I don’t know who it was who first said "Oh, the simple life for me!" I don’t think it was Diogenes, who as American soldiers would say, walked the walk rather than just talked the talk. In other words, he lived the life, rather than just talking about it as a desirable future ‘alternative’ lifestyle.
The phrase seems to have come from its use in popular song, a cry of discontent that is natural and attractive when your life is hopelessly complicated.
The fantasy version comes in two flavours: one, where you live totally alone – like Robinson Crusoe; the other, as a group, like the Swiss Family Robinson. Living an "unworldly" life became part of Western Christian culture early on, as early Christian fathers took to living in the desert, in caves, in woods, when it was an unofficial, persecuted religion. The Celtic-Irish monastic movement that was a later communal extension of this which still allowed for hermits, called anchorites.
Later, Romantic poets indulged the notion of personal retreat as an attractive dream, like Yeats in his ‘The Lake Isle Of Innisfree’: I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,/ And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:/ Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade./ And I shall have some peace there… Back when most people had rather primitive lifestyles anyway, it wasn’t so glamorised. There’s a Celtic poem about the original Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt (the Wild), going to live in the woods with only a piglet for company. He had fled there after giving bad advice as a court bard, leading to seeing his king defeated in battle, and the horror had driven him mad. This is an essential springboard in many actual cases, the retreat to recuperate from some disaster. (The author Nikolai Tolstoi, who was bankrupted in a lawsuit, became fascinated with Merlin The Wild and wrote a book on him as a genuine historical figure.) Such figures suffering from the experience of some catastrophe that made it impossible for them to carry on with a normal life still exist. In America, the designation "Bush Vets" describes Vietnam or subsequent-war veterans who could not re-adjust to ‘civilised’ life and so went to live in cabins in the woods. Even the original of Robinson Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk, after his return retreated from the possibilities offered by his new celebrity and went to live in a hut he built at the bottom of his parents’ garden before escaping back to sea.
The modern notion that living the simple life in a cabin or on a desert island is a solution to the psycholigical and spiritual problems of modern life grew as society itself became more materialistic. Again, the early proponents here were religious types whose world-view repudiated materialism, a fact which much contributed to the founding of America via agrarian communes. The later westward drive by desperately poor immigrants from European cities led an entire generation to live for a time in covered wagons, sod houses, and log cabins. (For an example of a pioneer memoir, see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 Little House On The Prairie.) This ‘pioneer experience’ was venerated by their descendants, and soon the notion of being raised in a log cabin soon became something politicians like Abe Lincoln would boast of as the lifestyle itself became less common. (You can read all about this process in Henry Nash Smith’s classic study Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth
Today, The Simple Life is an attractive idea for the world-weary, but as we become accustomed to material comforts like central heating and electronic communications, more difficult to adjust to. The generation I grew up with in the Sixties adopted Thoreau’s account of his "experiment in simple living" Walden Or Life in the Woods as a sort of lifestyle ‘bible.’ Thoreau’s simple life involved building himself a cabin outside Concord, Mass., and living a contemplative life there for two years in the 1850s, writing about marching to the beat of a different drummer, etc. This ‘dropout’ lifestyle included being jailed for not paying his poll tax, in line with his earlier essay – admired by Gandhi – On Civil Disobedience. For in the late Sixties and early Seventies, over a hundred thousand Americans became social outcasts when they fled the prospect of service in the Vietnam War. Mainly they heading north to Canada, where they set up house in county communes or in log cabins in the woods, until the government repealed the old ‘Homestead’ Act. Many others drifted back to civilisation, disillusioned. (You can read about this stressful time in The Eden Express, by novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s son Mark, who suffered the fate of too many who abandon civilisation - descent into mental illness.) Nevertheless a whole counter-culture mythos grew up around the experience, popularising expressions such as sustainable living, voluntary simplicity, and downshifting.
Of course the notion of The Simple Life remains an attractive vicarious fantasy, much played up in the media, most recently in wilderness-survival TV shows, either with groups of amateur ‘castaways’ or celebrity experts. But disillusion can set in as soon as you look behind the scenes. This week we had press exposes how British survival expert Bear Grylls stayed in luxury hotels while demonstrating onscreen how to survive with only a knife and a flint. Even with Thoreau, his cabin was relatively close to town, his sister bailed him out after he spent a night in jail for not paying his tax, and so on.
Also this week, BBC Digital radio has been repeating the classic Tony Hancock episode "The Wild Man Of The Woods" where he announces he is forsaking civilisation to live as a hermit. It turns out his hermitage is a bus shelter on the Common, "so I’ll be near the shops." And he finds the simple life is not so simple after all, due to the fascination others have with the lifestyle. I found listening to this on cassette particularly memorable during my own formative writer’s retreat living in a snowbound wilderness cabin. For in most ‘civilised’ countries it is difficult to find true wilderness where one can live in isolation, and so two traditions of The Simple Life have evolved, the Arcadian and the Bohemian (which I’d tried earlier on).
The ‘arcadian’ approach is where you find a rural paradise which will support you in your chosen lifestyle. One thing you learn if you live in a cabin is that 9-5’ers think you don’t ‘work’ for a living – idly imagining living off the land involves no effort. In fact it is difficult to arrange and sustain. Such paradises also never last, as the occupants themselves bring the seed of destruction with them. (On this, see Alex Garland’s bestseller The Beach or the 1970s Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson.)
Thus we also have a ‘bohemian’ tradition of leading a simple, dropout lifestyle in an urban setting. Diogenes, hanging about the Corinth marketplace, seems the first known example of this. The Beats or Beatniks of the post-WWII era and the hippies of the Sixties are the best-known recent examples. Earlier there was a smaller but influential group, the post-WWI ‘Lost Generation’ of writers who had survived the war but couldn’t face going home, and stayed on in France as expatriates. For it’s a lifestyle pursued by many a writer wanting to keep his life uncomplicated while he gets his writing together, living anonymously in a city outside the ‘bourgeois’ conventions of career and marriage from which he feels alienated. (Sartre’s 1930s writer’s-journal novel La Nausee – Nausea - is a prime example of this.) Yet the Bohemian approach has only a narrow appeal, pursued by those unable to realise the arcadian version favoured by the Romantic writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge.
This is increasingly popular today as a consumerist daydream: polls indicate that up to a third of the British population wants to emigrate – perhaps retreat to some still-undeveloped Spanish Costa, or build that crumbling ruin of a dream farmhouse in Provence or on a Greek island, just like they’ve read about in the books of Peter Mayle, or Gerald or Lawrence Durrell. The reality is most people can only pursue the simple life at certain times - youth, old age, or while on holiday activities such as hiking and camping. (The Arcadian and the Bohemian worlds uniquely co-mingle in the English enthusiasm for spending summers in beach huts on the fringes of conurbations.) Yet even if it can only be indulged for a short time, it remains a useful tonic. This month, the Boy Scout Movement celebrates its 100th anniversary, of the very first Scout camp on Brownsea Island, an international event endorsed by some surprising examples of celebrityhood (like rock stars), who testify how their own youthful camping-out experiences changed their lifelong outlook to a more self-reliant one.