The Simple Life

William Noel Peregrin Ambrose

William Noel Peregrin Ambrose

We’re just recently back from the hospital with our new baby boy, William. The delivery was a little scary, and then having him with us was so wonderful, that I couldn’t help thinking that I need very little else to be happy. If my basic needs were met (food, shelter, warmth, air, etc), and I had meaningful work and Tracey and William to hang out with, then what other things are there that would be critical to having a good life?

In practice, I think I’m exaggerating somewhat. I have plenty of other hopes, dreams and desires, but dwelling on that thought of us sitting around the fire in a little cabin somewhere, little-house-on-the-prairie style, is a most pleasant image. The key here is simplicity.

Simplicity is something that has been on my mind a lot of late. I believe that it’s an important aspect of living a full and happy life. I haven’t quite figured out how strongly we should consider simplicity, as opposed to other criteria for good living, and I also haven’t quite figured out what simplicity means to me, but I’m convinced that it’s important.

I’ve called this post “The Simple Life”, which is of course one of those phrases that is so common in our language that even Paris Hilton uses it. The simple life has come to mean a return to small farming. Now, I love small farming, but I also think that this term is a gross misnomer. Farming and maintaining a homestead is anything but simple. In some ways, it seems to me that the simplest life I could lead would be to live in a serviced apartment in the middle of the city, to program computers all day, order in all my food, and spend my leisure hours sipping gin and tonic on the balcony. However, at the same time it’s clear to almost all of us that modern life has become too complex, and that as a result we have not necessarily experienced the increase in happiness and satisfaction over previous generations which would seem (on the surface) to be the goal of industrialised society.

It’s fairly obvious that a lot of advances of recent decades have not succeeded in making our lives simpler. When the first car came along, we thought “wow, great, now I can get to work and to the market in a fraction of the time that it takes on my horse”. That was true initially. We got to work faster, but then work got further away. Now, we spend more time commuting than before the car was invented. Plus, we have to labour at our jobs for weeks each year to pay for the privilege of having a car, and pay taxes to cover the government subsidised costs of motoring (road construction, etc). Maybe if we had known this all in the beginning then we would have thought better of the whole thing.

Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary Simplicity

So perhaps simplicity is about rejecting some of the assumptions which our civilization has made if we find that they make our lives more complex. One famous book in this field is Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin. This book is actually the result of a survey of people attempting to live a life of voluntary simplicity or frugality. Obviously, what it means to them varies wildly, but it tended to not be far off the images evoked by that phrase, “The Simple Life”. Hard work, frugal living, back to the land.

An alternative viewpoint is provided in Walden, that classic american biographic novel by Henry David Thoreau. Published in 1854, it tells the story of Thoreau’s years living in a cabin which he built by Walden pond, and carefully designing his lifestyle so that his needs were simple enough to meet with the bare minimum of work and obligation. Unlike the respondants to Elgin’s study of voluntary simplicity, Thoreau doesn’t seem at all fond of constant manual labour, in fact it’s his wish to labour far less than those he sees around him on working commercial farms. He eats a very simple diet of bread and rice, vegetables and a bit of dried meat, and he turns down offers such as a door mat, when he considers what it will add to his life in comparison with what effort it might take to maintain. Thereau’s goal then is to remove complexity from his life so that he can spend as much of it as possibly thinking and philosphising, which he believes is a much richer human experience than working hard to achieve small periods of expensive leisure.

Thoreau’s definition of simplicity seems to me to be an accurate one, and his books worth reading, but it’s not the ingredient that I’m looking for in my life. I don’t want to work less, I want to integrate work with my life, rather than keeping it separate as I do when I program computers so that in my spare time I can spend hours at leisure with my family. However, I applaud Thoreau’s thinking in considering each expectation which society places on him and deciding whether it really is making his life better.

A Handmade Life

A Handmade Life

A very pleasing middle ground is found in the book “A Handmade Life” by William Coperthwaite. This is a very close competitor for my “favourite book ever” at the moment (jostling for space with “A Pattern Language” and of course the Lord of the Rings). Coperthwaite’s philosophy attempts to find a balance between Thoreau’s brand of simplicity and also a conscious attempt to consider the beauty of life. To Coperthwaite, beauty takes into account all feelings that something evokes in you. If you have a beautiful object, but know that it’s made by someone labouring in a sweatshop, you’d be hard pressed to find it beautiful. As a homesteader, Coperthwaite is certainly attempting to live a life of voluntary simplicity, but he occasionally surprises with his attempts to cut unnecessary items out of his life to an extent that I hadn’t considered doing myself.

I’m not really sure what all this will mean to me. I think that part of it is a desire to consider how to live a life with less things, and less time spent doing work which serves no purpose other than to maintain some cultural ritual which gives me no benefit, like mowing the lawn when I find tall and wild grasses more beautiful than cut ones. I’d like to keep simplicity in mind as a design criteria for the house that we build at our new homestead. Like Coperthwaite, and unlike Thoreau, I also expect to use beauty as a criteria for my life as well.

For some closing words on this topic, I’ll quote yet another William, William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement:

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”

7 responses

  1. Hi!
    Haven’t had a chance to read this post through yet, but am SO happy that you three (now with the lovely William) are healthy and happy! We were all waiting excitedly and full of hope for word on your lovely new famliy 🙂
    Lots of love & hugs!

  2. William is beautiful! Thank for posting up a photo. Congratulations to all three of you – I read Tracey’s entry and it sounded really intense. I’m so happy you’re all ok.

    My dad pretty much lives the simple life of Thoreau and have done so for as long as i can remember. I wouldnt go that way either – it’s almost the life of a monk.

    I think your approach is a good one though – satisfying activity that is in accordance with one’s values and life is not work no matter how much time one spends on it.

    Anyway, great post. x

  3. Congratulations on the handsome little addition to your family! I expect you’ll be very busy now.

    I love that William Morris quote, it’s one of my favourites. However, I’m not sure it helps in keeping life simple as I’m surrounded by all too many useful things. However, I don’t believe in bringing anything in to the home that’s destined to be discarded.

  4. Oh! Congratulations! I’ve been so busy with our own move and new place that missed this! He is absolutely adorable!

    And the rest of the post is spot on. Well said. To me, simplicity has more to do with disengaging oneself from the rat race which pursues money as it’s only valid goal rather than a sense of purpose and worth. That doesn’t necessarily involve farming for everyone, but to me it is a key ingredient.

  5. Pingback: Coperthwaite Revisited « Indiana Folk and Blue Stone Folk School

  6. I wish I remembered which blog I was reading this morning that sent me over to yours, but I’m glad it did. I’ll be adding this subscription to my list. William Coperthwaite is next on my reading list as soon as I’m finished with Wendell Barry. For some reason I like to read authors sequentially before moving on to another one.



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