How to be a Stoic Minimalist? It seems like there aren’t a lot of differences between Stoicism and Minimalism, but let’s not judge too fast. Although Stoics don’t need a lot to live a content life, that’s not all there is to it. A Stoic lifestyle doesn’t require living in an ascetic way like a Cynic. It asks more of you which helps you to open up your mind and allows you to be freer. Minimalism can show you how dependent you are on certain things and that you don’t need them. And that’s a big part of Stoicism, as we address the preferred indifferences here as well.
We will have a look at what minimalism is and what effects it can have on our lives. Our approach will be from a Stoic lens, thus we will examine what a minimalist lifestyle is from this angle. What are the upsides and the downsides? During this post, I’ll use myself as an example of how a more minimalist lifestyle has impacted me. Knowing the reasons behind such decisions is important, that’s why I’ll do my best to share them with you.
I still felt empty
While having a well-paying job and the ability to buy almost anything I wanted, it still felt empty. When you can’t see the bottom of a well, you’ll keep falling deeper and deeper. Only in this case, it means that you’re plunging into the materialistic pit. And when the funds run out, the bottom hits hard. You’ll see others falling faster with bigger smiles on their faces, and that’s where you want to be. When you hit a little plateau to catch your breath, you’ll soon want to continue the journey. The deeper you go, the more difficult it is to crawl back. But the cord will at one point pull us back to reality. Either the cards don’t work anymore or our mind hits the breaks. If we keep falling until the end, we run the risk of looking back at our lives and asking what was it all for.
An internal crisis appears, and existential questions will get asked. Uncertain about what we are chasing, the meaning of it all escapes us. My luck was that I had the parents that I have and how they raised us. We never had the abundance I had at the ready when I was making good money. The one question they asked us, especially around our teens, was whether we needed it. “Do you need this?” Back then it felt like a limiting question. It was something I wanted, whether I needed it was irrelevant to me. The frustration grew because I knew I couldn’t have it. Later in life, that question turned into one of power.
Do you need this?
How often do you ask yourself this question when standing in a store? And the answer isn’t the most important, it’s the feeling that it gives you. It can give you focus on what does matter. You can try to picture yourself without this specific item, or one that is cheaper. Then think of the impact that it might have on your life. Are you getting it for you or is it to show others how well you live? In Stoicism, it’s not about not having or owning things, the important part is what influence they have on you. Once we realize what these things are, we get surprised by how they truly impact our lives.
“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing. This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.13
“Perceptions like that – latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time – all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust – to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.13
The temptations of an Emperor
When we look at how Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, looked at things, we can only imagine the temptations he had to resist. But this mindset was what helped him. Examining things and recognizing them for what they were. The sports car is metal, plastic, some fuel, and electrics. Its purpose is to bring you from point a to b. But how much of your time did this cost to buy? And who owns who? Imagine it getting scratched or dented. The level of anxiety and anger would go through the roof. And for a machine build that no one else cares about but you.
Minimalism is about less being more. Stripping life down to its bare essentials to lead a more conscious and more meaningful life. Understanding what matters to you and removing the excess. While it seems like Stoicism, there are some fundamental differences. Stoicism, for example, doesn’t prevent you from purchasing the sportscar we dissected earlier. It classifies it as a preferred indifference. Whereas with minimalism its focus is on living better with less, the Stoics see it as living well with what is. If the luxury item doesn’t cause you anxiety, but you enjoy it while it’s there, then use it. There is nothing wrong with that. But the moment it starts to own you or the job you have to buy it is causing you sadness or stress, then it’s time to let go.
That question again
It so happened that when I started this job, my paycheck was the biggest that I had ever received. As a disclaimer, it wasn’t as high as some out there, but in my experience it was. There was no need to look at the bill in the restaurants I went to. And although they weren’t the fanciest ones, I still felt like a king. Buying new clothes and gadgets was next on the list. But then that question again. Almost ready to buy something, when it popped up: “Do you need that?” While looking at the latest smartphone and all its features, I realized I could scale down. No need for a smartwatch, a normal one will also tell the time. This brought me back to touch the ground again.
When I realized that the job wasn’t going to be my future either. Nor was it the place where I felt at home. I started looking at my money in time. Understanding that each item I bought represented time spent and time lost, it added to my feeling of wasting what mattered. That’s when I started my journey of minimalism if you wish to call it that. A Stoic minimalist, because I understood why I was doing it. Not because of having less and it being more. No, I was looking at what these items represented. If they didn’t add value to my existence, then they took away from it.
Now, most of my possessions fit in the backpack I carry with me, as I go pet and house-sitting all over the world. The less money I spend the longer I can focus on my own work and what I know I should be doing. It’s not that I’m afraid of going back to a job. I’ve done it before and I know I can do it. But this is my choice to live this way. And it has taught me some very valuable lessons. My levels of gratitude for what I have and can do have gone up a great deal. I am free in what I can do and the options that I can explore. What I do encounter is the limiting factor in my mind. But that’s something I can learn to control and need to work on, such as the imposter syndrome.
Do you want to be a Stoic minimalist? The good news about it is that you don’t have to start selling everything right away. Start by looking at your possessions and ask yourself the question: “Do I need this?” Put it away for a while and see if you miss it. If you feel stuck in a job, ask yourself what is keeping you there. Is it that fancy construction of metal and other stuff on the driveway, or is it the driveway itself? Think about an option where you would live smaller and drive something more modest. What options would that give you? This way you can start to eliminate the excesses in your life. But remember the Stoic idea about preferred indifferences.
Guard your judgements
If you enjoy it or it helps you in one way or another, and it doesn’t own you, then there is no need to give it up. Indulge me in this exercise; picture those items gone. Imagine you wake up and that particular thing is no longer there. How would you feel about it? If you find yourself still able to continue life without feeling destroyed by its loss, then it falls in the preferred indifference pile. We’ve been told the wrong equation. Time isn’t money. Money equals time. Remember that when you add stuff to your storage. The Stoic minimalist knows what her priorities are in life, and that is to live a peaceful and content life. Where do you fall on that scale?
“It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things.”Epictetus, The Handbook, 5
Epictetus outlines the difference in one sentence in his Handbook. He goes on to compare it to death, but it can be applied to all things around us. Why are we so afraid of death? Because we will lose the life we have right now. This brings us our attachments to the externals around us. But instead of eliminating it all, we should be careful with our judgement towards these things. And from there be grateful to have things at the moment and let them go when we are required to do so.