Living Simply, and Simply Living

“There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.”—G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

There are two ways we can read this witticism. It could mean that true simplicity resides in spontaneity. That is the hippie romanticism of Rousseau and his school. On the other hand, it can mean that simplicity rests on humility and a lack of ostentation; it is a simplicity (or purity) of intention. One recalls, for example, that the Stoic Epicetus ridiculed those who adopted a long beard and philosopher’s garments, believing that these outward trapping were sufficient to make them “wise men” in the eyes of others. I believe this is Chesterton’s point:

One great complaint, I think, must stand against the modern upholders of the simple life… that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things. They would make us simple in the things that do not matter—that is, in diet, in costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter—in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection…. The only kind of simplicity worth preserving is the simplicity of the heart, the simplicity which accepts and enjoys.

I recently read an article in a conservative journal which condemned the noise and distraction of post-modern existence. It is a concern that I share. But the author boasts of leading just the sort of “simple life” that Chesterton describes. Granted some of these ideas may be good. That’s not the point.  I’ve known individuals who adopted a very uncluttered existence, without implicitly condemning modern technology or impugning those who use it. Some people can even preach “simplicity” without ever practicing it (the famous humbug Leo Tolstoy comes to mind). One finds this sort of nonsense at the heart of so much political and intellectual cant.

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