Minimalism vs Materialism: Know Your Enemy.

Source: 1950s unlimited on Flickr.

By Josh Rueff on April 22, 2013

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

-Sun Tzu

No one likes having enemies. But having enemies is an inevitable part of life. Often, our enemies are not other people, but our own habits, mindset, and other amorphous concepts.

In the case of minimalist living, one of the primary enemies is materialism.

If your goal is to simplify your life through the process of minimalist living, you need to know your enemy.

What is Materialism?
Materialism is: “Preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values.” (

Or more simply:

Materialism = Unhealthy priority on “things”.

When people make material possessions and money the highest priority, the things that really matter suffer. A classic example is the absent workaholic father who’s convinced he’s doing right by his family by working twice as much as he should. His heart and ideals may be good – he just wants to provide his family with the good things in life.

But the result is disastrous:

Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44 percent of children in mother-only families.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2011, Table C8. Washington D.C.: 2011.

In 2008, American poverty rates were 13.2% for the whole population and 19% for children, compared to 28.7% for female-headed households.
Source: Edin, K. & Kissane R. J. (2010). Poverty and the American family: a decade in review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 460-479.

That’s enough to get you thinking about the consequences of materialism, but it’s just the statistics – what numbers can’t show is the emotional and psychological devastation present in the minds of those children.

There’s many other ways materialism causes problems, but the good news is that the mindset of materialism can be eliminated.

Mastering the minimalist lifestyle is one of the best ways to do it. But we have to know our enemy.

So let’s go beyond the simple definition and compare the materialism of ancient cultures with our own.

Materialism in Ancient Cultures

“The Master said, “A true gentleman is one who has set his heart upon the Way. A fellow who is ashamed merely of shabby clothing or modest meals is not even worth conversing with.”


Before we jump into this topic, I want to throw out a  quick disclaimer: My purpose is not to denounce the value of materials goods or money. Things are not bad, and money isn’t evil.

It’s when we give money and things too high of a priority – to the detriment of more important priorities – that’s when things get sour.

To understand the “enemy” of materialism, I began to research the economic systems of ancient civilizations, to see if the comparison between their society and our own would produce any insight.

In Egypt, a very clear distinction can be seen between the lower class and the elite; just looking at the landmarks in Egypt shows something about the ruling class. The tombs in the pyramids, as well as historical documentation show that the pharaohs were highly preoccupied with luxurious living: Spices, perfumes, gold jewelry, slaves, banquets loaded with culinary delicacies, and more.

As I looked into the cultures of Babylon, Assyria, Israel, Rome and Sparta, I noticed the same thing: An ever-increasing gap between the ruling class and the common people, and a strong sense of materialism in the ruling class.

Without getting too far off subject, the main observation I can make is that the elite class had a very strong sense of materialism.

But there’s a subtle difference between ancient materialism and modern materialism.

Ancient materialism was clearly prevalent in the ruling class, but there’s very little materialist activity in the common class.

 In modern societies, ALL classes take part in materialism. There’s a reason why the poor in America have a high depression rate, while the poorer in many third world nations are happy. It’s a corrosive mindset that’s pervaded every corner of our society.

The “American Dream” has become “The Materialist Dream”. 

There’s another comparison that stuck out as I conducted this research.

The Class Cycle and Materialism

History repeats itself over and over again in cycles. One of the most glaring cycles is one that’s been observed, studied, and consistently revisited by economists, historians, and political scientists:

In just about every nation in history, there is a marked struggle between economic classes:

As lines are formed and the gap between classes increase, the struggle intensifies, and eventually results in some form of war in which either the elite (rich) class or the common (poor) class gains control.

If the ruling class wins, they continue to oppress the poor (at least in the eyes of the poor). If the “common” ( or poor or working) class wins, they typically establish rules and laws favoring equality and fair distribution of wealth, which only works until human greed takes over, and the “common” class eventually becomes the rich class. And the cycle starts over.

Here’s a few examples of class wars that led to revolutions, coups, and militant upheaval:

508/7 BC: The Athenian Revolution establishing democracy in Athens.

464 BC:The Helot slaves revolt against their Spartan masters.

73–71 BC: The failed Roman slave rebellion, led by the gladiator Spartacus.

66–70: The Great Jewish Revolt, the first of three Jewish-Roman wars that took place in Iudaea Province against the Roman Empire.

248: Lady Trieu Uprising of Vietnam against Chinese Domination

713: Mai Thuc Loan Uprising of Vietnam against Chinese Domination

817–837: The revolt of the Iranian Khurramites led by Babak Khorramdin.

869–883: The Zanj Rebellion of black African slaves in Iraq.

1250: The Mamluks killed the last sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty, and established the Bahri dynasty.

1497: The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 in England.

1514: A peasants’ war led by György Dózsa in the Kingdom of Hungary.

1515: The Slovenian peasant revolt.

1549: Kett’s Rebellion.

1573: The Croatian and Slovenian peasant revolt.

1642–1660: The English Revolution, commencing as a civil war between Parliament and the King, and culminating in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of a republican Commonwealth, which was succeeded several years later by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.

1791–1804: The Haitian Revolution: A successful slave rebellion, led by Toussaint Louverture, establishes Haiti as the first free, black republic.

1848: The French Revolution of 1848 led to the creation of the French Second Republic.

1916–1923: The Irish War of Independence, the period of nationalist rebellion, guerrilla warfare, political change and civil war which brought about the establishment of the independent nation, the Irish Free State.

1918: The German Revolution overthrows the Kaiser; establishment of the Weimar Republic.

And of course:

1775–1783: The American Revolution establishes independence of the thirteen North American colonies from Great Britain, creating the republic of the United States of America. (Class wars: Source.)

Here’s where it gets interesting:

These class wars were largely supplemented by materialism, or at least perceived materialism in the elite class. Of course religious, political, and economic freedom had a lot to do with many of these conflicts, but at the root of these class wars was the materialist mindset and oppression of the elite class.

Even America’s own Revolutionary War was sparked in part by the outrage of the patriot’s against heavy taxation, which gave the ruling class (King George the 3rd) the means to support their (his) luxurious living and overall materialism.

Materialism and Consumerism

It can be easy to assume that consumerism and materialism are synonymous, and they certainly are similar in meaning. But materialism is the general mindset of placing unhealthy priority on material possessions, while consumerism is simply materialism that has been instilled by mass media and advertising.

Before I go on, the point of this research isn’t to show how the government or large corporations utilize mass media to brainwash the common people into economic slavery.

But the point is that consumerism causes economic slavery, in the form of debt, and a materialistic mindset. For the purpose of this article it doesn’t matter who created materialism or pushed consumerism on the nation.

For more information about consumerism, Read “How Consumerism Shapes Our Lifestyles”.

Materialism takes on many forms, and consumerism is fortunately one of the more black and white forms.

The materialist effects of advertisements and marketing campaigns can be avoided in part by simply turning off the sound when commercials come on, or watching less TV in general. Unfortunately, the mindset of consumerism is deeply embedded in our culture – wherever you turn you see it: Every show on television flaunts materialism because that’s what people like to see. 

Here’s an excerpt from an English professor’s take on materialism in Reality TV:

Each fresh faced reality star is showered with extravagant gifts and thrown into a luxurious lifestyle after signing up to participate in a show. These gifts include rides in decorated limousines, a celebrity style mansion to live in, the latest fashions to wear, and free passes to the most exclusive clubs in whatever major city these stars are located in. Television producers create this manufactured setting simply to entertain audiences while keeping their ratings up, as we are more likely to watch shows in a setting that “wows” us. However, young viewers now look up to these reality stars just as children of past generations use to idolize their favorite sitcom stars. The only difference between these two role model figures would be: one is wholesome and comical while the other is materialistic and vain. Teenagers today watch reality stars live extravagant, yet shallow, lives and then expect their own lives to mirror that of their role models. This is a dangerous cycle that is leading the youth of today down an unrealistic path. Therefore, reality television shows instill materialistic values and unethical morals in today’s young generation. (Source: Professor Clark)

Of course this is only a scratch in the tip of the iceberg – television and media as a whole presents some form of materialism for our brains to process, consciously or subconsciously.

Know Yourself

“Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

I believe this mindset should apply to us all, and in the pursuit of the minimalist lifestyle, materialism is one of many obstacles.

There’s many ways to turn the mindset of materialism into an opportunity (marketers do it every day!), but for us, understanding materialism – knowing our enemy – is the best window of opportunity.

To complete Sun Tzu’s strategy from the quote at the beginning of this post, we have to “know ourselves”:

1. Are you effected by materialism?

2. Are there any areas of your life that are hurt by materialism?

3. How can you eliminate the materialism in your life?

4. What new opportunities does the understanding of materialism and consumerism open up in your life?

Answering these questions may lead to a life changing mindset and lifestyle. They certainly have for me.