Hiram mentions frugality and self-sufficiency in one of his posts. This made me to ponder over the meaning of frugality as a life style. My approach to Epicureanism in general and also to aspects like frugality is more pragmatic than orthodox, and the following are my understanding of modern frugality.
The result of my pondering is an entry in my ERCP-blog, which follows:
I have labeled myself an Epicurean before, because the Epicurean lifestyle suits my own inclinations. Or more precisely, my own lifestyle is congruent with Epicurus' philosophy. But while a philosophy as a way of thinking can continue to be valid without modification for more than two millennia, a lifestyle based upon such a philosophy cannot be carved in stone and ever after be followed literally. A lifestyle has to be an adaption to specific social and technical realities. While a modern lifestyle needs to be without a contradiction to Epicurus' writings and teachings, if it is to be called Epicurean, it also needs to accommodate factors, which did not exist at his time.
Frugality was and is a part of the Epicurean life style. But it is a good example of an aspect, which cannot be applied literally to today's way of life as it was suggested about 2300 years ago.
According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frugality,
"Frugality is the quality of being frugal, sparing, thrifty, prudent or economical in the use of consumable resources such as food, time or money, and avoiding waste, lavishness or extravagance.
In behavioral science, frugality has been defined as the tendency to acquire goods and services in a restrained manner, and resourceful use of already owned economic goods and services, to achieve a longer term goal."
Frugality means thus the lack of the motivation to act towards deriving physical pleasures from the consumption of material goods. In this sense, frugality is the absence of hedonism. But frugality is not anhedonia, it is not the general absence of feeling any pleasure. Instead it means deriving a different kind of pleasure, derived from emotional and intellectual causes, which are immaterial.
Frugality is a core trait of a personality type, whose behavior is determined more by cognition than by instinct, and which is represented consciously by attitudes coinciding with the Epicurean philosophy.
Modern frugality embraces factors, which did not exist 2300 years ago:
1. Mass production and the price of consumption
In ancient times production was manual labor using simple tools and appliances. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_technology
). Clothing as were the Greek chitons are an example. Produced from wool or any other fiber they needed at least spinning, before even the spinning wheel was invented, and weaving manually on a loom. Food production also was hard labor of agriculture without machinery. Even producing containers for food was the hard work of pottery, metallurgy or woodworking.
Under such circumstances, obtaining and consuming any necessity of life equaled the decision to obtain and/or to destroy the result of many hours of someone's hard labor. Therefore every single act of the frugality of not consuming something had a drastic effect of saving the investment of a portion of someone's life time.
Today in our modern western society, containers for food are mass produced from plastic and considered as waste, when empty. Anybody can buy a t-shirt, a loaf of bread or even an electrical saw for the money earned in less than one hour of even a moderately paid job. The single act of frugality of not buying any one mass produced item brings little or no material or time benefit to anybody.
Today the benefits of frugality are therefore predominantly immaterial.2. Technical complexity and the second-hand principle
While there was already in ancient times a division of labor, most production required only a few basic skills, some practice and experience, but mainly it was a lot of routine work. Many tools and utensils could be self-made or at least easily repaired, when necessary. Repairing was usually more economical than discarding and replacing.
Today the technological complexity of even the basic standard of living requires special knowledge, that many people are lacking. While a mass produced electrical saw can be bought for very cheap, to construct it and to construct the machines to produce it requires long years of studying engineering. People have thus no choice but to throw out any machine, even though it may only have a slight defect, because any repair is beyond their knowledge or beyond the availability of spare parts.
But this does not automatically imply the justification for throwing out without hesitation also what is not broken, because in comparison with the own income it did cost so little.
Many machines do have real value in reducing hard labor. For example, an electrical saw has real advantages compared with a manual saw. Therefore frugality today cannot mean to fall back on not using the available machines from mass production.
Modern frugality includes the principle of second-hand use as a compromise of having the benefits of using helpful machines and tools while avoiding waste. Instead of throwing out what can still be used, frugality conscious people give away or resell for cheap, what they do not need anymore. Those, who choose to or are compelled to live frugally, receive or buy those second-hand items.
3. Practical necessities and compensatory skills
Consuming the results of mass production requires money, which is earned by participating directly or indirectly in this same economy of mass production. While a single item of mass production often does not cost much, the sum of the goods of mass consumption is nevertheless bought in exchange for long hours of dull, hard routine work.
While few people could build their own electrical saw, there is a lower level, where people have a choice between either paying for services and products or picking up some knowledge and skills towards being creative, self-sufficient and self-reliant.
The option to acquire compensatory skills is another aspect of frugality. It is a method to either gain free time or at least to add intellectual quality to the time spent to obtain the necessities of every day life.
A conscious frugal life style means people having gained the awareness of having the option to acquire beneficial basic skills of some crafts and artisanries. This enables them to a certain extend to avoid paying for the expensive services of electricians, carpenters, computer technicians or other specialists.
The less they need to pay, the less they need to earn. Unfortunately in real life this option is often limited, because people are not free to chose their amount of paid work. Instead they are glad to have a job at all, working the hours required by the employer.
Therefore frugality by compensatory skills has material benefits mostly for the poor, but it also brings emotional pleasure to those, who enjoy learning and achieving things.
4. Globalized exploitation.
In the mainly regional economic system of manually production in ancient Greece, people obtained, what they needed, by exchanging goods, which where produced by similarly long hours of labor. Some had the power to exploit slaves, but this was visible and open. Everybody, who profited from the exploitation of others, was fully aware of this and could not deny it, not matter if having or lacking a bad conscience.
Everybody choosing frugality by refraining from owning and exploiting slaves could rightfully have a self-concept of being a person acting responsibly and morally.
Today in modern western societies exploitation is anonymous, hidden and ubiquitous. The life of the exploited producers of the consumer good is most probably not any better than the life of the ancient Greek slaves.
Whatever someone buys here in a shop for cheap, no matter if a t-shirt, an electrical saw or a bunch of bananas, has been completely or partially produced by people in some poor country, whose wages do not allow them the minimum standard of living, which would suffice to be considered as fulfilling basic human rights.
We all here could not indulge in our material comfort, were it not obtained by exploiting modern slaves in sweatshops far away. Most people do not even know it and they do not want to know. But even knowing it does not help much, because there is no real choice.
Whenever I can choose between a t-shirt for 5€ or for 50€ and between an electrical saw for 10€ or for 100€, this is only a choice concerning how much I decide to pay. There is no way to know or to decide, where the difference goes to. I would appreciate to be able to pay a fair price for the goods, a price high enough, that those producing them get a decent wage. But there is no way to know or to influence, how much of the higher price of some goods only fills the pockets of greedy exploitive capitalists.
Today personal frugality has no impact upon global slavery. Not only being exploited, but also having a materially good life made possible by others' slavery is forced upon people often against their will and wish by cruel and inconsiderate capitalists installing and maintaining the imbalance of economic power.
To sum it up:
A hedonist derives pleasure from consumption. A capitalist or wanna-be-capitalist derives pleasure form his power to pay for goods and services. Having economic power adds to his self-esteem and self-worth.
Both enjoy, what is not a personal merit, but the result of the lottery of life, which has given them the citizenship in a country with economic power or the membership of the privileged class of some country.
A frugal Epicurean enjoys learning and applying skills and knowledge as a cognitive pleasure. Every success and every instance of saving money or avoiding dull routine work without exploiting another human being adds to his self-esteem and self-worth. Thus the frugal Epicurean earns doubly, by not only adding quality to his life, but by thus also having a reason to be proud of himself.