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Posted on Sep 25, 2013 in Inspiration, My Journey | 4 comments

Do We Really Need a Bonfire of the Vanities?


Lately, I have been reading the book “The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture” by David Shi. I’ll have a review later, but I ran across a reference in another book about the Bonfire of the Vanities, and event in Florence in 1497 that got me thinking about simplicity and how people encounter it.

The event that lent its name to the 1987 book by Tom Wolfe, occurred during the Italian Renaissance, when a priest, Girolamo Savonarola, organized the burning of objects associated with sin.  The fire was fed by books, musical instruments, cosmetics and works art. According to some, a few Botticelli paintings were burned on that fire.

Apparently, the movement behind this event felt that it was necessary to strongly encourage people to adopt a simpler life without these “vanities”, or objects that incite us to sin.

A similar vein of thought seemed to run through the founders of America.  Many of them felt that all people should live their life without material wealth, as simple pious citizens, close to the land and God.  A few felt that the inhabitants of this new country should be compelled to live this way, with simple clothes, food and homes.  Many of these leaders would fit nicely into the category of minimalist, and they felt that this was the correct lifestyle for everyone.

Now, I came to simplify my own life to focus on the activities and people who are important to me.  Simplifying my life made room for me to choose what I want in my life.  It seems strange to try to tell others to how to live their life, since I associate my own changes with increasing my options, not diminishing them.

What do you think?

Can objects make us behave badly?

Should everyone live this way?

What would the world look like if they did?

Please leave a comment below!

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  1. I love this post. You already know I’m working my way through The Simple Life too, but I never knew that about Bonfire of the Vanities.

    I’ve found it fascinating how so many people over the centuries have tried to simplify their lives and yet ended up focusing on stuff rather than relationships, spirituality, etc.

    It almost seems like it’s hardwired, but if that were so, you’d think other animals would accumulate more. My (now deceased) German Shepherd did go through a phase where she “stole” items from around the house like shoes, underwear & dish towels, and put them in a circle around her bed, but it was short-lived. And I guess crows steal shiny things…

    • Of course. Shiny things are awesome. My dog is very attached to his squeaky toys, but would probably trade one for a belly rub! It is sort of strange to think about getting rid of other people’s stuff, not your own.

  2. I think your last paragraph expresses a sensible definition of “simple living.” The idea is to push aside stuff that’s less important TO YOU, in order to make room for stuff that’s more important TO YOU. That stuff can pertain to the physical universe or not. I certainly wouldn’t want to purge our world of books, musical instruments, and works of art!

    Very worthwhile post!

    • Thank you! I was pretty surprised that this theme has occurred so many times in history. I like the results of reducing complexity in my life, but I don’t want to send a message that I know what is best for anyone else.

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