The word autarchy derives from the Greek: αὐτάρκεια, which means “self-sufficiency” (derived from αὐτο-, “self,” and ἀρκέω, “to suffice”). Today, it’s used mostly to refer to the self governance and self sufficiency of small states or provinces. There is also military autarchy, and some libertarian thinkers today have proposed that autarchy should replace anarchy in contemporary libertarian discourse.
Autarchy, in its original context, was one of the goals of life in Epicureanism. The philosophy of Epicurus has been subjected to so many layers of misunderstanding and bias over the centuries that today most people link epicureanism with gourmet food and unrestrained hedonism. Like many of the things that Epicurus taught, autarchy has also shifted in meaning. In this case, it has been reduced to the realm of politics and economics although Epicurus himself encouraged his disciples to never get involved in politics. Epicurean autarchy does involve self sufficiency, and economics are inescapable from this, but the philosopher stressed mental and emotional autarchy: the ability to be independent, content and happy with the simple things in life.
Epicurus taught that there is an economic component to a good life and encouraged simple living and self sufficiency. In the year 306 BCE, he acquired land outside of Athens and founded The Garden, where he lived with his close friends and disciples and where they discussed philosophical matters. The Garden evolved into a model of Epicurean community and became their Academy or philosophical university.
A modern alternative to moving to the cornfields and growing our own food would be planning early semi-retirements and/or living in urban cooperative housing in order to both save money and have the presence of our closest like-minded friends available. There certainly exist creative ways to live our an Epicurean philosophy in modern times.
Epicurean Gardens persisted for seven centuries. What this means is that Epicureans were able to efficiently organize communities around the idea of a secular philosophy, and that this philosophy, and the bonds that people forged around it, satisfied the ethical and psycho-social needs of people for seven centuries.
The ideal of simple living which Epicurus proposed has today been resurrected in the frugality movement. Yet, simplicity is not just a lifestyle for hippies or the poor: it is also one of the main roads that can lead to riches.
Years ago, I read the book The Millionaire Next Door, where the authors tracked 7 habits of first-generation self-made millionaires and found that –contrary to what was expected– most of them lived a frugal life. They lived below their means, drove normal cars and lived in normal homes: no mansion, no Lexus, just your normal average Joe. The authors of the book discovered, among other things, that people who are ostentatious about their wealth are generally in debt: frugal people who care more about financial independence than keeping up appearances are oftentimes the ones who end up truly wealthy.
The ideals of frugality and autarchy resonate profoundly with the financial times in which we live and I think they’re deeply interrelated: simplicity can and does lead to mental and financial self sufficiency, just as Epicurus taught 2,300 years ago.