In praise of simplicity

A tourist stops at the home of the great Rabbi. Since the Rabbi has such a world-renowned reputation the visitor expects to see a great home filled with valuable treasures.; However, he is shocked when he sees a bare home with almost nothing in it. “Where are your possessions?” he asks in astonishment.

The Rabbi responds, “Where are yours?”

“What kind of question is that?” the tourist responded. “I’m a visitor here.”

“I am too,” the Rabbi replied.

Long before Marie Kondo, nineteenth century designer and supporter of the arts and crafts movement William Morris advocated, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”[1] Or, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity."

Stay at home orders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted many people to act on advice. Some are sorting through their possessions, looking at items unused and perhaps unseen for years. Less can be more. Having fewer possessions and a simpler lifestyle requires less maintenance, less space and less consumption. In other words, having less stuff gives one more time, more room (especially important for people who live in a small place) and more money. Others are using the lockdown as an opportunity to reorder priorities.

A simplified life offers four additional benefits.

First, “the rich must live simply that the poor may simply live.”[2] That truth is more important than ever as economic inequality dramatically increases to proportions not seen since the gilded age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Democracy, social justice and community all flourish best when economic inequality is not excessive.

Second, simple lives impose fewer demands on resources, slowing the climate change moving the world ever closer to global disaster. For example, the current slowing of economic activity has reduced carbon emissions by more than a billion tons. Of course, the challenge is to reduce environmental harm with full employment and economic justice. One step toward that goal is for those whose incomes and wealth falls in the upper 20% to work, earn and consume less.

Third, simplicity is conducive to clear, cogent thinking. William of Ockham, a fourteenth century English Franciscan friar, articulated the analytical principle generations have known as Ockham’s razor: "Entities should not be multiplied without necessity." Simpler is often superior. Needless complexity obfuscates. "Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, 'I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.'[3]  “Simplicity, therefore, is a crucially important part of our intellectual or cognitive architecture—or rather, preference for simplicity is. That the world be relevantly simple is also required, of course, for the success of science.”[4]

Finally, living more simply emulates Jesus’ example and invites one to enter the spiritual life more deeply.[5] We, like the rabbi, are visitors. Live so as to leave the world a better place for your having passed through.

[1] William De Witt Hyde, Practical Ethics (New York: Henry Holt, 1892), p. 92.
[2] Charles Birch, “Creation, Technology and Human Survival,” Ecumenical Review (January 1976).
[3] Blaine Lee, The Power Principle: Influence with Honor (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. xiv.
[4] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 29.
[5] Cf. Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).


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