I’m kind of a curmudgeon, preferring not to have comfortable doodads, labor-saving contrivances, and other perks of consumer society. I try not to have air conditioning when it’s hot, heat when it’s cold, I’ve successfully avoided having a phone for years and, until recently, a car. The car has one of those lock/unlock key dongles that I accepted so naturally into my life that I want to scoff at myself. I’ve managed to flatter myself at different times that all of this abstention from the finer things is about maintaining intellectual independence or building character, being rugged, preserving my senses, avoiding wastefulness, or being Universal and not just American. But sometimes I wonder my society’s interpretations are more accurate, and if I’m really a cranky, miserly, smug and self-superior Luddite, or, at best, completely joyless and humorless the way people think of Ralph Nader. After all, when I think back through the people I know who act the same way as me, I realize that I can’t stand being around most of them.
I don’t think there’s room for the idea of self-denial in a consumer culture, in a culture in which one must buy commodities to participate in social meaning. It clicked when I read this voice from the 1870’s on the (apparently controversial) benefits of involving women in business: “… this gives them, I have noticed, contentment of mind, as well as enlarged views and pleasure in self-denial.” (p.412)
The context doesn’t matter, all that matters is that in the 1870’s, when some kind of American culture still existed outside of market exchange, there also existed an idea that there is a legitimate secular satisfaction in self-denial. The book, “The Communistic Societies of the United States,” is a study of the many separatist religious communities that existed through the nineteenth century. The religious part is important because when you Google “self-denial,” the only non-dictionary hits are to religious sites or Bible verses. Now just as it has no place in modern society, self-denial is also no longer seen as a prominent theme of Christendom in America, but it seems to have kept some kind of legitimate home there anyhow. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s legitimately importat, or maybe self-denial is a handy justification for arbitrary ethical proscriptions. Either way, I don’t know what to make of it.
Going secular I’m just as confused. I’d like to know if there is any evidence that self-denial is a good thing, in whatever way, or if I’m nothing more than a curmudgeon. I have to look into it and think more.
Another good quote from the book:
“Bear ye one another’s burdens” might well be written above the gates of every [intentional community]. p. 411