Simplicity and lowliness

Every nuance to the word “simplicity” is a necessary understanding of the very concept: simplicity as uncomplicated, simplicity as innocence or naivete, simplicity as directness, simplicity as candor. But simplicity as more than attitude or speech means applying a concept to behavior, action, and habit. How to make our daily lives uncomplicated, innocent, direct, and candid is, first, an aesthetic issue and, secondly, an ethical one.

Aesthetics is human reflection on a natural setting and creation of a comparable model and applied as criteria to what is read, heard, seen, or otherwise experienced. That assumes the role of an artist deliberately creating an object of art that will achieve the aesthetics that he or she believes best conveys thought or feeling. But unspoken in the artist’s mind is that aesthetics is also given by nature and life. Do we interpret what we see or interpret what we feel?

We may have definitions in terms of functionality or ornateness but they must be applied to something concrete. Thus we may see the complexities of the Chartres cathedral as ultimately simple but likewise the little cottage. Or is the sea simple when in a raging thunderstorm or must it be calm and glassy in order to be simple? Is a song or poem simple just because it is sparse in words but is otherwise not well expressed, not successful?

In the realm of ethics, simplicity can have a mix of aesthetics and ethics. Or as Kierkegaard says, the right aesthetics, consciously applied, will inevitably make the right ethics, as long as the continuum of values is the same.

The aesthetics of solitude, reflected in the austere huts of hermits, classical poetry, rounds of meditation or hours, modest herbal gardens and wooden eating bowls, and the like, are aesthetics that point to ethics in terms of lifestyles and disengagement from the world. We can glimpse these intimations, color or dilute them somewhat for lay people in urban settings, and still imagine what simplicity is. Of course, if these aesthetic suggestions do not seem motivating, we will probably not succeed in simplifying our lives, throwing our hands up in despair at how remote our daily lives are from genuine simplicity.

And in modern times, it may well be impossible to be simple without fading away from public life altogether, from media, technology, and communications like — ironically — the Internet. Pushed hard enough towards radical simplicity, we can begin to perceive a radical ethics in simplicity, not merely aesthetics or a “bourgeois” ethics.

Kierkegaard indirectly offers a discussion of simplicity when he compares the Christian and the “pagan” in their notions of lowliness. The Christian, maintains Kierkegaard, is lowly, but he is a Christian, and that justifies his lowliness, gives him a spiritual prototype so that his simplicity is not in vain. The pagan, however, sees simplicity as a “being nothing” and therefore must despair, especially despair of not being consoled by God.

That is Kierkegaard’s logic, but he is not really convincing, I think, because he then points to the bird as an example of a lowliness that is not aware of its lowliness and therefore does not despair, unlike the pagan.

Like the free bird when it soars highest in its joy over existing, just so does the lowly Christian soar even higher; like the trapped bird when it hopelessly and fearfully struggles to its death in the net, just so the lowly pagan, even more pitiable, desouls himself in the captivity of nothingness.

Two points glare at us. First, the premise that lofty joy really is the lot of the Christian, a kind of perpetual confidence, if not ecstasy, based on faith and hope; but, secondly, the absence of a sense that consciousness — that wound of human beings that deprives them of the simplicity of the bird but also introduces the critical human faculty that makes of lofty joy a projection of belief but not an intrinsic part of nature and reality.

The bird and the Christian do not soar in equivalent joy, as Kierkegaard suggests. Indeed, in a following essay, he brilliantly skewers the ethics of joy as a human contrivance that is short of the first prerequisite: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” As Kierkegaard states in the first sentence of his essay “The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air”:

From the lily and the bird as teachers, let us learn silence, or learn to be silent.” (emphasis his)

Truly the beginning of simplicity is silence, for only silence ends the adornments we add to feelings, the adornments we append to idle thoughts, the gravitas we assign to even our deliberate thoughts. We must be neither the exultant Christian nor the aggrieved pagan but the bird, whose absence of consciousness lets it exalt and grieve in natural order or sequence, with a kind of ruthless necessity that consciousness ever shields from us.