This post examines the virtue of simplicity. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what others have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
Simplicity is often recommended, but it means different things to different people. That shouldn’t be too surprising, as you can be more simple or more complex on many different dimensions. The puzzle, then, from the point of view of simplicity-as-a-virtue, is to discover whether there is some underlying benefit to all of these different forms of simplicity, or whether each one needs to be appreciated (or not) on its own merits.
Simplicity is also a popular aesthetic. The google.com front page with its logo, one-field form, and two buttons, centered on a plain white background, is one example. The consistent Steve Jobs / Mark Zuckerberg uniform of black (or grey) shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers is another.
The household interiors in Real Simple magazine prioritize function over decoration, and feature subdued colors, absence of clutter, natural materials, and few electronic gadgets and logos. Simplicity here seems to imply calm, reduced distraction, and insulation from the blinking beeping jarring noise of technology and commerce. The LessWrong site, with its bountiful whitespace, subdued color scheme, and absence of distracting pop-ups, ads, and animated doo-dads, is an on-line example of a similar aesthetic.
The Marie Kondo phenomenon reabsorbed the aesthetics of simplicity into a more comprehensive “life changing” program that promises to “bring joy into your life” through tidiness, order, and simplicity.
On the other hand, the simple aesthetic can look ridiculous when pushed to extremes: when tidiness has less to do with creating an orderly space for life’s work, and more to do with creating a sterile display that no work is allowed to pollute.
“Simple” is sometimes also deployed pejoratively. Calling someone simple can be a way of saying they’re not too bright. Someone who is simplistic sees the world in black-and-white, or forces complex matters into simple categories by recklessly discarding nuance. You don’t want to “over-simplify matters.” This suggests that simplicity is another of those “golden mean”-style virtues of the Goldilocksian too-little, too-much, just-right variety.
Some virtues that are in the same ballpark as simplicity include moderation (balance, not taking things to extremes), temperance (having well-regulated desires), efficiency (avoiding wasted effort), and orderliness (being uncluttered, everything in its place). Coping with complexity well — prioritizing, maintaining perspective, transiting gracefully between the big picture and the gory details, being able to switch focus rapidly without getting flustered — is also important, and maybe we should beware of embracing simplicity if we might be doing so in order to avoid working on skills like those.
Eliezer Yudkowsky made simplicity the seventh of his twelve virtues of rationality, and described it this way:
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Simplicity is virtuous in belief, design, planning, and justification. When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong. Each specification adds to your burden; if you can lighten your burden you must do so. There is no straw that lacks the power to break your back. Of artifacts it is said: The most reliable gear is the one that is designed out of the machine. Of plans: A tangled web breaks. A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere. In mathematics a mountain of good deeds cannot atone for a single sin. Therefore, be careful on every step.
Occam’s Razor is one classic example of how simplicity can come to the aid of rationality.
The story of the progress of science is often told as a series of simplifications and consolidations, as when the various complex methods of predicting the mysterious motions of the heavenly bodies were subsumed under a single explanation that also explained the motion of more mundane bodies close at hand.
“Our life is frittered away by detail.… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” ―Thoreau
Simplicity is one antidote for distraction. If you are pulled this way and that by a thousand unimportant demands, you may lack the focus you need to make any headway in more crucial areas.
Thoreau describes his experiment in Walden in this way: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Simplicity in this sense is a sort of reassessment and retrenching: What’s in that sack I’m lugging around with me, and what do I fill my days with? Is some of that just accumulated junk I’d be better off without? What’s the essence of what I’m about and what’s superfluous? If I take that rubbish out to the curb, can I make more room in my life for more important things?
Marie Kondo invented a charming ritual to accompany this process as it applies to things we own. As part of the decluttering process of getting rid of an item that no longer “sparks joy,” she recommends thanking the item for whatever service it gave: “People may feel guilty when letting go of items. By expressing gratitude toward the items you let go, it will lessen the feeling of guilt.” I can imagine something like this also making it easier to move on from non-material things, like hobbies or causes or social media accounts, that are offering diminishing returns. This way you don’t feel you have to harshly repudiate who you were in order to become who you’d like to be.
“From time to time I meet people who live among riches I cannot even imagine. I still have to make an effort to realize that others can feel envious of such wealth. A long time ago, I once lived a whole week luxuriating in all the goods of this world: we slept without a roof, on a beach, I lived on fruit, and spent half my days alone in the water. I learned something then that has always made me react to the signs of comfort or of a well-appointed house with irony, impatience, and sometimes anger. Although I live without worrying about tomorrow now, and therefore count myself among the privileged, I don’t know how to own things. What I do have, which always comes to me without my asking for it, I can’t seem to keep. Less from extravagance, I think, than from another kind of parsimony: I cling like a miser to the freedom that disappears as soon as there is an excess of things.” ―Albert Camus
Advocates of simplicity often point out the advantages of being unencumbered by many material things. Simplicity in this sense is a prerequisite for freedom. The more needs you have, the more things you are the caretaker of, the larger your footprint, the heavier your knapsack, the more restrained are your choices and the more limited your range. Our possessions confine us: “Chains of gold are stronger than chains of iron.”
Conspicuous consumption and social aspiration often take the blame for these encumbrances. We buy a clever new time-saving kitchen appliance, and forget that we’ll still have to clean it, find a place on our crowded counters for it, and try to remember where we put its warranty when it breaks. We try to keep up with the Joneses with a house as big as theirs, a car as nice as theirs, a vacation no less exotic and adventurous, and so forth, and what we get in return are obligations that bind us to the treadmill.
Living simply usually means living less expensively. This can help you have more options in your professional life: you are freer to choose a more intrinsically rewarding job even if it pays less, and you can squirrel away that treasured “fuck you money” that allows you to walk away from an unethical or demeaning job rather than compromise to pay the bills.
The more complicated and sophisticated our needs, the more difficulty we have in meeting them, and the more dissatisfaction we can expect. Are you sure that’s a price worth paying for refined and fashionable tastes? “The luxurious receive no greater pleasure from their dainties than the peasant does from his bread and cheese,” wrote William Paley, “but the peasant whenever he goes abroad finds a feast, whereas the epicure must be well entertained to escape disgust.”
That slur against the epicure aside, Epicurus himself mostly agreed with Paley about this:
We believe that self-sufficiency is a great good, not in order that we might make do with few things under all circumstances, but so that if we do not have a lot we can make do with few, being genuinely convinced that those who least need extravagance enjoy it most; and that everything natural is easy to obtain and whatever is groundless is hard to obtain; and that simple flavors provide a pleasure equal to that of an extravagant lifestyle when all pain from want is removed, and barley cakes and water provide the highest pleasure when someone in want takes them. Therefore, becoming accustomed to simple, not extravagant, ways of life makes one completely healthy, makes man unhesitant in the face of life’s necessary duties, puts us in a better condition for the times of extravagance which occasionally come along, and makes us fearless in the face of chance.
Sometimes people will also suggest that extravagance on your part probably means deprivation for someone else. “Live simply that others may simply live,” reads the bumper sticker. Nowadays, simplicity is often measured in part by one’s carbon footprint or, more generally, by how much non-renewable resources one consumes: “How many planets would we need to satisfy the demand if everyone used as many natural resources as me?” Simplicity in this sense sometimes finds itself under a conservationist umbrella with car-free living, vegetarianism, reduce/reuse/recycle, going off-the-grid, and things of that sort.
To express simplicity as a virtue is to understand the value of simplicity and to incorporate ways of achieving it into your life.
Complexity itself has costs. It makes life harder to manage, reduces our degrees of freedom, and so forth. Often people do not factor those costs into their decisions as they incrementally and inattentively complexify their lives. A person with the virtue of simplicity asks, of any decision they make, “does this make my life more complex, and if so is that worth it?”
If you value simplicity you will also reassess your current possessions and pastimes using simplicity as a metric, while on guard against things like the sunk cost fallacy and status quo bias that might tempt you to keep that spoiled milk well past its expiration date.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854) chapter 2
Albert Camus, “The Wrong Side and the Right Side (Preface)” (1937)
William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785)
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus