed, appetitive soul that exists just to consume. In the middle, the spirited soul is the seat of strong emotions. At the apex, we have our crown, the reasoning part of the soul. Each of these parts has its own virtue(s). Reason must be prudent, the spirited part must have both temperance and courageousness, and the appetitive part must have temperance. Departing from capitalism and consumerism, minimalism can be a commitment to properly order ourselves. It is an attempt to get back to the true, healthy city (372e), even while chaotic appetites rage around us.

It is only when all of these are in their proper aligned places that our lives are balanced. (Obviously, following Plato means polytheism, and one major component of happiness is following the Gods; I’m not discussing that in any great detail here, so I’ve used “balanced.”) Minimalism, again, is a lifestyle strategy focused on altering our material environment so we can focus more on things that actually matter to us. We live in a society where advertising professionals are trained to cater to our many appetites and lull us into a sense of complacency with those appetites. They target individuals and families who are doing well enough to have a small amount of discretionary income, but also those who need to (or want to) engage in status games.

The way our society focuses on the material and on consumerism over-strengthens our appetitive part, and at the most extreme, this strengthening of it lead to the higher parts of the soul being bound and ruled by the lowest.

It reminds me of something written by Addey in The Unfolding Wings:

The principal virtues of the philosophic tradition — temperance, fortitude, wisdom, and justice — have their opposites; souls which have not unfolded their powers fully in varying degrees act intemperately, timidly, foolishly, and unjustly. The soul’s powers being directed to the appearance of goodness rather than that which is really good necessarily admit to some portion of error, and this introduces within certain limits, what we call evil, into our environment. The answer to all problems of evil is the exercise of arete or virtue by the soul, and in particular the exercise of wisdom, which is the virtue that allows us to discern that which is good from that which is merely the appearance of the good.

Tim Addey, The Unfolding Wings, p. 17-18

Plato’s Socrates is often suspicious of wealth and other outward shows of power (like beautiful, yet highly impious, speeches 😆). The toughest pill to swallow is the one that tells us we must work hard to cultivate our own self-control, that there is a limit to what we can support. We often buy and do things for status or to feel like we belong — we are using objects and public actions as a proxy for truly connecting with other living beings, including ourselves. Collectibles and objects can become poppets where we hide our loneliness. Philosophical, lifestyle, and other schools of thought/behavior, when not fully investigated before making a commitment, can trap us within ourselves more than they release us. The myths, if ingested under inappropriate circumstances, can lead us to atheism instead of transcendence. Minimalism can also be about decluttering and verifying the essentialness of such intangible things. It can identify real needs, such as destructive boredom and loneliness, so we can make our minds whole and active again. Knowing ourselves means knowing our triggers and wounds.

If the goal is to strengthen one’s reason and to come into alignment with the virtues (temperance, fortitude, wisdom, and justice), nothing that we learn from the breast can avoid being questioned. Everything around us comes out of our current fevered cultural mindset. Minimalism is like a strength-training apparatus in this context because one cannot actively improve one’s sense of moderation (nothing to excess) in our society without effort, governing what is allowed, forbidden, or restricted by context.

This has parallels in what Irvine mentioned: the voluntary abstentions that one can engage in to cultivate one’s character and resilience to misfortunes. Stoicism does have many valuable takeaways about ethics and managing one’s own psychological state. Here, though, the ordering of the soul functions so one can press go on higher levels, and it is essential for ensuring that one is acting in accord with the Gods and attaining the happiness that only they can provide, as per Iamblichus. It is like clearing out the temple room of the things that are not tokens of the Gods in order to keep the channels clear. Far from being attainable only by philosophers, that embrace is for everyone.

That’s it as far as my initial thoughts go, but there will likely be more posts along these lines over the next year as I think more about this — especially now that I’ve made a mental note to highlight passages in the Platonists that could have takeaways for minimalism.

Stay safe and rock your face mask.

😷💖

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Stoa: Minimalism and Platonism

  1. So much great stuff here, and so beautifully poetic to boot! Thank you!

    One small note on Proclus’ Hymn to the Muses: The word that van den Berg translates as “words” is actually μύθοις, “myths.” I’m really not sure why he makes that choice, given how precise he usually is. He defends it in his commentary to the hymn; I’m just not really convinced.

    The place that I’d go for “the dryads of the shelves” (and I absolutely adore that phrase!) is Proclus’ Hymn IV, the common hymn to the Gods of wisdom, lines 5-6: “Hearken, great saviours, and grant me from very divine books / pure light, scattering the mist…”

    On Platonism and minimalism more generally, I’m mindful of Proclus’ Hymn VI to Zeus, Hekate, and the Mother of the Gods: “attract my soul, now madly raging around the earth, once it has been purified through the intellect-awaking rites” (van den Berg); or in this person’s more poetic but somewhat less literal translation, “And when my soul rages about worldly things, / Deliver me purified by your soul-stirring rituals.”

    I’m looking forward to your next installment on these themes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s good to know that he translates it like that! I didn’t think to check the Greek and that’s one of the few words I do know! Maybe he’s trying to avoid modern assumptions about what myths are a bit too hard? 🤔 Hymn IV is also really powerful. One of the things I enjoy about many of the hymns is that they provide a window into texts and the place of books/writings/myths &c. I’ve definitely recited Hymn IV before in prayer.

      I hadn’t thought about a tie between the hymn VI and minimalism. There’s just so much that the more one thinks about this, the more one finds things!

      Hope all is well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. On the translation of mythos: maybe, but the choice here is still odd, given how in the equivalent place in the Hymn to Athene, just after the aretology within the first 2-3 lines of the petition, van den Berg does translate as “myths.” It might simply be an inconsistency resulting from the work being done over a long period.

        On Hymn VI: it was this post of yours that triggered the minimalism connection. I had the advantage of just having committed the hymn to memory within the past week, so it was ready to hand, and ready to connect in every which way!

        And yes, doing well here. Hope you and your loved ones are likewise!

        Liked by 1 person

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