Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Voluntary Simplicity
by Richard Gregg (1936)

Voluntary Simplicity of living has been advocated and practised by the founders of most of the great religions -- Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Moses and Mohammed -- also by many saints and wise men such as St. Francis, John Woolman, the Hindu rishis, the Hebrew prophets, the Moslem sufis; by many artists and scientists; and by such great modern leaders as Lenin and Gandhi. It has been followed also by members of military armies and monastic orders -- organizations which have had great and prolonged influence on the world.

To those who say that machinery and the apparatus of living are merely instruments and devices which are without moral nature in themselves, but which can be used for either good or evil, I would point out that we are all influenced by the tools and means which we use. Again and again in the lives of individuals and of nations we see that when certain means are used vigorously, thoroughly and for a long time, those means assume the character and influence of an end in themselves. We become obsessed by our tools. "The strong quantitative elements in science, machinery and money, and in their products, tend to make the thinking and life of those who use them mechanistic and divided." The relationships which science, machinery and money create give us more energy outwardly but they live upon and take away from us our inner energy.

We think that our machinery and technology will save us time and give us more leisure, but really they make life more crowded and hurried. When I install in my house a telephone, I think it will save me all the time and energy of going to market every day, and much going about for making petty inquiries and minor errands to those with whom I have dealings. True, I do use it for those purposes but I also immediately expand the circle of my frequent contacts, and that anticipated leisure time rapidly is filled by telephone calls to me or with engagements I make by the use of it. "The motor car has the same effect upon our domestic life. We are all covering much bigger territory than formerly, but the expected access of leisure is conspicuous by its absence." Indeed, where the motor cars are very numerous, you can now, at many times during the day, walk faster than you can go in a taxi or bus.

"The mechanized countries are not the countries noted for their leisure." Any traveller to the Orient can testify that the tempo of life there is far more leisurely than it is in the industrialized West. To a lesser degree, the place to find relative leisure in the United States is not in the highly mechanized cities, but in the country...

Those who think that complexities of transportation, communication and finance have relieved the world from underfeeding and famine are mistaken. Probably their error comes from the fact that they belong to the comfortable and well-to-do groups among the powerful of the world. They have not understood, if indeed they have read, the statistics and reports of social and relief workers in regard to the extent of undernourishment in their own populations and in the rest of the world...

No -- the way to master the increasing complexity of life is not through more complexity. The way is to turn inward to that which unifies all -- not the intellect but the spirit, and then to devise and put into operation new forms and modes of economic and social life that will truly and vigorously express that spirit. As an aid to that and as a corrective to our feverish over-mechanization, simplicity is not outmoded but greatly needed.

If I have much real and personal property and am interested in it, my time is very largely occupied in looking after it. I will not have much time for simple neighbourliness. A selfish and aggressive neighbour may infringe on my boundaries so as to use some of my land next to his own. He would not have been so likely to do that if I had previously been truly friendly with him, had shared some of my garden produce with him and his family, and had been kind to his children. So my failure to do the things which would have created good feeling and a sense of human unity in him has resulted in trouble between us. The lack of simplicity in my own life has engrossed too much of my time and energy and has been an effective cause in creating disunity. Moreover, if, as some people believe, we are at the beginning of a period of economic decline, it may well be that great simplicity of living is the main condition upon which the learned professions which require leisure will be permitted to exist. If so, the previous voluntary adoption of greater simplicity by the learned professions would count for their security and make the transition easier for them. Something of that is recognized in the age-old Hindu society in which the Brahmans -- the teachers, physicians, priests and other learned professions -- are morally bound to and predominantly actually do maintain lives of extreme simplicity as an essential element in their professional code, to which great respect is accorded.

For those who believe in non-violence, simplicity is essential. Many possessions involve violence in the form of police protection and law suits. The concentration of much property in one person's possessions creates resentment and envy or a sense of inferiority among others who do not have it. Such feelings, after they have accumulated long enough, become the motives which some day find release in acts of mob violence. Hence, the possession of much property becomes inconsistent with principles of non-violence. Simplicity helps to prevent violence. Again, the non-violent person may some day become a conscientious objector and subject to punishment by governments - possibly jail sentence. If he has habitually practised simplicity he will not have so much to lose that it would weaken his stand nor will he be too fearful of jail life. Also, unless he has habitually practised simple living there will be in the minds of others a slight doubt as to the completeness of his sincerity and unselfishness. That doubt will hamper the persuasiveness of his gentle resistance and voluntary suffering when the time comes for non-violent resistance.

The greatest gulf in society is between the rich and the poor. The practice of simplicity by the well-to-do helps to bridge this gulf and may be therefore an expression of love. The rich young man was advised by Jesus to sell all his goods and give to the poor and thus simplify his life, in order to perfect his religious life. No doubt such an act would have resulted in more than simplification of the young man's life, but that would have been one of the results.

Hinduism and Buddhism have also emphasized the value of simplicity. The anonymous author of The Practice of Christianity believes that tenderheartedness -- gentle kindness -- is the supreme virtue and the essence of Jesus' teachings. Tenderheartedness, together with great intelligence and strength of character, has in the cases of such leaders as Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, George Fox, John Woolman and Gandhi, resulted in simplicity. Tender-heartedness seems to have been one of the elements which compelled those men to recognize human unity and to live in accordance with it and to share their property and lives with those who had need. Thus simplicity is perhaps a part of utter gentleness, and may be essential to those who would really practice religion.

The greatest characters, those who have influenced the largest numbers of people for the longest time have been people with extremely few possessions. The reason for this is something that we usually fail to realize, namely that the essence of personality does not lie in its isolated individuality, its separateness from other people, its uniqueness, but in its basis of relationships with other personalities. It is a capacity for friendship, for fellowship, for intercourse, for entering imaginatively into the lives of others. At its height it is a capacity for and exercise of love. Friendship and love do not require ownership of property for either their ordinary or their finest expression. Creativeness does not depend on possession. Intangible relationships are more important to the individual and to society than property is. It is true that a certain kind of pleasure and satisfaction come for acquiring mastery over material things, but that sort of power and that sort of satisfaction are not so secure, so permanent, so deep, so characteristic of mental and moral maturity as are some others. The most permanent, most secure and most satisfying sort of possession of things other than the materials needed for bodily life, lies not in physical control and power of exclusion but in intellectual, emotional and spiritual understanding and appreciation. This is especially clear in regard to beauty...

If a person lives among great possessions, they constitute an environment which influences him. His sensitiveness to certain important human relations is apt to become clogged and dulled, his imagination in regard to the subtle but important elements of personal relationship or in regard to lives in circumstances less fortunate than his own is apt to become less active and less keen. This is not always the result, but the exception is rare. When enlarged to inter-group relationships this tends to create social misunderstandings and friction.

The most beautiful and restful room I ever entered was in a Japanese country inn, without any furniture or pictures or applied ornaments. Its beauty lay in its wonderful proportions and the soft colours of unpainted wood beams,paper walls and straw matting. There can be beauty in complexity but complexity is not the essence of beauty. Harmony of line, proportion and colour are much more important. In a sense, simplicity is an important element in all great art, for it means the removal of all details that are irrelevant to a given purpose. It is one of the arts within the great art of life. And perhaps the mind can be guided best if its activities are always kept organically related to the most important purposes in life.

"If simplicity of living is a valid principle there is one important precaution and condition of its application." I can explain it best by something which Mahatma Gandhi said to me. We were talking about simple living and I said that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, "Then don't give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired." It is interesting to note that this advice agrees with modern Western psychology of wishes and suppressed desires. This also substantiates what we said near the beginning of our discussion, ... the application of the principle of simplicity is for each person or each family to work out sincerely for themselves."...

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