September 2nd, 2020

Home improvement

One matter which I sometimes struggle with is how much time, money, and thought people invest into building their homes. In places where people are more well-to-do and have less problems with basic everyday survival, one tends to see a lot of stores which sell furniture and similar household products like lamps and bedding. While it is good that people should live well and I do not mean to suggest that they shouldn't have furniture in their homes or acquire basic items to make their lives and their homes more comfortable and beautiful, it does sometimes seem a bit concerning just how much people invest into this activity when it is mostly just an act of pure vanity.

For more than 10 years, I have just slept on a mattress on the floor and never bothered to buy a proper bed for the various residences I've lived in. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main one is simply that I have moved around a lot, often overseas, and so this makes it impractical to invest in a lot of furniture which I'd have to leave behind with the next move anyway. Buying a bed would just consume space and money, both of which are in short supply, for the sake of acquiring something which I don't need. I don't have a family, and so living alone as I do, I am perfectly content with living without furniture other than a mattress. But even if my life were more stable and I lived in a place where I was planning to remain for several years, I doubt I would bother with much furniture just because I don't have any use for it. I realize that I am a bit unusual in this regard, and like I said, I am not suggesting that people shouldn't have furniture, just that they sometimes go overboard with home decorating.

Generally speaking, if people are fortunate enough to be financially stable such that they do not need to worry about being homeless, they generally go to one of two extremes when it comes to configuring their living spaces: Either they go full home-decorator and acquire an ever-growing collection of furniture, artworks, houseplants, and other trinkets to decorate and populate their living space with, or they go to the opposite extreme and just buy a big television to drown out reality with, and just spend all night, every night in front of that television. There doesn't seem to be a lot of in-between here; there don't seem to be a lot of people who like having nice homes but don't go to ridiculous lengths to fill those homes with superfluous furniture and furnishings.

People who own suburban homes are known for constantly having some kind of home improvement projects going on: Maybe they want to put a new roof on the house, or maybe they want to build a deck so they can sit outside in the sun, or maybe they want to build a whole extension to put a new room in. They are many things you can do with a house to make it bigger, more comfortable, or more financially valuable for the day when you sell it, and homeowners tend to invest a huge amount of their disposable money, time, and thought into thinking of new ways to improve their homes. Again, it is well and good to have a healthy, happy home, but it really seems to me like some people just go overboard with this in a way that is entirely unnecessary. If you have a place to sleep and sit, that already seems like enough. Do people really need much more than that?

It was this human tendency to go overboard with embellishing their households that partially inspired the Bolsheviks to destroy the bourgeoisie, concluding that the middle class was a destructive force that needed to be eliminated because their focus on their own boring, materialistic possessions was creating economic imbalances for people who didn't have much money. Unfortunately, this plan backfired because it simply destroyed all wealth for all people; rather than lifting up the lower classes to anything resembling stability or prosperity or even sustenance, it created a constant struggle to survive for everyone because all people were reduced to absolute poverty. I can understand the desire to target the seemingly wealthy: The human being is a naturally jealous creature, and people who don't have much money surely look at people buying fluffy new duvets for their beds and become pierced with a sense of injustice at this inequality. But attempting to destroy the rich doesn't create prosperity for the poor; it just ruins everyone and everything. This is the tragedy of capitalism versus communism: Both lead to absolute extremes. Capitalism leads to such an insane abundance of goods that people don't even use most of what is produced, leading to stores being full of extra products which no one is likely to ever buy, and attics being full of old junk that nobody is likely to ever use. Communism leads to the exact opposite, with both stores and homes being so barren that people go to great lengths to get a used coat or a usable chair. It would be nice to have some kind of a middle ground where people live comfortably and have reasonably pleasant homes but don't constantly feel the need to keep building and expanding.

Indeed, there have been various perhaps well-meaning but misguided attempts to try to force humanity into certain desirable patterns of behavior by putting them into a specific socioeconomic class. The notorious purges in Cambodia in the late 1970s were an example of this, a movement which favored rural, agricultural life and targeted city dwellers who were seen as parasites. Unfortunately, these efforts did not improve the situation, but rather the opposite. Some people interpret the wealthy as parasites and the poor as virtuous and good-hearted, and some people have exactly the opposite perspective, but history has shown that a person's character comes from within, not from what socioeconomic class they are in: Both wealthy people and poor people can be intelligent, educated, and sophisticated or they can be ignorant, unthinking, and crass. You don't achieve social or cultural goals through economic means. This is especially true in the time of the Internet, because while it may previously have been the case that poorer economic classes did not have access to much of history's great writing, today free Internet access in many parts of the world enables even the poorest people to read some of the greatest works ever written.

That said, one thing which particularly bothers me about places that feature a lot of interior design is how books are treated: People who like to build up their houses often have large libraries full of books, but then don't read those books. These people understand books as status symbols, as indicators that the person inhabiting that house is intelligent and educated, but people use books disingenuously by trying to make themselves appear literate and intelligent, when really they just display those books to show off.

This can be prominently seen in, appropriately enough, Ikea. If you ever walk through an Ikea, you'll often see bookshelves in the sample rooms on display there, but have you ever actually looked what books they have there? The books which they fill Ikea with are entirely pointless fiction; they are real books, but they are books which were written just for the purpose of filling paper and bookshelves, not to actually educate people or give them something to think about. I say that the presence of such books in Ikea is "appropriate enough" because this is the kind of book you tend to see if you travel through the Nordic countries: Scandinavians do exactly this, because they like to appear intelligent, and so they fill their homes with worthless books, but if you ask them about their books, it becomes apparent that they did not actually read most of their books, having only a vague idea about what the books are about and not really caring. The books are just there to give the impression that the people living there are respectable.

I suppose what really bothers me about homeowners' pathological obsession with home improvement, then, is that it draws their attention away from better things which human beings could be thinking about. Invoking a rare example of a Scandinavian philosopher who isn't Kierkegaard, Boetius of Dacia wrote a book titled On the Highest Good, or On the Life of the Philosopher in which he defended the idea, already advanced by the ancient Greek philosophers, that the highest good in humanity's life is the quiet, careful, and rational consideration, contemplation, and pondering of information, value, and justice. Human beings already discovered the highest cause they could devote their lives to thousands of years ago, but they willingly forgot this discovery because they found mindless entertainment and stimulation better.

So if you have a home, go ahead and make it feel like one. But don't forget what human beings are for: Not for filling their homes with a lot of worthless trinkets, but to acquire knowledge and understanding.