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The Greatness of Simplicity

The Greatness of Simplicity
Photo by George Liapis / Unsplash
An addendum by William George Jordan

While working on writing “Hard Lessons from Israel’s High-Tech Border Failure” earlier this week, including thinking through its arguments on the value of simple over complex systems, I kept finding my memory niggled by an old speech/essay on simplicity that I recalled reading and being struck by years ago, back in my school days. Naturally I had to go digging around to find it, which I eventually did. On rereading, I found it to still be striking, so figured I’d go ahead and share it with you all here as an intermission from the usual stuff, just in case you may also enjoy it.

The following is extracted from “The Greatness of Simplicity,” as included in Self Control, Its Kingship and Majesty (1905) by the Victorian-era American essayist and rhetorician, William George Jordan. He’s no longer very well known, but my understanding is that back in his day he was a sort of Jordan B. Peterson for his era. This short book of his, which is now in the public domain and which can be found in various places freely online, is worth reading in full; Jordan was a great study of character, had a way with words, and was a particular master of crafting memorable maxims. -N.S. Lyons

No character can be simple unless it is based on truth—unless it is lived in harmony with one’s own conscience and ideals. Simplicity is the pure white light of a life lived from within. It is destroyed by any attempt to live in harmony with public opinion. Public opinion is a conscience owned by a syndicate—where the individual is merely a stockholder. But the individual has a conscience of which he is sole proprietor. Adjusting his life to his own ideals is the royal road to simplicity. Affectation is the confession of inferiority; it is an unnecessary proclamation that one is not living the life he pretends to live.

Simplicity is restful contempt for the non-essentials of life. It is restless hunger for the non-essentials that is the secret of most of the discontent of the world. It is constant striving to outshine others that kills simplicity and happiness.

Nature, in all her revelations, seeks to teach man the greatness of simplicity. Health is but the living of a physical life in harmony with a few simple, clearly defined laws. Simple food, simple exercise, simple precautions will work wonders. But man grows tired of the simple things, he yields to subtle temptations in eating and drinking, listens to his palate instead of to Nature—and he suffers. He is then led into intimate acquaintance with dyspepsia, and he sits like a child at his own bounteous table, forced to limit his eating to simple food that he scorned.

There is a tonic strength, in the hour of sorrow and affliction, in escaping from the world and society and getting back to the simple duties and interests we have slighted and forgotten. Our world grows smaller, but it grows dearer and greater. Simple things have a new charm for us, and we suddenly realize that we have been renouncing all that is greatest and best, in our pursuit of some phantom.

Simplicity is the characteristic that is most difficult to simulate. The signature that is most difficult to imitate is the one that is most simple, most individual and most free from flourishes. The bank note that is the most difficult to counterfeit successfully is the one that contains the fewest lines and has the least intricate detail. So simple is it that any departure from the normal is instantly apparent. So is it also in mind and in morals.

Simplicity in act is the outward expression of simplicity in thought. Men who carry on their shoulders the fate of a nation are quiet, modest, unassuming. They are often made gentle, calm and simple by the discipline of their responsibility. They have no room in their minds for the pettiness of personal vanity.1 It is ever the drum-major who grows pompous when he thinks that the whole world is watching him as he marches at the head of the procession. The great general, bowed with the honors of many campaigns, is simple and unaffected as a child.

The college graduate assumes the airs of one to whom is committed the wisdom of the ages, while the great man of science, the Columbus of some great continent of investigation, is simple and humble.

The longest Latin derivatives seem necessary to express the thoughts of young writers. The world’s great masters in literature can move mankind to tears, give light and life to thousands in darkness and doubt, or scourge a nation for its folly—by words so simple as to be commonplace. But transfigured by the divinity of genius, there seems almost a miracle in words.

Life grows wondrously beautiful when we look at it as simple, when we can brush aside the trivial cares and sorrows and worries and failures and say: “They don’t count. They are not the real things of life; they are but interruptions. There is something within me, my individuality, that makes all these gnats of trouble seem too trifling for me to permit them to have any dominion over me.” Simplicity is a mental soil where artifice, lying, deceit, treachery and selfish, low ambition—cannot grow.

The man whose character is simple looks truth and honesty so straight in the face that he has no consciousness of intrigue and corruption around him. He is deaf to the hints and whispers of wrongs that a suspicious nature would suspect even before they existed. He scorns to meet intrigue with intrigue, to hold power by bribery, to pay weak tribute to an inferior that has a temporary inning. To true simplicity, to perceive a truth is to begin to live it, to see a duty is to begin to do it. Nothing great can ever enter into the consciousness of a man of simplicity and remain but a theory. Simplicity in a character is like the needle of a compass—it knows only one point, its North, its ideal.

Let us seek to cultivate this simplicity in all things in our life. The first step toward simplicity is “simplifying.” The beginning of mental or moral progress or reform is always renunciation or sacrifice. It is rejection, surrender or destruction of separate phases of habit or life that have kept us from higher things. Reform your diet and you simplify it; make your speech truer and higher and you simplify it; reform your morals and you begin to cut off your immorals. The secret of all true greatness is simplicity. Make simplicity the keynote of your life and you will be great, no matter though your life be humble and your influence seem but little. Simple habits, simple manners, simple needs, simple words, simple faiths—all are the pure manifestations of a mind and heart of simplicity.

Simplicity is never to be associated with weakness and ignorance. It means reducing tons of ore to nuggets of gold. It means the light of fullest knowledge; it means that the individual has seen the folly and the nothingness of those things that make up the sum of the life of others. He has lived down what others are blindly seeking to live up to. Simplicity is… the secret of any specific greatness in the life of the individual.

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