The Spirit Of Simplicity
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BEFORE being able to show in what consists in practice the return to the simplicity to which we aspire, it is necessary to define simplicity in its very spirit and essence. For, in regard to it, the same error is made that we have just denounced, and which consists in con-founding the secondary with the essential, the sub-stance with the form. They are tempted to believe that simplicity offers certain external characteristics by which it may be known, and in which it consists. Simplicity and lowly station, modest garments, a plain house, mediocrity and poverty, these things seem to go together. This is not the case, however. Of three men whom I have just met on my road, one rode in a carriage, the other walked, while the third was bare-footed. This last one is not necessarily the simplest of the three. It may be that the man in the carriage is simple, in spite of his grand position, and is not the slave of his wealth. It may be that the man with shoes does not envy him who passes in his carriage, and does not despise the man in rags, with his feet bare in the dust, and it is possible that the third man has a hatred of simplicity, labor and sobriety, and dreams only of an easy life, pleasures and idleness. Among the least simple of men we must count professional mendicants, knights of the road, parasites, and all that tribe of the obsequious and envious, whose aspirations resolve themselves into this—to be able to seize the largest possible morsel of that prey which the fortunate ones of the earth consume. And in this same category, no matter what their station in life, belong the ambitious, the crafty, the effeminates, the misers, the haughty and the refined. The livery counts for nothing. We must see the heart. No class has the sole privilege of simplicity. No costume, however humble it may appear, is its assured badge. Its habitation is not necessarily the attic, neither the hut, nor the cell of the ascetic, nor the poorest fisherman's cabin. Under all forms that clothe life, in all social positions, at the lowest as well as its topmost rung of the ladder, there are beings who are simple and others who are not. We do not wish to claim by that that simplicity has no outward signs, that it has no habits, its own distinguishing tastes and manners, but we must not confound those forms which could in case of need be borrowed, with its own essence and its profound depths. This source is altogether interior.
Simplicity is a state of mind. It dwells in the main intention that animates us. A man is simple when his highest desire consists in wishing to be that which he should be; that is to say, a true and honest man. This is neither as easy nor as impossible as one might imagine. At the bottom it consists in putting his aspirations and his acts in accord with the very law of our being, and in consequence with the Eternal intention which willed that he should be at all. Let a flower be a flower, a swallow a swallow, a rock a rock, and a man be a man, and not a fox, a hare, a bird of prey or a pig. All is summed up in that.
We are therefore here led to formulate the practical ideal of man. In all life we observe a certain quantity of forces, and substances associated for one aim. Materials more or less crude are there transformed, and carried to a higher degree of organism. It is not otherwise with the life of man. The human ideal will be the desire to transform life into something better and grander than itself. One could compare life to raw material. What it is matters less than what they make of it. As in a work of art, what should be appreciated is what the worker has known how to put in it.
We bring with our birth different gifts. One has received gold, another granite, a third one marble, and the most just wood or clay. Our task consists in fashioning these materials. All know that they can spoil the most precious substance, but also that they can wrest an immortal work from a valueless material. Art consists in realizing a permanent idea, in an ephemeral form. Real life consists in realization of the higher virtues, which are justice, love, truth, liberty, and moral energy in our daily activities, whatever may be their place or their exterior forms. And this life is possible in the most diverse social conditions, and with the most unequal natural gifts. It is not fortune, or personal advantages, but the turning of them to account which constitutes the value of life. Renown adds no more than does the length of days. The quality is the principle.
It is necessary to say that one does not reach this point of view without a struggle and some effort. The spirit of simplicity is not an inherited gift, but the result of a laborious conquest. To live well, as to think well, is to simplify it. Every one knows that science consists in bringing some general rules out of a bunch of divers things. But how many dark places and reachings out and touching to finally discover those rules ! Centuries of research are often condensed in a principle that is held in one line. Moral life offers on this line a great analogy with scientific life. It, too, begins in some confusion, tries, seeks to know itself and is often deceived.
But by continual action, and rendering account to himself of all his actions in strict sincerity, man at last comes to understand life better. The law appears to him, and that law is this, accomplish your mission. Whosoever applies himself to other things than the realization of this aim loses in living the very reason of his being in life. Thus are egotists formed, the pleasure seekers, and the ambitious. They consume their existence as one might eat his grain still in the tender grass. They hinder it from its natural fruition. Their vices are lost lives. On the contrary, he who makes his life serve a good higher than itself, saves it in giving it. Moral precepts which seem arbitrary in the eyes of the superficial and made for the purpose of vexing us into spoiling our zest for life, have but one object, after all, and that is to preserve us from having lived in vain. It is for that that they always lead us in the same direction and that they have the same sense, "Do not waste your life. Fructify it, make it bear fruit. Learn how to give it so that you may not lose it !"
In that is resumed the experience of humanity. This experience, which each man is obliged to have for himsel becomes more precious according to its cost to him. Illumined by its light, his moral advancement becomes surer. He has now his compass, which shows him to what he can lead everything that is uncertain, and all that is confused and complicated becomes simple. By the constant influence of that same law which expands within him and is proven every day in actions, a transformation in his judgment and habits is produced.
One captivated by the beauty and grandeur of the real life, by that which is holy and touching in that struggle of humanity for truth, justice, goodness, en-folds his fascination for it in his heart. And everything becomes subordinate quite naturally to that powerful and persistent preoccupation. The hierarchy of forces and powers organize themselves in him. The essential commands, the secondary obeys and order is born of simplicity. One might compare the mechanism of the interior or inner life to that of an army. An army is strong by its discipline, and discipline consists in the respect of the inferior for the superior and in the concentration of all the energies toward one single end. As soon as discipline relaxes the army suffers. The corporal must not command the general. Examine your life with care and those of others, and that of society. Every time that something rings or grinds, and complications or disorder follow, it is because the corporal has given orders to the general. There where the law of simplicity has penetrated in the heart disorder disappears.
I despair of ever describing simplicity in a manner Worthy of it. All the strength of the world, and all its beauty, all its real joy, all that consoles and adds to hope, all that which sheds light on obscure paths, all that shows us across our poor lives some sublime aim and some immense future comes to us from simple beings who have assigned to their desires another object than the passing satisfactions of egotism and vanity, and who have understood that the science of life consists in knowing how to give one's life.