Give Me the Simple Life

Originally published in Idler 57 and based on an earlier blog entry for New Escapologist.

“You’re forever escaping from things,” says a friend who reads this column, “but what are we meant escape to?

At first I thought this was a variation on the standard anti-idler “what would I do if I didn’t go to work?” rhetoric (rhetorical to anti-idlers at least; idlers have bags full of answers) but he was coming from an angle more akin to Oscar Wilde who said, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

It’s a fair point. I suppose escapes from are easier to write about since they’re fuelled by dissatisfaction and are seldom far from the conscious mind. Escapes to require a balance of forward-facing idealism and pragmatism and are, as such, less accessible to keyboard-happy fingers. But never fear. For every Escape from Alcatraz, there’s an Escape to Victory. So what are we escaping to? Why, the good life, of course. It’s entirely possible I never mentioned that.

The good life can be reached from almost anywhere. Granted, it’s probably easier if you happen to live in sun-baked Corfu instead of, say, Dudley, but the good life has little to do with geography. It’s a country of the mind and soul, accessible through the observation of some remarkably straightforward, philosophically-supported tenets. What’s more, idlers will immediately see they can be observed through the simple relaxing of ambition.

Here’s what you need:

A relatively good state of health. Stay away from the gym for crying out loud—avoid all treadmills, both literal and metaphorical—but life is better when you’re not panting, itchy and tired.

As much free time as possible. Nobody on their deathbed says “I wish I spent more time at the office”. They say “I wish I’d spent more time with nature” or “I wish I’d spend more time with my friends”. These things are only possible with free time: open, unscheduled, and ready to be filled with whatever takes your fancy.

A few dependable friendships. Not three-hundred phoney Facebook friendships but seven or ten proper ones—people you’d give £500 to if they asked for it and vice versa.

An appreciation of your existing surroundings. The most important lesson to learn from Epicurus is that pleasure can be found almost anywhere if you can find ways to appreciate the mundane. You don’t have to flee, expensively and stressfully, to foreign climes to find pleasure. Pleasure and beauty can be found in a glass of water, a smooth pebble and in your own pants.

Sensual pleasure. Is anything better than sleep, sex, easy music, simple food, a walk, the sensation of cool cotton sheets on a bed? No!

Purposeful and purposeless intellectual stimulation. The combination of a creative hobby and a library card beats the living jelly out of anything an iPhone can do.

A satisfying creative output, in which you have personal pride. Building things from scratch feels good in a way that an office job never, ever can.

A clean and dignified living space. The wise idler knows that small is beautiful if only because it’s less to keep clean and dignified. Bohemia!

A modicum of peer recognition. But not too much or they’ll stop being your friends and you’ll be elevated to a less desirable and more competitive stratum of peers.

Some good habits to be proud of. If you can trust yourself to eat a healthy breakfast each morning and work diligently between, say, 11:00 and 13:00, you can probably take the rest of the day off.

Few dependencies. If you need little, it’s easier to walk away.

A funny thing about these eleven tenets — which were not arrived at casually, by the way, I’ve been chewing this over for years; when it looks like I’m doing absolutely nothing I’m probably going over my tenets again — is that none of them is commercially available. This should make idlers very happy and chill non-idlers to the bone.

It’s also noteworthy that none of them is helped by working hard: little striving is required. In fact, conventional employment will seriously hamper health, friendship, intellectual stimulation, good habits, sensual pleasure, and free time. The labour market is not a condition for the good life. Arbeit does not macht frei.

It might be tempting to build optional extras onto this design for life, so that we feel a little richer. But it doesn’t work. Optional extras, the feature creep of life, do not contribute to the good life. They almost certainly detract from it. That’s why things that go “ping!” seem rather clever for a while but eventually leave you feeling bored and poor.

So this is what we escape to, my loves. We escape from work and consumerism to the Good Life. This is not a real-meaning-of-Christmas-style consolation prize. This is what I’ve found, so far, to be true.

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