In the late 1990’s, the band No Doubt released their album “Rings Of Saturn,” which was a less than entirely successful follow-up to their massive success “Tragic Kingdom.” One of the moderate hits from the album, “Simple Kind Of Life,” had singer Gwen Stefani bemoaning the gulf that existed between her desires for a simple kind of life and her inability to find that kind of life. Without delving too much into gossipy personal detail, in retrospect, it seems obvious that Gwen Stefani could not find the simple kind of life (and is not able to find it even now) because she is not a sufficiently simple kind of person. To want celebrity, to be unwilling to commit to a loving and stable marriage and build a family, these things are not simple qualities.
One of the striking aspects of seeing how people present themselves online is the fact that a great many people will say that they are simple people. To what extent is this true? I have often wondered if it would be right to think of myself as a simple man, lest I fall into the same trap as Ms. Stefani has in claiming a desire for a simple kind of life without having the character to find it or hold on to it. What is it that makes someone simple in the first place? When I think of simple people or a simple kind of life, one of the things that stands out is a marked simplicity (unsurprisingly enough) in the sort of life that makes them happy. Simple people need few things, some space of their own, some productive way to spend their time, the company of friends and family. Complex people need more complicated things. If you can feel reasonably content while spending your time inside a house, or in a remote and isolated chateau, you are probably a simple kind of person. If you can only be happy in crowded places or with complex entertainment like theater or watching team sports or live music, you are not a simple person.
This is not to say that simple people are superior (or inferior) to more complex people, only that there are marked differences between things that can be enjoyed if one has them versus what one considers to be necessary for one’s survival as a human being. Those who are complex people, whose needs and wants are refined and particular and have multiplied far beyond basic matters tend to look down on the simplicity of the simple as being a sign of being an inferior sort of being. Yet there is a great vulnerability in being a complex person, and that vulnerability exists in having one’s needs require a stable urban environment that can provide those needs. A simple person can be content in a farm or in a rural area where few people are around and only a few simple community institutions like a local grange or restaurant, or their own invitations to friends and family, can provide the social life necessary to be content. If one requires a professional orchestra, concert venues, professional sports franchises, and other institutions to feel content and happy with life, one must live around a lot of other people in sizable communities. Those communities can be under threat by incompetent political leaders with ideologies that destroy the economic and moral fabric of cities and various social conflicts that undermine the safety of people and property.
To the extent that we have a strong desire for cultural or intellectual attainments that are far beyond the simple and ordinary, it behooves us to be the sort of people who can create what we need. To the extent that we are creators of the culture that we need, it is only necessary that there be a few like-minded people who can share in that creative labor and in the communication between fellow people upon which culture is built. If we are only consumers of culture, we are highly susceptible to the decadence and corruption of the culture that is provided to us by corrupt people who hold a simple and decent life in contempt. How do we cultivate, at this late and unfavorable hour, the habits of mind and body that allow us to not only long for contentment in rusticity and simplicity, but also to be able to attain it and enjoy it?