The Atlantic

Frugality Isn’t What It Used to Be

What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?
Source: Ping Zhu

As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.

The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.

It is not just 21st-century Americans who feel pulled in separate directions by narratives like these: People have been trying to reconcile the tensions between them for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

That is the most rudimentary takeaway of Emrys Westacott’s new book, The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More—More or Less, a roughly 2,000-year intellectual history of the concept of the simple life. Westacott, who calls himself “certifiably tightwaddish,” is a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University. He explains in his book’s acknowledgements section that the idea for The Wisdom of Frugality originated in a class he taught more than a decade ago called “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.” In that seminar, Westacott led discussions of philosophical texts but also taught his students to live more cheaply, having them learn to do things like cutting each others’ hair.

There are no hair-cutting lessons in , which focuses on a

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