Since I started exploring minimalism two years ago, there has been a phrase that has plagued me, nagging at my resolve, but also forcing me to examine my form of minimalism more deeply.
The phrase is, “Reason not the need.” It’s a line from my favorite William Shakespeare play, King Lear.
Lear himself says this to his daughters, Regan and Goneril, when they attempt to convince him he no longer needs 100 knights following him around now that he has abdicated the throne. Lear’s point is that, if we only make decisions based on our needs for things like food, water, and shelter, we are no different than any animal.
It’s a legitimate response, and a good challenge by those who would question our desire for living simply. After all, isn’t one of the principles of minimalism to reduce items to what is truly needed?
According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beyond our physiological or safety needs humans require love, esteem, and self-actualization. Lear’s knights are a symbol of his status and identity. It is true he no longer needs them to live, but what is the point in living without them?
This is the struggle I have with minimalism, unless I remember its purpose. Minimalism is not an austere lifestyle of self-sacrifice and deprivation, determined by someone else’s magic number of items or timeline. It is a tool for satisfying the deeper yearnings of life: freedom, fulfillment, self-determination and connection with the things we most value in life.
The danger is losing sight of that, in focusing on who can live with the least or evaluating who is a true minimalist. Like Lear, minimalists can fall into the trappings of titles and status, and like his daughters, we can reduce and reduce without filling the void with new meaning and experiences.
We should reason the need, but all our needs, and remember it’s a personal journey, not a measurable destination.