A photo of the philosopher, Denis Diderot, at his writing desk, wearing his elegant, new dressing robe. Beside the picture, these words: "My friends, keep your old friends. My friends, fear the touch of wealth. Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles."

Living Simple in the City

In his essay “On Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” French philosopher Denis Diderot told about receiving an elegant, velvet robe as gift from a woman friend. 

Shortly thereafter, he notices that the new robe makes his drapes look shabby. 

So, he buys new drapes. But they make his desk and reading chair look shabby.

One by one, he replaces his furnishings with new ones that match the robe.

Later, surrounded by his new, fancy furnishings, Diderot regrets giving up the old robe, and resents the new one for “forcing everything else to conform with its own elegant tone.”

In her book, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, Juliet Schor states that consumer researchers call the kind of striving for lifestyle conformity Diderot experienced, “The Diderot Effect.”

Purchasing a new home leads to buying new furniture. A new jacket cannot be fully enjoyed, without a new skirt to set it off. Moving to a more upscale area prompts thoughts of a car upgrade.

It’s hard to resist. I had my Diderot Effect experience.

Diderot And Me

For 14 years, I lived on Saltspring Island, BC, a kind of hippy, back-to-the-earth haven that was going upscale as retiring boomers from all over the world discover its beauty and want to buy themselves a piece of it.

My 50-year old, rented cottage had seen hard use. When I moved in, I renovated a large, unused room to use as a workshop space.

I tore out old carpet, painted the floor blue, and the walls and ceilings white. I made pine baseboards, laid down my rustic-looking, Berber rugs, and hung colourful, framed prints and art posters. It looked great. 

The rest of the house was more shabby and threadbare. But as an ex-mountain guy, used to living in tents, tipis, and very rustic cabins, I was fine with it. 

But then I moved back to the city. 

New Digs; New Stuff?

My apartment building, located in a choice, upscale neighbourhood, was a 60-built, 2-floor, stucco building that some of the neighbours referred to as “the transient hotel.”

But, I rented a bright, newly-painted suite, with sparkling, refinished hardwood floors, big windows, and a new cedar deck off the living room. 

Almost everything I owned looked (or seemed to look) shabby. 

Like Diderot, I felt a gnawing pressure to upgrade my space and furnishings, so they were more in line with my neighbours.

But, I worried, doing so could land me on the work-and-spend, hedonic treadmillwhere more is never enough.

After I thought about it for a few weeks, and re-considered my commitment to simple living, I realized, with one or two exceptions, that everything I had was fine. 

I paid a woman to refinish my coffee table. I dry-cleaned my Berber rugs. 

I washed the cushion covers on my Ikea sectionals, and repaired a leather chair.

I hung my prints and photos on the walls.

By the time I finished setting up, I’d spent very little money, bought nothing new, and had a space I felt proud about inviting friends and clients to visit.

Living simply allowed me to practice what I preach, and spend my precious life energy on creating a rich, yet low footprint lifestyle, using what I had.

Most of all, it provided me the time and freedom to make my values manifest in my actions and creations.

Staying Simple In The City

To keep on track with my commitment to the simple life, I use the Four Consumption Criteria suggested by the American Friends Service Committee.

  1. Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  2. Are my consumption patters basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
  3. How tied are my present job and lifestyle to instalment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  4. Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the earth?

They help keep me simple in the city.

I’m content to make do with what I have, and, when I’ve considered the criteria above, and can justify a purchase, I’ll buy it, and enjoy it—without guilt.