Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, subtlety, or depth. Simplicity refers to a relationship with the external world. Simplicity is a detachment or disengagement from the values of the world. For the hermit or solitary, the consequences of this detachment or disengagement ripple through the more obvious and visible aspects of his or her external life, eventually touching and transforming the entirety of life. Encountering such a person will not automatically reveal his or her inner life. But the outer life will reflect the values of simplicity.

Hermits and solitaries throughout history have been ordinary people, but also scholars, poets, counselors, artists, and mystics. What they had in common was a sensitivity to self that could not abide the contortions of personality required by those who seek to engage society and the world in its fullest (i.e., its worst) sense. Simplicity undoes the knots, smooths the crooked, and makes visible the obscure. But it does so first for the hermit and solitary. To the world, it looks differently — at minimum a challenge, at most an affront to authority.

Simplicity is not naivety, primitivism, or innocence. The Rousseauan psychology of primitive peoples, as presented by the structuralist anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, for example, assumes good of the primitive and evil of the civilized. This premise has been adapted by many (including New Age advocates). It presents a hostility to thought, an anti-intellectualism, and a contrived notion of freedom that is based on myth and parable about primitivism. But none of this is simplicity.

Simplicity is not a frustration with the limitations of undisciplined human consciousness. Simplicity is not what Nietzsche properly called resentment — resentment at complexity, or even contrivance. Simplicity does not seek revenge, competition, conformity, or advocacy. Simplicity does not idealize because it does not see anything as completed but in a process, a natural course of being. Simplicity, therefore, does not even need archetypes, however useful, because simplicity is a condition inherent to a certain stage of being that has outlasted and survived archetypes. Myths, parables, and archetypes are useful learning tools, but — as the Zen saying goes — once we have seen the moon we no longer need to watch the finger pointing at it.

Simplicity does not try to recreate, visualize, or fantasize an ideal person. That person is not real, anymore than a painting of a person is alive. We know that any approximation to the ideal (we can still project one, for the sake of thinking and reflection) is going to be complex, tortuous, and filled with false paths. But this is not the portrait of the ideal, one of struggle and confusion. Simplicity is not the pursuit of an abstraction or ideal but the process of reaching the inner core (couer, “heart”) of meaning and being. Simplicity does so by discarding artifice, contrivance, presumed needs, desires. Simplifying life is like Michelangelo or Rodin removing from the stone what is unnecessary.

Life is an art and our efforts benefit (at a minimum) from reflecting on aesthetic principles. Achieving a kind of wabi-sabi of diurnal existence makes complexity subtle, makes shallowness deep, and makes solitude an embrace of everything. The Analects says (4.25): “Virtue never dwells alone; it will always have neighbors.”