The Simple Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture is a work of intellectual history written for the serious (though not necessarily academic) reader. In this book, David Shi traces the idea, from Colonial times to the Ronald Reagan presidency, “that the making of money and the accumulation of things should not be allowed to smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the commonwealth.” Shi’s treatment of the idea is sympathetic and chronological. The treatment in this essay will be sympathetic and analytic.

The first problem in writing or thinking about the simple life is the multiplicity of ideas, sentiments, and activities that have come under this title. As Shi writes, “a hostility toward luxury and a suspicion of riches, a reverence for nature and a preference for rural over urban ways of life and work, a desire for personal self-reliance through frugality and diligence, a nostalgia for the past and a scepticism toward the claims of modernity, conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption, and an aesthetic taste for the plain and functional” have all been advocated as the essence of simplicity.

Yet the reasons and motives which have kept the idea alive in America for almost four centuries have been relatively few. First, the simple life has been said to promote social justice; second, it has been said to promote an organic and cohesive society, instead of one based on crass economic individualism and self-interest; third, it has been said to prevent the deadening of the soul and the numbing of the mind; and finally, the simple life has been said to free time for worship, family, and community service.

While not denying the motivating power of reasons and arguments, Shi, like any good historian, uncovers the deeper factors that move men and societies. During the Colonial period these factors were primarily religious. It made little difference whether the call to the simple life came from governors or preachers: The ground of their appeal was the same—Holy Scripture.

The arguments extracted from Scripture included all those mentioned above. John Woolman, a Quaker saint and reformer, made it clear that in his opinion the “least degree of luxury hath some connection with evil.” His argument was straightforward: Because luxuries are unnecessary for true happiness, those who demanded such goods caused “men and animals to do unnecessary labor,” and thus they “were acting contrary to the design of the Creator.”

On the way to the New World, in his famous speech aboard the Arbella, John Winthrop, an early leader and longtime governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, made it clear that this was not to be a money-making expedition. He warned the colonists that the material abundance of the New World might tempt them “to embrace the present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for our selves and our posterity.” Therefore, vigilance was necessary to ensure that the “good of the public oversway all private interests.” Lacking optimism about the power of words to control men’s depravity, Winthrop convinced settlers to institute sumptuary laws and controls on wages, prices, and markets to make sure “the life of business be placed within a structure whose proportions had been drawn by the hand of God.”

The spiritual state of settlers’ souls was also an important concern to the early leaders of Pennsylvania and the New England colonies. While diligence at one’s vocation was part of the Christian’s duty, the material abundance that such diligence often produced was not considered an unmixed blessing. The Massachusetts colonists were not getting a new or original teaching when they heard their influential pastor, John Cotton, caution that “we are never more apt to forget God than when he prospers us.” Time proved Cotton to be correct. Within two generations, preachers were lamenting that religion “had brought forth prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother.”

Some of the clergy tried to threaten their congregations into obedience. Cotton Mather warned Boston merchants that God would find “an eternity to damn the man who cannot find time to pray.” Others took the positive approach. Woolman spent most of his adult life speaking and demonstrating the freedom and opportunities that accrued to those who practiced simple living. Though the path to material abundance lay open, Woolman chose to sell his flourishing business so that he might have the “opportunity for retirement and inward recollection.” Thereafter he vowed to spend no more time at his new job—tailoring—than was necessary to provide the necessities of life for himself and his family. As an added benefit, his renunciation of business enabled him to spend much time traveling around the colonies and England, proselytizing for a “humbler, plain, temperate Way of Living: a life where no unnecessary cares nor expenses may encumber our minds, nor lessen our ability to do good.”

By the time the Puritan’s “errand in the wilderness” and the Quaker’s “holy experiment” produced grandchildren in the New World, the religious zeal of the original colonists had dissipated. A Quaker spokesman explained it thus: “Their fathers came into the country, and bought large tracts of land for a trifle; their sons found large estates come into their possession, and a profession of religion which was partly national, which descended like a patrimony from their fathers, and cost as little.”

Yet no sooner was one impetus spent than another took its place. This time it was the republicanism of the founding fathers. Their texts were the classics of the Greeks and Romans. Sam Adams, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of the Revolution were all convinced...

(The entire section is 2410 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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