Readers' Reactions to Radical Simplicity

The first two responses by friends to the Radical Simplicity book mark out the range of possible reactions from too negative to too optimistic. Please send us your comments at

Response from Phil

Enjoying "Radical Simplicity." I think so many people would like to live a more spiritual life, but just can't quite figure out how to break free from where they are. To some extent, it seems to require a considerable investment of capital in the beginning to get set up. As a Franciscan once put it, "a lot of people pay a lot of money for me to live a simple lifestyle." That's hyperbole, to some extent. Still, the movement to simplicity is one to keep on the front-burners of discernment.

Many people could do a lot to simplify their lives and have more choices open to them, even if they do remain in a somewhat conventional lifestyle. E.g., they might not choose to build their own home, but they might be able to find one that's more suited to a simple lifestyle. Same goes for a lot of other areas, especially transportation. I'm now driving a Toyota Echo that gets 45 mpg; that leaves a lot more money to spend on other things. Of course, if some people value an SUV more than my "other things," but if they're really choosing to spend their money that way, what can one say?

I don't mean to sound judgmental, here, but what comes across in the "Fourth Step" section of the new book is an overwhelmingly negative appraisal of our culture on the whole, as the problems are noted without much recognition of the many good things that really are going on. E.g., our school systems are indeed troubled, but people are receiving an education; I have few complaints about the services received by our children. Same goes for hospitals, they really do help lots of people get well, and our politico-economic system provides opportunity and prosperity to the envy of most of the world. So I don't share the same degree of negative judgment as you two do on some of these matters. It's a difference of opinion we've noted before.

I hope I am not coming across too harshly. I'd wondered for years what a Part 2 of the Treasures book would be like and wasn't expecting such a prophetic kind of work. You are very clear about your vantage point from the forest and you are most credible and authentic witnesses to the lifestyle values you recommend. That does come through. I'm concerned, however, that some of the sections will seem unduly critical and negative, as they certainly don't match my experiences or perceptions in a number of areas. I could elaborate more on specifics, if you'd like, but I'll mention one that stands out.

Lots of people, for example, work "in the system," but are not really "of the system." (In fact, I wonder if there is really a fair way to characterize "the system," whatever that might be.) They are not interested in climbing the corporate ladder, accumulating wealth, etc. I would say that characterizes most people. They are relatively content with a steady and somewhat satisfying job (and on the lookout for better), benefits, comfortable housing in the suburbs, and so forth. They have their families, hobbies, Church, friends; they aren't really miserable and dying from an angst brought on by materialism. They have debts, but as long as they are able to meet them, it doesn't bother them. Middle classers! Not a bad life, actually, and I see nothing wrong with this as it's been our way of life for decades as well. Nevertheless, there really is something about what you call Fourth Step living that is attractive and appealing -- a kind of "next step" in their development, especially for those with a deepening spirituality.

The Fourth Step concept is interesting, and important, I believe. I've read a great deal on cultural evolution through the years; this interest is taking me to a workshop on Spiral Dynamics in November. I liked your emphasis on keeping what's good about the prior stages of human development, especially the importance of contact with nature/earth. Toffler's "Third Wave" resonates with some of this, as does E. F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful."

What is sorely needed, I believe, is an exploration of how, specifically, people can move toward Fourth Step living without necessarily having to go as far as you have. Most will not and cannot and, as mentioned above, aren't particularly dissatisfied with their present living arrangement. While your story is interesting and inspiring, hardly anyone will go as far as you have, and so there is the danger of an "all-or-nothing" attitude, here -- e.g., that if they cannot leave the suburbs, build their own home out of local materials, make their own tofu, live without debt, etc., then they're not really living in this new way. They could all benefit from more simplicity and contact with nature, however, and who knows where it will go once a few small steps are taken?

The recommendation to critically examine the big picture and to dream about what they'd really like is the place to begin, I believe. Then, a few specific small action steps seem applicable:

- prayer, meditation
- evaluating how time and money are being spent
- how to spend more time closer to nature
- determining how one can spend more time doing what one enjoys
- determining specific ways to conserve energy
- cutting back on superfluous spending so more money is available to do more of what one likes while saving for future dreams
- identifying continuing education needed to pursue one's dreams

And so forth. You've shared some good resources they can peruse; I think most could use a little coaching initially as well. This is a topic I'm raising more and more in spiritual direction in the context of "right lifestyle."


Our Response to Phil

No, I didn't find your remarks harsh. In fact, I enjoyed them, and I think that the position you are taking is the far more common one, and so your response will represent the feelings of many readers. It would be great if you would respond in more detail and we create a kind of dialogue about this important issue that I could post as a response to the book. I don't think there is a contradiction between your more incrementalist approach and the more radical one I am advocating here. It is a question of perspective. How are people going to move to a simpler and hopefully saner lifestyle? Well, in actual fact it is done incrementally, but at the same time, perhaps the more radical approach could get the juices flowing and help impel people to see what is going on around them and swim against the tide.


Response from Charles


You seriously under-estimate how truly evil "mainstream"American culture is, and not just current America, but this country’s collective beliefs and actions since its murderous, rapacious inception. But, worse, you under-estimate the ability of motivated individuals to live simply and morally within that culture --within any culture-- without being overwhelmed by it/them. Not easy, but possible.

Call such an approach a choice for a life of mind and spirit versus the flesh pots. The concept isn’t new, and its practitioners can be found in every generation and in every location. But it’s not a path that has wide appeal, now, then, or ever. That’s the unanswerable question: why do people, knowingly and freely, not make good choices for themselves?

Most of your essay tinkers with the superficials of tactics rather than addresses the strategy that should shape those tactics. Whether the strategy comes from Buddhism or from Western wisdom traditions doesn’t matter, because most people will not avail themselves of either. They wear a religion or a philosophy the way they would a new suit of clothes, rather than sew it themselves, making it truly their own.

Most people don’t treasure consciousness, and they don’t want the hard work of pursuing wisdom. Instead, they want security and comfort. So the human race will continue to muddle its way toward self-destruction, and we who are dismayed at their choices are ourselves but flotsam on those same currents equally being swept along toward our never-ending beginnings.

Koheleth had it right, as did the Buddha, as did Fitzgerald:

"The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

Turns Ashes – or it prosper; and anon,

Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face

Lighting a little Hour or two –is gone."

Call it detached engagement. One can live in the forest wherever one lives.



Our Response to Charles

We certainly agree that many terrible things happen in our society, but we still remain optimistic that people can become psychologically and spiritually transformed, and in doing so alter even the most apparently intractable social institutions.

The United States is well known for its abundant drive that expresses itself in business and technology. Americans work long and hard and enjoy abundant personal freedom. But these good things are carried out in a quite extraverted way, that is, the country’s energy is more outgoing than inward looking. It looks to the creation of large, elaborate institutions much more than reflecting upon the purposes they are meant to serve, and how well they are actually serving them. It is like an immense ocean liner with all its lights shining, and the band playing and the passengers dining, but the wheel room is eerily deserted.

All across the nation on weekday mornings, for example, schoolbuses collect our children and converge on the school along with long lines of cars. It is a remarkable display of organization and determination. We spend enormous energy and billions of dollars to get our children into the classroom in all sorts of weather, but then we give much less attention to the interior, personal act of learning that is supposed to take place in each student’s mind and heart.

We work long hours but don’t take the time to look at how our economic systems are twisted out of shape by the excess and inordinateness of those who confuse leadership and service with self-agrandizement. We are often well intentioned, but lack the longer perspective which would show us that our institutions are often blind to the social and environmental harm they are doing.


Response from Stéphanie

I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading both of your online books related to Simple Living. I try to practice simplicity in my everyday life, however, I find I go back and forth, in cycles. Re-reading Treasures of Simple Living, and discovering Radical Simplicity and the Fourth Step helped ground me again. I currently work in a full-time government job that, although has wonderful benefits, can be less than fulfilling. I've recently started taking concrete steps to gradually decrease my dependency on my employer, relying more and more on my own skills and will to learn to make a living. The steps are small, but I look forward to the process. I am inspired by your choice to live a life according to your terms, values and interests.

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See also:

The Treasures of Simple Living


A Guide to Valuable Resources, Important Information, and Exotic Tidbits