A Simple Life

Some great, sincerely accomplished men have verbal advocates of the “simple life.” You know about a few of them: Thoreau. Tolkien. Steinbeck. They didn’t all agree on what such a life might be, however they all liked the expression. I’m something of an advocate for simplicity myself. Complex things are daunting. They mystify. Some of them terrify.

It’s part of why I proceeded to go into physics in my own youngsters: a sound grasp of physics takes the mystery and terror out of many complex things by causing them comprehensible. Simple Even, in a certain sense. But all the physics in the world won’t repair your flatscreen television if it should stop working.

Neither will it rewire your kitchen or pump out your cesspool. Those tasks require carefully nurtured skills and – – a great deal of special equipment often. The contemporary middle-class American is surrounded by complexities. He can’t cope with most of them from his own tool and knowledge resources. Why is coping possible is that mysterious phenomenon called specialization, a.k.a. The option of specialists who can cope with your unique complexities in your stead, plus the wherewithal to pay their fees can change a life utterly buried in complexities into one that’s simple, believe it or not comfortable or convenient yet. J. R. R. Tolkien had some unusual views.

His notion of the “simple life” might be called anarcho-pastoralism. He disliked authorities of any kind to the idea of nausea, and modern tools as much almost. He occasionally expressed those opinions to an effect that could shock most of the admirers of his fiction. Also to be fair, he resided as easy a life as you could contrive in the Twentieth Century, while offering as a college teacher. But Tolkien, for those his brilliance, didn’t have a genuine appreciation for the sacrifices a sincerely pastoral, technology-free life would require: the limitless backbreaking labor; the few physical comforts; about tomorrow the uncertainty.

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Pre-technological simplicity was a difficult way to live. It wiped out most babies in the crib. Unending hardship and labor brutalized those who survived to adulthood, nor were their lives as long as ours, on average. The price of that type or kind of simplicity is one that few would willingly pay. Contemporary advocates for such a life will often have no idea whatsoever what they’re advocating.

The above refers to international trade, but it is applicable with equal validity to relations among individuals. For example, if an attorney were to employ a secretary, and then to discover that he types more rapidly than does she, it would still make more sense for him to leave the typing to her.

Time the lawyer spends typing is time not spent lawyering, a far more remunerative executing far. Similarly, for Smith to hire specialist Jones to solve a complex problem will usually make more sense than for Smith to undertake the task himself. In the most common case, the expense of learning (and equipping himself) to do Jones’s just work at least as well as Jones would take action is, if not prohibitive, at least online detriment to Smith’s overall joy and well-being. Besides, where would he keep carefully the spools of wire, the top inventory of electrical components, or the cesspool-pumping truck?

Happiness is the target, isn’t it? For a large range of problems, Smith will be better off in “happiness units” for having “rented” Jones’s skills and equipment than if he were to deal with those problems himself. It’s natural to admire others for skills one will not possess. I do, certainly. But let’s not kid ourselves: locating reliable specialists, paying their fees and enduring their periodic surly remarks about the foolishness and carelessness of homeowners are an acceptable price to pay for contemporary simplicity. There’s great comfort in realizing that one’s own skill and equipment are sufficiently valued by others to allow the employment of such specialists at need. It’s the path to simplicity I favor, though your mileage may vary.