Is Simplicity a Virtue?

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As I am currently trying to live a simpler life, I couldn’t help but wonder whether simplicity actually can be seen as a virtue. I made some research about what virtues are and whether simplicity is one of them. Here is what I found.

Is simplicity a virtue? Historically speaking, a significant amount of philosophers (such as Plato), empires and religions have seen simplicity as a virtue. Nowadays, especially in the context of increased complexity due to new technologies, simplicity also appears to be a virtue. It helps us focus more on the essence of things and relationships, and live a better life doing good around us.

In the following paragraphs, I will dive deeper into the reasons why simplicity can be seen as a virtue.

1. Why Can Simplicity Be Said to Be a Virtue?

What is a virtue?

A virtue is a personal trait or quality that appears to be good and showcases the high moral standards of an individual. Virtues are personal values that promote “collective or individual greatness”[1].

Values and hence virtues, one could argue, are highly subjective. They derive from an individual’s cultural background, religious beliefs, personal history. Which is why I would like to mention here that this article discusses some historical facts as well as one of the mainstream contemporary views on simplicity.

However, I do not believe that the answer to the question – “Is simplicity a virtue?” – is simple or straightforward.

What History Teaches us About Simplicity as a Virtue

Throughout history, a significant amount of philosophers, empires, and religions appear to have seen simplicity as an important virtue.

Plato, an ancient Athenian Philosopher about Simplicity

“Temperance”, which can be defined as moderation or self-voluntary self-restraint, was one of the 4 platonic virtues. Temperance has different aspects to it. It includes exercising self-control and calmness in a set of situations, such as refraining from cravings and other excesses or showing modesty. Hence, temperance can be said to include forms of simplicity.

The Roman Empire about Simplicity

Later, “Frugalitas”[1] or frugality, was defined as one of the core virtues in the Roman Empire. The underlying meaning of frugality was simplicity in lifestyle.

Christianity about Simplicity

Christianity also defined virtues which are opposed to the seven sins. Temperance appears to be opposed to the sin of gluttony. Hence, simplicity also seems to be perceived as part of moral excellence in one of the important monotheistic religions.

Contemporary View on Simplicity as a Virtue

Nowadays, we often define simplicity as getting rid of the unnecessary, and to focus on the essence of life.

Simplicity can indeed be seen as a core virtue in a world of increased complexity. Put in context, here are a few examples of how simplicity can be deemed good.

Simplicity is Better for the People Around You

Simplicity implies a certain amount of behaviours which will make you a better person for your close ones.

First, possessing less and reducing complexity in your life will make you more focused and present in the moment. This means that you will become a better listener and can proactively play a positive role in your family or friends’ life.

If you are trying to stay away from complexity, this also means that lying is not an option. Another important impact will hence be honesty towards others. Clear, transparent communication is essential, and others will be able to learn from you.

Simplicity is Better for Your Environment

Leading a simpler life, with fewer possessions and simpler activities inherently leads to a diminished negative impact on the environment.

  • Buying fewer clothes
  • Walking instead of driving
  • Reading a book instead of – say – riding a dirt-bike in the mountains

Simplicity is Better for Your Health

Simplicity also can make you healthier. How?

  • Eating simpler, less processed food will make you healthier
  • Having a clutter-free home will help you clear your mind
  • Focusing on a handful of simple activities will reduce your stress levels
  • Appreciating simple things will make you happier in the long run.

If you are interested to hear more about how simplicity can impact your health positively, here are two articles I wrote about similar topics: Too many To-Do Lists: How Does this Happen and What to Do About It? and Why Do We Feel Overwhelmed By Career Choices? What To Do About It?.

2. Why is simplicity important?

Simplicity seems to always have been quite important and central as a virtue throughout History.

Never before have we been faced with such a high level of complexity. Technology has evolved exponentially over the last centenary. The population has been growing extremely fast, which has caused cities to explode in numbers of inhabitants.

If simplicity has always been quite central, it now seems to become even more vital and essential in order to live a good life and have a positive impact around us.

The capacity to detach yourself regularly from our complex world is a core faculty to be able to focus on the essential. Simplicity can help you find your true self again and live a better life.

This is why, currently, many trends seem to push us towards this virtue.

Minimalism suggests that one should reduce one’s possessions to a bare minimum.

The recently created Frugalist movement is about saving as much as possible for a limited amount of years, in order to be able to retire very early (as soon as the mid-30s or 40s). The idea behind it is that your freedom and time are invaluable resources. They are worth much more than money and the lifestyle it can buy.

3. What is simplicity in life?

Simplicity in life can come in various ways.

For some, it is about reducing the stuff they own to a bare minimum. Living out of a small suitcase, or a van, a tiny house.

Others focus more on the mental aspect.

For instance, by practising meditation, you can help declutter your mind. You will always have thoughts, but mindfulness can help you simply sit and observe these thoughts. Take distance from the complexity of your mind.

By being grateful for simple things, life actually seems easier and simpler to you.

Striving for a simpler mind also will reduce the complexity of your emotions. More honesty towards yourself and others. Less anger, less tormented feelings.

Another way of seeing simplicity in life is in terms of activities. A simpler life can mean doing less, and less complex things. For instance, instead of watching TV you read a book. Or instead of having 10 appointments on the weekend, you reduce it to 3.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue

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