Defining the Simple Life

September 22, 2014

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Below is the foreword to Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future, edited by Samuel Alexander and Amanda McLeod. This book collects together 26 chapters discussing individuals, cultures, and movements that have embraced forms of ‘simple living’ throughout history. The ‘preface by the editors’ and table of contents are available here, and the book is available here.

The simple life is almost as hard to define as it is to live. It has also been with us for thousands of years. Simplicity is an ancient and universal ideal. Most of the world’s great religions and philosophies have advocated some form of simple living that elevates activities of the mind and spirit over material desires and activities. The great spiritual teachers of Asia – Zarathustra, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and Confucius – all stressed that material self-control was essential to the good life. Greek and Roman philosophers also preached the virtues of the golden mean. Socrates was among the first to argue that ideas should take priority over things in the calculus of life. People were ‘to be esteemed for their virtue, not their wealth’, he insisted. ‘Fine and rich clothes are suited for comedians. The wicked live to eat; the good eat to live.’

Aristotle refined this classical concept of leading a carefully balanced life of material moderation and intellectual exertion. ‘The man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none’, he observed, ‘becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the [golden] mean’.

A similar theme of simple living coupled with spiritual devotion runs through the Old Testament, from the living habits of tent dwellers in Abraham’s time to the strictures of the prophets against the evils of luxury. ‘Give me neither poverty nor wealth but only enough’, prayed the author of Proverbs. Jesus of Nazareth led and preached such a life of pious simplicity. He repeatedly warned of the ‘deceitfulness of riches’ and the corrupting effects of luxury, noting that gaining wealth too easily led to hardness of heart toward one’s fellows and deadness of heart toward God.

Simplicity has been an especially salient theme in Western literature. Chaucer repeatedly reminded readers of Jesus’s life of voluntary simplicity. Boccaccio took cheer in an open-air search for the spontaneous; Dante called upon his readers to ‘see the king of the simple life’; and Shakespeare offered the happiness of the greenwood tree. The Romantics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries likewise promoted a simplicity modelled after the serene workings of nature.

So much for simplicity as an historical ideal. In practice, the simple life has proven far more complex, varied, and challenging than such summary descriptions imply. The necessarily ambiguous quality of a philosophy of living that does not specify exactly how ‘simple’ one’s mode of living should be has produced many different practices, several of which have conflicted with one another. The same self-denying impulse that has motivated some to engage in temperate frugality has led others to adopt ascetic or primitive ways of living. During the classical period, for instance, there were many types of simplicity, including the affluent temperance of the Stoics – Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, the more modest ‘golden mean’ of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the ascetic primitivism of Diogenes, and the pastoral simplicity of Virgil and Horace. In asserting the superiority of spiritual over worldly concerns, some early Christians gave away all of their possessions and went to live in the desert as hermits. Others joined monasteries, and a few engaged in prolonged stints of abstinence and mortification. At the same time, many officials of the early church preached simplicity while themselves living in considerable comfort and even luxury.

Over the centuries, simplicity has also been embraced as a stylish fad. Benjamin Franklin’s self-conscious decision to wear an old fur cap and portray himself as a plain Quaker while serving as an American diplomat in Paris reflected his shrewd awareness that rustic simplicity had become quite fashionable among the French ruling class. Marie Antoinette’s famous playground, Hameau, constructed on the grounds of Versailles, was a monument of extravagant simplicity. The toy village had its own thatched cottages, a dairy barn with perfumed Swiss cows, and a picturesque water mill. When the lavish life at court grew tiresome, the Queen could adjourn to Hameau, don peasant garb, and enjoy the therapeutic effects of milking cows and churning butter.

For such bored aristocrats, simplicity was clearly an affectation. But there have been many through the years who have practised simplicity rather than played at it. The names of St. Francis, William Blake, John Wesley, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa come readily to mind. For them and others, simplicity entailed what William Wordsworth called ‘plain living and high thinking’. The degree of plainness differed considerably from individual to individual, as did the nature of the ‘high thinking’. They simplified their material activities in order to engage in a variety of enriching pursuits: philosophy, spiritual devotion, artistic creation, revolutionary politics, humanitarian service, or ecological activism.

In the Western experience, this ethic of plain living and high thinking has demonstrated similar diversity. As a way station between too little and too much, the ethic has encompassed a wide spectrum of motives and behaviour, a spectrum bounded on one end by religious asceticism and on the other by refined gentility. In between there is much room for individual expression. Some proponents of simplicity have been quite conservative in appealing to traditional religious values and or classical notions of republican virtue; others have been liberal or radical in their assault on corporate capitalism and its ethos of compulsive consumerism. In addition, class biases, individual personality traits, and historical circumstances have also combined to produce many differing versions of simple living in the Western experience.  

The American history of simplicity has been a festival of irony, for the ideal of enlightened restraint has always been linked in an awkward embrace with the nation’s phenomenal abundance and relentless work ethic. Since the colonial era, advocates of simple living have been professing a way of life at odds with an American environment full of bountiful resources, entrepreneurial opportunities, and increasingly powerful institutions that combine to exalt the glories of self-indulgence and war against contentment. Puritan and Quaker settlers who arrived in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought with them a delicately balanced social ethic stressing hard work, self-control, plain living, civic virtue, and spiritual devotion.

Their goal was to create model societies in which simplicity of worship, dress, manners, and speech would be practised and enforced. Yet in both Puritan Massachusetts and Quaker Pennsylvania, the champions of collective simplicity soon found themselves waging a losing battle against the corrupting influence of rapid population growth, religious pluralism, and secular materialism. In 1733, for instance, a Boston minister bemoaned his colony’s fall from grace when he said in a sermon that ‘the powerful love of the world and exorbitant reach after riches have become the reigning temper in all persons of all ranks in our land’. Their original spiritual and social ideal was being ‘abandoned, slighted and forgotten’.

The lesson in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania seemed to be that pious simplicity as a societal ethic was impossible to sustain in the midst of unprecedented opportunities for economic gain and social display. Certainly that was the assumption of the many pietistic sects that settled in America in the eighteenth century and after. The so-called ‘plain people’ – Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers, Brethren in Christ, Moravians, Shakers, and others – shared a strong commitment to communal simplicity and a strict nonconformity to the ways of the larger world.  

These various religious groups set themselves apart from mainstream society by establishing small, isolated, homogeneous, and self-sustaining rural communities. Through mutual aid, intensive agriculture, thrift, and diligence, their settlements prospered. Some verged on asceticism, practising celibacy and renunciation of sensual and material pleasures; others allowed cohabitation and a comfortable sufficiency. All of them, however, insisted upon the priorities of faith and family and community. In other words, these religious non-conformists required social conformity.

American history is strewn with dozens of communal efforts at simple living, ranging from the Transcendentalist utopias at Fruitlands and Brook Farm in the 1840s to the hippie communes of the 1960s and 1970s. Few of them, however, lasted more than a few months.  Many of the participants in such alternative communities were naive about the hardships involved and lacked experience in the basic skills necessary for self-reliant living.

Yet the history of the simple life in the United States, as in the wider Western world, includes victories as well as defeats. That many of the ‘plain people’ have managed to retain much of their initial ethic testifies to their spiritual strength and social discipline. There have also been many successful and inspiring individual practitioners of simple living. As a guide for personal living and as a myth of national purpose, simplicity has thus displayed remarkable resiliency. It can be a living creed rather than a hollow sentiment or temporary expedient. During periods of war, depression, or social crisis, statesmen, ministers, and reformers have invoked the merits of simplicity to help revitalise public virtue, self-restraint, and mutual aid. In this way simplicity continues to exert a powerful influence on the nation’s conscience.

The ideal of simplicity, however ambiguous, however fitfully realised, survives because it speaks to desires and virtues harboured by all people. Who has not yearned for simplicity, for a reduction of the complexities and encumbrances of life? In the American experience, for example, the simple life remains particularly enticing because it reminds us of what so many of our founding mothers and fathers hoped the country would become – a nation of practical dreamers devoted to spiritual and civic purposes, a ‘city upon a hill’, a beacon to the rest of the world.

Today, simplicity remains what it has always been: an animating vision of moral purpose that nourishes ethically sensitive imaginations. It offers people a way to recover personal autonomy and transcendent purposes by stripping away faulty desires and extraneous activities and possessions. For simplicity to experience continued vitality, its advocates must learn from the mistakes of the past. Proponents of simplicity have often been naively sentimental about the quality of life in olden times, narrowly anti-urban in outlook, and disdainful of the beneficial effects of prosperity and technology. After all, most of the ‘high thinking’ of this century has been facilitated by prosperity. The expansion of universities and libraries, the democratisation of the fine arts, and the ever-widening impact of philanthropic organisations – all of these developments have been supported by the rising pool of national wealth. This is no mean achievement. ‘A creative economy’, Emerson once wrote, can be ‘the fuel of magnificence’.  

Any virtue pressed too far can become counter-productive. Some simplifiers, for example, have pursued a fanatical survivalism; others have displayed a self-righteous, prickly individualism that has alienated potential supporters and impeded attempts at collective social or political action. Still others have adopted an affluent rusticity that seems more style than substance. Showy plainness is the red spider in the rose of simple living.  

Americans, like their counterparts across the western world, have repeatedly espoused the merits of simple living, only to become enmeshed in its opposite. People have found it devilishly hard to limit their desires to their needs so as to devote most of their attention to ‘higher’ activities. This should not surprise us. Socrates pointed out centuries ago that ‘many people will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans and cakes’. He knew that all notions of moral excellence and spiritual commitment are by their very nature the province of a minority, since few can live up to their dictates for long. Thoreau likewise noted that simplicity was for the few rather than for the many. He recognised at the beginning of Walden that the simple life he described would have little appeal to ‘those who find their encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers’. Many Americans have not wanted to lead simple lives, and not wanting simplicity is the best reason for not doing so. ‘Simplicity’, observed the Quaker reformer Richard Gregg, ‘seems to be a foible of saints and occasional geniuses, but not something for the rest of us’.  

Happily, most modern versions of simplicity demand neither an end to economic development nor a vow of personal poverty. If the decision to lead a simple life is fundamentally a personal matter, then so, too, is the nature and degree of simplification. There is no cosmic guidebook or universal formula to follow. Simplicity in its essence demands neither a vow of poverty nor a life of rural homesteading. Money or possessions or activities in themselves do not corrupt simplicity, but the love of money, the craving of possessions, the lure of conformity, and the prison of activities do. 

As an ethic of self-conscious material moderation rather than radical renunciation, simplicity can be practised in cities and suburbs, townhouses and condominiums. It requires neither a log cabin nor a hairshirt but a deliberate ordering of priorities so as to distinguish daily between the necessary and superfluous, the useful and wasteful, the beautiful and vulgar. Wisdom, the philosopher William James once remarked, is knowing what to overlook.  Mastering the fine art of simple living involves discovering the difference between personal trappings and personal traps. In this sense, simplicity is ultimately a state of mind, a well-ordered inner harmony among the material, sensual, and ideal, rather than a particular standard of living.

But is simplicity relevant to the complex corporate and consumer cultures that dominate modern life? Absolutely. Hidden beneath the surface appeal of life in the fast lane is the disturbing fact that the three most frequently prescribed drugs are an ulcer medication, a hypertension reliever, and a tranquiliser. In the United States, stress management has become one of the fastest growing industries. A hospital administrator recently observed that ‘our mode of life itself, the way we live, is emerging as today’s principal cause of illness’.

Today the typical corporate executive works three hours longer each week than in 1980, and he or she takes 20 percent fewer vacation days. In a special issue devoted to what it called ‘The Rat Race’, Time magazine announced that the work ethic has gone berserk in America. ‘Simply to remain competitive’, the editors noted, ‘professionals – lawyers, doctors, accountants, and business executives – find that their lives are one long, continuous workday, bleeding into the wee hours of the night and squeezing out any leisure time or family interaction’.

For people living in a press of anxieties, straining desperately, often miserably after more money, more things, and more status, only to wonder in troubled moments how to get off such a treadmill, the rich tradition of simplicity still offers an enticing path to a better life. Those hesitant to change the trajectory of their runaway lifestyles might ponder a question posed by the poet Adrienne Rich: ‘With whom do you believe your lot is cast?  From where does your strength come?’ 

Those who choose an outwardly more simple and inwardly more fulfilling style of living discover that pressures are reduced, the frenetic pace of life is slowed, and daily epiphanies are better appreciated. Simpler living also benefits us all by reducing demands on our increasingly fragile and besieged environment. In addition, winnowing one’s money-making and money-spending activities can provide more opportunities for activities of intrinsic worth – family, faith, civic and social service, aesthetic creativity, and self-culture. The saintly naturalist John Burroughs acknowledged this fact in 1911 when the superintendent of the New York City schools asked him to share with students the secret of his good life. ‘With me,’ he remarked,

the secret of my youth [at age seventy-four] is the simple life – simple food, sound sleep, the open air, daily work, kind thoughts, love of nature, and joy and contentment in the world in which I live. … I have had a happy life. … May you all do the same.

Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future is available here


Photo credit: Wikipedia/Namlhots/CC BY-SA 2.0


Tags: social movements, voluntary simplicity