Manvotional: The Greatness of Simplicity

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 10, 2010 · 41 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

The Greatness of Simplicity

From Self Control, Its Kingship and Majesty by William George Jordan, 1905

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 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.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nate @ Practical Manliness April 11, 2010 at 1:34 am

I have been reading a lot about “motion study” (i.e., efficiency) in the work of Frank Gilbreth, Sr. (the father in Cheaper By The Dozen). Simplicity was probably the biggest key to his work.

Thanks for the great post!

2 ben April 11, 2010 at 3:55 am

love the simple life, your post is spot on.

3 Hal Brown April 11, 2010 at 6:10 am

A true motivational piece, more applicable today than it was in 100 years ago.

4 Edward April 11, 2010 at 6:59 am

Someone’s been reading Thoreau — or is it the other way around?

A nice piece of poetic platitudes. Ayn Rand would be proud. But, alas, I dare say that real life is not so ‘simple’.

5 Patrick April 11, 2010 at 8:16 am

Awesome post AoM!

I often get caught in the “paralysis by analysis”. It’s good to be reminded of the importance of simplicity.

6 Kelsey April 11, 2010 at 9:26 am

Wonderful post. It is in the quest for more that we often end up wishing for less.

7 Uri April 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

A fantastic piece! You manage to put into words a huge concept and you did it in a way that is both simple and very very descriptive.

8 Aaron April 11, 2010 at 10:55 am

A very good post on AoM! Definitely something that touched me today.

Goes very well with a saying I heard some time ago: “The Main Things are the Plain Things.”

9 William April 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

This article is spot-on! Being a retired Design Engineer I have seen examples of this principle many times. The most efficient and elusive designs are the simple ones. It is not always easy to get there but it is always worth the effort!

10 Mike April 11, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Probably one of the best things I have read. I am always looking for more and more ways to simplify my life.

11 Brew April 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Holy hell, these are grand thoughts! Now why can’t the president of our country profess such things with a life that backs it up?

Remember that Quaker hymn, Simple Gifts: “‘Tis a gift to be simple…”

12 Mark Nelson April 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Utterly fantastic. It reminds me of a truly poignant and beautiful work of fiction that emphasizes the importance of this: “Momo,” by Michael Ende.

13 Anthony April 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm

To live a simple life is actually a “true” Christian ideal that is advisable if one is to “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these [other] things will be added to YOU.–Mt 6:33

A lot of the articles on AOM actually have a biblical basis. If you like this one, check out:

14 Benjamin G. Pointer April 11, 2010 at 6:35 pm

For more like this you could read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu or the Book of Chuang Tzu, both key Taoist texts.
The simple life, (or living in accordance with the Tao) is pretty much the biggest theme of the two books.

15 Daniel April 11, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Spot on! Any good writer knows that simplicity of language is what makes a good work. Cut out any words or phrases that aren’t essential.

16 Jack Bouchard April 11, 2010 at 7:41 pm

This reminds of sculpting, removing all of the extra stuff to get at something worthwhile.

17 Timothy April 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm

This is no more than a rehash of Occam’s Razor, or the Principle of Parsimony, that is that the simplest answer is usually the best one. A rational life is one lived by The Razor, and simplicity can be attained through shedding outlandish conceptions. My own life became much more simple when I realized that there no significant validity to the cherished books held aloft by all the pious of the world. Dispose of a pre-ordained destiny to the universe and, more specifically, one’s life and it’s amazing how the simplicity comes into focus.

18 EWillpwr April 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Most religions have simplicity as a prime value in their foundational theology. Christians were not the first to call attention to it. I would imagine the desire to live simply goes back even further, before Pagan times and closer to the birth of human awareness.

19 Brew April 12, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Don’t forget, though, that William of Ockham (i.e. Occam’s Razor guy) was a theologian, specifically a Franciscan friar.

20 Josh April 12, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Timothy: Although I see what you are saying, I feel the need to point out that Occam’s Razor was never intended to be applied to anything other than scientific study. It is a way of reducing a field of possible options down to the simplest of them; because, the simplest is usually more likely to occur in a random universe.
In life, the simplest choice is not necessarily the one which leads to a simple life. The most difficult option may be the only real option for a person true to their ideals.

21 Gerard April 13, 2010 at 12:06 am

Once again, another enlightening post. It’s fantastic to see the fruits of simplicity when it is implemented into one’s life.

22 Richard | April 13, 2010 at 10:16 am

great piece, truly inspirational and motivational. Loved it :). It’s more applicable now because we live in such a hectic world.

23 Timothy April 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

@Josh: Agreed. Sometimes the difficult option is the necessary one, but perhaps it’s only difficult in the immediate sense, but when compared against the long-term outcome, it’s actually more simple that what otherwise might have seemed like the easier route. I’m thinking out loud here, but my example would be lying for short-term gain but long-term pain. Yes the razor applies to scientific study, but it we accept that we live in a natural world, then all that is done is also natural and falls within the razor’s scope.

@ Brew: True. Great things that we use today came from many men (and women), devout and not. Gregor Mendel is another.

24 Bradley April 13, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Wonderful post.

Is there a way that I could get a large version of the image used at the top? It is a great picture, and I am hoping to use it for a background. Thank you.

25 Core April 14, 2010 at 8:52 pm

You know, its ironic, but to have a good simple life today, well the one I want, requires a lot of money. And to get that money I have to work a lot.. So I’m always stressed out… irony in the making

Anyways, good post, I enjoyed it. Even though I can’t live it.

26 Alejandro April 17, 2010 at 2:40 pm

As a writer, I know simplicity is often the best route; too much verbiage can distract from the story. As an individual, I can identify best with these two lines: “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.” I don’t want to sound like a victim, but it seems I’ve lived my entire life trying make certain others were happy with me. This meant sacrificing my own integrity and self-respect. Thanks, Brett & Kay. This is one of the best posts yet!

27 Joshua April 21, 2010 at 1:50 am

Exactly what I needed. Living simply is not easy. I think over the past year this has been the thing I have been striving for the most. And around every corner it seems that superficial bravado is rewarded with admiration and love. The final realization that makes this awesome goal worth sacrificing for is that the purest love is the hardest to find. And like the purest gold, it is simply, gold.

28 xyz April 24, 2010 at 3:42 am

Spot on. Thank you

29 the_drummerboy May 3, 2010 at 9:02 pm

my god. my mind is blown.

30 Hill May 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Wow–that was incredible. Almost a religious experience. Youve just made a convert.

31 Hilton May 4, 2010 at 8:10 pm

My life is governed by a simple philosophy: the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. By this I do live!

32 mario borg November 30, 2012 at 11:57 am

I have read this post… and I have today revisited for direction to my actions in times of testing. thank you and bravo. I tend to forget and now, I have found again what I need for guidance.

33 Gerran January 29, 2013 at 10:02 am


34 Beau Farrawell March 4, 2013 at 12:35 am

really well written,

I have really learned very much from your article about simplicity.

It seems like you come from the 1800′s or so. well done and simplicity is the way

35 Rohit Ramachandran June 26, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Great post!

36 Kriss James June 28, 2013 at 10:39 am

Great article
Great site.
Have a listen to a scientist defining simplicity

George Whitesides: Toward a science of simplicity – George Whitesides: Toward a science of simplicity #TED :

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