Simplicity and poverty

Simplicity is a qualitative application of principles, whether aesthetic or ascetic. Simplicity represents a conscious attempt to reduce the complexity of objects and appearance in some function of life. Nature is the model of simplicity because it represents functionality, efficiency, effectiveness, and a discrete harmony. Nature is as simple and as complex as anything we can conjure. That very wide-ranging activity challenges us in trying to make nature a model, but functionality and not functions is the focus of simplicity.

On the other hand, poverty is a material condition or setting which evolves with the individual into a physical and mental condition. Poverty is deprivation of functionality, absence of harmony, and the breakdown of the natural relations of one object to another.

For individuals, simplicity is a goal and opportunity to take on as a project involving self or just an external like art, design, or environment. Thus simplicity can apply to diet, exercise, dwelling, thought, or spirit. Simplicity can be principles for self-expression in literary forms.

Simplicity is optional, embraced voluntarily, pursued freely. It is hard to imagine society insisting on simplicity, except where the individual happens to be aware of other cultural styles — which, just because they are foreign to a culture will be seen as threatening, decadent, unethical, or complex. The Amish will insist on simplicity — when aware of society outside itself. And there are many other anthropological examples.

Simplicity usually begins with the level of material and emotional culture and is taken by the individual to a deeper level of purification. As the world shrinks and globalization exposes every small or private culture to the ways and vices of other societies, the individual is increasingly overwhelmed. To become simple and retain simplicity in daily life and thought becomes virtually radical and anti-social. Yet there are always opportunities to implement simplicity.

Simplicity movements in the West begin with a given level of material and cultural premises. Art, style, public thought, and technology are already given, are already forced upon the awareness. There is nowhere to go confronting the world (or society) with simplicity except to deconstruction. Deconstruction is always perceived by social authority as threatening. Yet for the individual, the elimination of superfluities and dysfunctions that harm life and spirit — the dysfunctional complexities that all advanced societies inevitably create — simplicity is healthy and refreshing.

Here simplicity is not contrarianism or a kind of agnosticism. Simplicity is not a lack of faith or hope, but it is a reduction that will be perceived as either naive, soulless, or threatening.

Simplicity is not minimalism, which is almost quantitative but projects a qualitative value after the fact. Often, minimalism is a crude eviceration rather than a simplification, the removal of interrelations by cutting rather than unraveling. Simplification is not a rescue from complexity but a dropping-away or disengagement from dysfunction. Complexity is not the “enemy” but rather dysfunction. By identifying what does not work, what can be shown to be a superfluity that does not work, the complexity can be understood and even accepted. The complexity of the human body, for example, or of microbes, soil science, hydrology, meteorology, cosmology, etc., is not offensive, and does not affect simplicity as a model of philosophy and ethics.

This is the wonderful irony of, for example, modern diet. By removing the imagined gist of, say, a fruit rich in vitamins, a pill is manufactured and presented as superior to the original food. Only after the fact is it discovered, many years later and after illnesses, that the original food contained countless complex products that make it more rich and healthy than the pill, product of expensive labs, research, and profit.

Poverty is a human condition but can be understood as a condition of nature, too — nature that is deliberately harmed by conscious intent, human intent. Human intent is not necessarily individual culpability. Why some peoples are poor is not the direct action of a given individual, but the result of generations of social conditions. However, if recognized as a deprivation or dysfunction, then poverty is the moral equivalent of malevolent cells in a physical body, a body which also supports the far-off individual. (The pill that replaced the fruit is poverty, deliberate or not.)

Poverty is a deprivation even of what is salutary. But what is salutary for the person embarked on implementing simplicity? Where do the two paths intersect? Is the path to simplicity pursued by the ignorant or immature in fact a dangerous direction towards poverty? The ignorant or immature person actually embarks on a path to poverty when not understanding the qualitative character of simplicity, when psychologically coerced to believe that simplicity is deprivation. (This is why ascetic traditions have a feedback loop to a sage or elder who can counsel the ways of fasting, etc.) Deprivation is poverty because deprivation means lacking in the salutary, which the individual must define and comprehend before even the first step of the journey.

How many people in search for themselves have failed to carry this careful distinction? Solitude is a grand field of nuance, and many who enter it are fleeing introspection in fear, are involuntarily whirled or thrown into a psychological abyss. Hermits who disappear, or starve themselves, may be equivalent to the many people who suffer involuntary solitude, those described by Sue Halpern in her book Migrations To Solitude: imprisoned, addicted, depressed, lonely, ill, etc. Eremitism must be informed and conscious, scrupulously honest to self in motive and method. Simplicity is an excellent tool for provisioning daily life.

Only the totality of a person’s life will reveal the nature of their solitude and decisions. Only the totality of their lives will reveal the nature of simplicity, and whether they lived or died simply or “poorly.”