Throughout history, many intelligent people have claimed that it’s better to live a life without excess, and just as many intelligent people have claimed that it’s better to live a life of excess. In 2017, this disagreement is being played out in the world of interior design.
For minimalists, less is more. That means white walls, white furniture, and creating calmness and beauty by limiting yourself to the absolute basics. For maximalists, more is more. That means throwing together as many colours and patterns as possible and creating beauty through the sheer variety and amount of stuff in a given room.
However, becoming a minimalist or becoming a maximalist is about much more than sofas and lampshades. They are both philosophies which try to tell us how best to think, to feel, and to live our lives. This is nothing new.
Plato debated with his contemporaries about how we can achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word which roughly translates as “human fulfilment”. 2,400 years later, the minimalists and maximalists are arguing over the very same question.
Minimalist from Past to Present
Minimalism has its roots in cynicism. In the 21st Century, we tend to imagine that this word means someone who is world-weary, negative, and sceptical. However, the original, Greek meaning of the word referred to a school of philosophy which questioned how much we really needed.
Ancient Greek cynics believed that true happiness did not depend on material goods or things from the external world. Rather, true happiness could only be found within. As a result, it’s something that anyone can attain.
One of the most famous cynics was a man named Diogenes. Diogenes was a philosopher who wandered the earth with only four possessions: a barrel (which was also his home), a stick, a cloak, and a bread bag. According to some sources, he was once asked by Emperor Alexander the Great if there was anything he wanted. He replied by saying that he wanted the Emperor to move to the side; he was blocking the sun.
The Modern Time
In more recent times, minimalism can be traced back to American philosophers and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson was born and raised in the United States at a time when the country was still trying to figure itself out. He felt that, while the US had declared itself politically independent from Europe, it had yet to become intellectually or philosophically independent from Europe.
As a man raised by a long line English puritans, Emerson felt trapped by the traditions of Europe and, in turn, he felt trapped by what he saw as an obsession with the material world. He was struck by the epiphany that, though humans are a part of the natural world, we often act as if we are apart from it.
As a result, we try to achieve happiness by shielding ourselves from nature through extravagant homes with countless possessions. Emerson rejected this idea, claiming that a simpler life which was more in touch with nature was best.
This philosophy, known as transcendentalism, was then developed upon by Thoreau. After moving into a cabin the woods in order to become completely self-reliant (and to avoid paying taxes as a form of political protest), Thoreau discovered that he didn’t need all that much to achieve the state of eudaimonia that Plato talked about.
Maximalist: Its Root and Development
Maximalism, too, can be traced back to Western antiquity. In response to the cynics, the epicureans saw things differently . These guys believed that it was more important to live a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure than it was to rid your life of unnecessary things. For them, if something feels good, then it probably is good.
However, epicureans were also aware that pleasure was a kind of calculation. After all, too much short-term pleasure can get in the way of long-term pleasure. If you drink two bottles of champagne at a fancy bar because of a commitment to short-term pleasure, you’ll likely regret it in the long-term when your head is throbbing and your bank account is empty.
For epicureans, this doesn’t mean that drinking two bottles of champagne at a fancy bar is wrong. It just means that short-term pleasure can sometimes come at a cost. The secret to happiness means just being aware of this cost.
Jump forward a few hundred years, there was a man named Oscar Wilde, the author of his first and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. For Wilde, art is beautiful uselessness. To stay alive, we only need to sleep and eat. So a home with just a bed and a table would be an extremely ugly place because it would only contain useful things. A home with unnecessary but attractive additions such as sculptures, paintings, vast numbers of books, comfortable chairs, and an enormous grand piano is an extremely beautiful place. This is the basis of Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy, sometimes referred to as “new hedonism”, and it’s also the basis of maximalism.
The Modern Time
Maximalism, as we understand it today, is mostly defined by post-modernism. Novels such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49  and Salman Rushdie’ s Midnight’s Children  do not limit themselves to the traditional idea that a novel needs to be about one story happening at one place or at one time. Both novels span hundreds of years (though flashbacks and flash forwards), take place in hundreds of settings, and explore the lives of hundreds of characters. In doing so, these novels ask us a question: why limit the stories you can tell when there are so many stories to tell?
What’s Good with Minimalism?
One man influenced by Thoreau’s writing was Gandhi. Living under the British Empire in the early 20th century, Gandhi felt compelled to live a life where he didn’t need to rely on British goods in order to survive. Eventually, this idea evolved into a philosophy whereby Gandhi felt determined to live on just the bare essentials in order to survive.What’s more, he was also influenced by Thoreau’s notion of “civil disobedience”. Rather than protesting British rule with aggression or violence, Gandhi opposed it with noncompliance . He wouldn’t pay their taxes, buy their products, or follow their law. He would rely on himself by growing his own food, knitting his own clothes and, ultimately, thinking his own thoughts.
With this is in mind, the benefits of minimalism can be divided up into two broad categories: the practical benefits and the intellectual (or spiritual) benefits.
Practically, minimalism means having less physical stuff to weigh you down and fewer things to depend upon.
In turn, this leads to the intellectual benefit of being free to consider for yourself what you need and want rather than have this dictated to you by the culture which you happened to be born into.
Intellectually, you can think independently.
By being independent from society (both practically and intellectually), you are then able to think independently about society. It’s no coincidence then that Thoreau and Gandhi ended up deciding upon two quite radical (but ultimately correct) ideas about the societies which they had removed themselves from.
For Gandhi, minimalism helped him to better realise that India needed to be free from British rule. For Thoreau, minimalism helped him to better realise that slavery was indefensible and needed to end. Both of these ideas sound obvious now, but they weren’t at the time. It’s difficult to criticise a society if you yourself are part of that society. Minimalism allows you to stand outside society. As Shakespeare once said, “the eye sees not itself.
What Do We Gain from Maximalism?
Life is short. If the entire universe were a 13-year-old girl, she would have only known about humans for the last 50 minutes.  What’s more, for most of those 50 minutes, humans would have been hunter-gatherers who roamed from place to place. The first proper human civilisations would have emerged just five minutes ago.
More than that, those five minutes have been spent on planet earth which, though it is everything we have ever known and contains within it the lives and ideas of everyone we have ever heard about, is just an infinitesimal speck in the vast depths of space. As Carl Sagan once put it, the earth is just a pale blue dot.
If the whole of human civilisation makes up just five measly minutes on a few tiny corners of a microscopic dot in the cosmic, 13-year-old’s life, then how can one human life have any meaning? Nihilists believe that it doesn’t. The cosmic, 13-year-old is blind to humanity.
When you embrace stuff, you may experience more with little time you have.
Maximalism is a reaction to this idea. While Epicures and Wilde could not have known how vast the universe is, they still would have had a decent grasp of how fleeting life is. With so little time on earth, these men felt compelled to live lives according to pleasure.
Post-modern literature takes this further by embracing the madness and information overload of the modern world. Planes, the internet, television, films: all of these things make the world feel smaller. This, maximalists argue, is not a bad thing. It’s good that we can experience so much with what little time we have. In fact, there’s science to back up the idea that varying your experiences as much as possible can help you to feel like you’ve lived longer. So rather than abandoning all the progress society has made by allowing us access to so much stuff, maximalists embrace this chaos. After all, we’ll soon be dead.
So Is It Better to Be a Minimalist or a Maximalist?
Being a minimalist means running contrary to the advice of Oscar Wilde, Epicurus, and countless post-modern writers while being a maximalist means running contrary to the advice of Diogenes, Emerson, and Gandhi. All these people have shown how both minimalism and maximalism can make you happy, unhappy, and everything in between. Like everything else, it’s a matter of taste.
Philip Glass’s Glassworks shows us what beauty can be created when we stick to the essentials. The 40-minute album is a minimalist composition divided into six movements. Even though it expresses so much creativity and originality, it mostly consists of repetitions and variations of the same tunes played on different instruments.
By contrast, musicians like Kanye West with his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy show us what can be achieved when we embrace our artistic greed and fill a song with as much noise, content, and experimentation as possible. The album is maximalist masterpiece of controversial lyrics, loud and layered music which blends dozens of genres at once, and even a 34-minute film to accompany it.
Asking whether it’s better to be a minimalist or a maximalist is like asking which album is better. As previously mentioned, it’s a matter of taste. Consequently, a better question would be, “which album do you prefer?” If you can answer that question, you’ll probably have a better idea of whether you should live a minimalist lifestyle or a maximalist one.