Like with Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, I read The Simple Life only because my dad recommended that I read it. However, unlike the Bismarck biography, which I enjoyed reading tremendously, I wasn’t quite as much of a fan of The Simple Life.
That’s because, as I’ll address in the section with my analysis of The Simple Life, I think Shi views simple living in America as one long, more or less unbroken strand of thought, whereas his own evidence shows that what was originally an idea among individualistic settlers became a socialist idea by about the time of the Gilded Age. Shi’s refusal to acknowledge, much less call out, that socialist connection is what made me not a huge fan of the book.
However, that’s not to say The Simple Life isn’t worth reading. It certainly is. Shi’s discussion of early American settlers and patriots and how they used simple living to bring the British Empire to its knees was both interesting and inspiring, as were a few other sections later in the book. So, perhaps you’ll be interested in it. Read the rest of this review to see if it appeals to you.
Summary of The Simple Life
As I hinted at in the introduction section, The Simple Life is a historical overview of the American desire for plain living. In it, Shi traces how early patriots and religious groups, later settlers and Jeffersonian republicans, people dissatisfied with the consumer culture, civilians living under wartime conditions, and, finally, socialists, all had a professed desire to live simply.
Some early Americans thought that living a life without frills was the moral thing to do. That’s not to say all Americans did; most of the Southern planter class refused to live simply. But, in the Northeast, especially Massachusetts, Puritans and Quakers thought that God desired for them to live simple lives. So, with the exception of a few merchants like John Hancock, many in the North were able to cut English imports out of their lives, which gave them sufficient leverage with the British Empire.
Later, as America shifted more and more towards a commercial state rather than the agrarian republic that Jefferson hoped for, more and more Americans, especially those on the frontier, expressed a desire to live simply and escape from the trappings of an industry-centric life. That trend continued through the Gilded Age.
After that, other than brief periods where home-front, wartime needs, such as those described in Inferno, required simple living, a desire to “live the simple life” without modern trappings or frills generally became something associated with socialists. Communes sprung up where people could live simply and, throughout the 20th Century, socialist sympathizers in the West chose to live simply to show their disgust with capitalism. Although he’s not mentioned in The Simple Life, Bernie Sanders living in a shack in the woods was a good example of that.
Overall, what was once a popular and patriotic strain of thought in America eventually became a socialist idea. That’s sad, but, as I’ll discuss below, it might be changing with the advent of the FIRE movement.
Analysis of The Simple Life
The Simple Life was written in 1985. It shows. It’s not a bad book, far from it. Shi researched his subject well, is an excellent author, and manages to make a somewhat bland subject relatively interesting.
But, it’s publishing date and the fact that it hasn’t been updated since then holds it back in two ways.
The first is that Shi doesn’t attack the socialist ideology of the later simple living advocates in the way that he should of. I think that is because they existed at the same time as him; little desire for simple living was expressed during the Great Depression and the pre-WWI socialists were less evil than the modern socialists, although that’s a point that Diana West would disagree with for the reasons outlined in American Betrayal. So, the socialist strain of simple living was a product of the 70s and 80s; it mutated out of the hippie movement. Alternatively, it could be viewed as just the roots of socialism… there was certainly simple living in the gulag archipelago.
As a result, those people were living as Shi was writing the book, which, if Shi was a leftist or had leftist friends (which would be likely because he was a professor), might have made it harder for him to criticize them. In fact, the only critical word he writes about the simple socialists was that one prominent one, a Stalinist, might have committed some “ideological excesses.” There’s an understatement.
The other way The Simple Life is held back is that it came slightly too early to include any note of the FIRE movement, which is, I think, the modern equivalent of the original American desire to live simply. Proponents of FIRE aren’t socialists. Far from it. Like the Puritans, they exemplify the Protestant work ethic that Shi writes about and Samuel Huntington wrote about in Who Are We?.
They understand the importance of investing, work hard, and don’t rely on government handouts. They just want to live lives without frills and retire early, as described in Your Money or Your Life and Rich Habits. Had Shi been able to include that discussion, I think it would have helped to show how simple living has distanced itself from socialism and once again become connected to hard work and capitalism.
Of course, the fact that it wasn’t included is in no way Shi’s fault. How was he to know that FIRE would come a decade or so later? So, it’s exclusion didn’t bother me. I just think it’s worth recognizing that simple living did change back to a capitalist, rather than socialist, idea.
The Simple Life is a book worth reading. Even though it wasn’t one of my favorite books, it is interesting and helps show a strain of American thought that isn’t discussed much anymore. On that note, many of the Founding Fathers that came from the Northeast, such as John and Samuel Adams, were proponents of living simply. So, reading The Simple Life helps give you more insight into their mindset and how it might have shaped the American Revolution.
In any case, I think The Simple Life is well worth your time. We’re all stuck at home during quarantine, you might as well check it out.
By: Gen Z Conservative
If the discussion of FIRE made you want to think about starting to invest, check out my broker, M1 Finance, and get $10 to create an account with $0 trading fees!: https://m1.finance/BuTmj2Xxilw6