Versions of Simplicity: Review Essay

On the path to simplicity, who can quarrel with the advice of Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in Your Money or Your Life: quit shopping, control debt, develop "financial intelligence." Nor with their rehabilitation of the meaning of frugality as a golden mean, a sufficiency of material things balanced with an enjoyment of their virtues. Nor even with the equation "money equals life energy" and the need to realize how much of one's life and energy goes into the acquisition and use of money.

But the pragmatism of this approach quickly makes frugality an end to itself. Restoring control of spending once achieved using the book's nine-step program, the reader's efforts soon devolve into a miser's game of scrimping. The authors offer advice such as cutting out coupons, attending cheaper matinee movies, or hosting pot-luck instead of dinner parties. Cutting out coupons for junk food? And who watches current movies anyway? Or puts on "parties"? These are rote formulas for tightwads and eccentrics, not advice for someone who has left all this behind and is seeking deeper roots to simplicity.

Most books on simplicity (or "voluntary simplicity" to use Duane Elgin's 1981 book title) never rise about the level of seeking more clever ways to consume. The simplicity advisors undermine themselves by the desire to coexist -- even cooperate with -- modern culture. They skirt the crass commercialism but never challenge the ethos of the culture itself or not enough to ascend to some universal principles behind the idea of simplicity. Hence the paradoxical titles and subtitles of so many of the books recommending simplicity. For example:

All of these well-meaning titles surely reflect Thoreau's familiar observation that the mass of people "lead lives of quiet desperation." Are those seeking simplicity not among them?

Is today's simplicity movement but a mild hedonism seeking surreptitious ways of substituting the pleasures denied them by the conspicuous wealthy and powerful? Do those in the movement want to consume at the same rate but just can't afford to do so?

The simplicity books do not go to the core of spiritual or psychological change. In contrast, Thoreau used the phrase "voluntary poverty" (in the first chapter of Walden), identifying a philosophy of simplicity with sages ancient and modern. "Evangelical poverty" is the historical Christian equivalent; in Hinduism, aparigraha means not just simplicity but "non-possessiveness." And from Taoism to Buddhism and beyond, there is no dearth of philosophical and spiritually-minded models for simplicity. These models are never built into the core of the popular simplicity books because that would challenge the prevailing assumptions of modern culture, and we may suspect that their readers really don't want to go that far.

The contradictions of simplicity are at the heart of our task to acquire wisdom. In the Western world, for example, yoga and meditation are increasingly marketed not to change a person's life but to make it easier to carry on with it, relieving the stress that makes the rat race so hard to run. This is not to deny the benefits of stress management, for many people do achieve incremental changes that lead to a more open mind and heart. But as long as the premises of our culture are challenged only as excesses and not as false premises, a person will not achieve a breakthrough in thinking or daily living.

Are hermits and solitaries therefore immune from what a public media series has called "affluenza"? Perhaps solitaries have a couple of minimum insights. First, that consumption is a very social phenomenon: keeping up with one's neighbors or colleagues, jealous and envious competition, that it is essentially a social and contrived behavior. Secondly, most consumption is psychological: to assuage a hurt, to relieve stress, to serve as self-reward, to indulge a desire for pleasure or greed.

These insights can be more readily available to those who value solitude than for those who do not. And this solitude must not be merely a pragmatic tool the way yoga and meditation are too often being used.

Best Intentions

Unfortunately, the path of simplicity by the best-intentioned use of solitude may not be very convincing. Consider Paul Huston in The Holy Way: Practices for the Simple Life. The cover of the book is invitingly reflective but the content is crammed with anecdotes, opinions and misgivings about very basic practices and attitudes.

Huston writes ten chapter representing ten virtues for the path (reminiscent of the eight-fold noble path of Buddhism; Huston is a Catholic convert from Lutheranism):

  1. Solitude
  2. Silence
  3. Awareness
  4. Purity
  5. Devotion
  6. Right livelihood
  7. Confidence
  8. Integrity
  9. Generosity
  10. Tranquility

Huston then chronicles her experiments in each category, using a human model such as the hermit for solitude, the monk for silence, the contemplative for tranquility, etc. They are experiments in that her busy life (as wife, mother, professor, etc.) never affords her time or space for these practices, which she now realizes are not just abstractions.

Huston admits that she is too gregarious for solitude, too chatty for silence, and that her model for contemplative, whose photograph she finds too "New-Agey," is Bede Griffiths, hardly the easiest model for a contemplative. Tossing up occasional block quotes from a desert father or Gospel commentator interspersed with household doings and snippets of daily life never gets Huston close to defining simplicity for herself or her readers, only looking at it from afar.

To a degree the simplicity Huston advocates means increased study and faith, but following her prescription does not work for everyone nor change the context of society. But while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak. Huston seems to conclude ambiguously that the need to travel the whole path is itself a bitter gift.


Quakerism ought to promise a tradition and clearer commitment to simplicity. A popular book, A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service and Common Sense, by Robert Lawrence Smith, does refine the ten virtues of Huston and make them ten foundations:

  1. Silence
  2. Worship
  3. Truth
  4. Simplicity
  5. Conscience
  6. Nonviolence
  7. Service
  8. Business
  9. Education
  10. Family

Smith tells us that to Quakers, simplicity follows the form of worship. However,

If I were asked to define Quaker simplicity in a nutshell, I would say that it has little to do with how many things you own and everything to do with not letting your possessions own you.

But is this not the typical rationale that the wealthy and the "haves" offer to defend not merely possessions but luxuries? "My possessions don't possess me," people will insist, even people far from wealthy.

Is this really Quakerism? Ironically, Smith has to quote Thoreau and Montaigne to clarify his intention, meaning that despite his critique of shopping and material excess, he does not speak as plainly as his Quaker ancestor John Woolman, who wrote in the 1750's of the commerce of his day:

How lamentable is the present corruption of the world! How impure are the channels through which trade is conducted!

Of course, Woolman was thinking of slavery, but can we say that the premises of economics has changed since then?

Scott Savage, author of A Plain Life and editor of A Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life, is a bit more down to earth than Smith -- who runs the Sidwell Friends School in northwest Washington, D.C., a decidedly un-simple place. Like Huston, Savage is a convert, but to Quakerism, and more specifically to a "plain" version akin to the practices of Amish. So he and his wife have, as he puts it,

gone from being dual-income-no-kids urban professionals to being Amish-like rural folk with a third of the money, a tenth of the possessions, and a household of blessed children.


Presumably simplicity will come easier, both materially and spiritually, when physical circumstances help reinforce values, whether in a physical setting like wilderness, a rural homestead, or urban/suburban solitude. This is the opportunity of the Amish and the homesteaders of today. This was the experience of the Chinese recluses centuries ago, who were not automatically hermits because they brought their entire families into the reclusion of village or mountain life. Physical circumstances conducive to simple habitat is at a premium throughout the modern world.

The key factor to simplicity is not so much the material circumstances, however, as the integrity of the person. Not to say that Smith's objections to his possessions not possessing him are valid. Rather, integrity must be measured by our progress toward sustainable living. At any given time the material circumstances will vary among well-intended individuals, and fluctuate even in the progress of one person. We will not be able to judge, therefore, on a snapshot but on a continuum. Even then, there will always be someone who has more possessions than us (inviting our pride in our supposed simplicity) but also always someone with less (inviting guilt and despair in the possibility of progress in integrity).

A clear set of values, as a tradition or as an personal assemblage of perennial wisdom, obviously helps on the path to simplicity, but the integrity of the individual may be unconscious or understated. Yet it is the only standard. Indeed, integrity may come later than outward signs of simplicity. So, as the Zen masters say: start practicing, then see what happens.

Possessions are projections of the self. In turn, possessions contribute to our psychological state. Rather than manipulate our possessions and become experts in aesthetics, as magazines like Real Simple or books about Zen design suggest, we should begin pursuing simplicity as a philosophy of life.

The ancients counseled a reduction of ego and self first (i.e., "practice"), which then made it easier to reduce possessions and possessiveness. Slowly, simplicity can blossom in our lives without consulting the well-meaning but half-hearted efforts of writers on simplicity who still think in terms of whether we are still able to partake of modern culture instead of thinking in terms of integrity.


Titles mentioned: Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin: Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence. New York: Viking, 2000; Paul Huston: The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003; Robert Lawrence Smith: A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service & Common Sense. New York: Eagle Brook, 1998 and Scott Savage: A Plain Life: Walking My Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.