A Dialogue on Simplicity (Also cake…)
I was speaking with my friend, the illustrious Babyshoes, when the topic of Simplicity came up.
Babyshoes expressed the desire for simplicity in his life. Being of sound mind and discerning judgment, I am certain Babyshoes knew exactly what he was talking about. My mind, however, is noisy and easily confused. So I asked my friend to explain to me what simplicity is, that I might become better educated.
“You say you desire a simple life, but what is simple anyway?” I asked Babyshoes in a demonstration of my ignorance.
“Simplicity,” Babyshoes said, “has to do with how much income a make, and how much of it I spend.”
“So, then Simplicity is concerned with money.” I said. “Things that are simple are cheap, while things that are not simple are more expensive. Is that correct?”
“Yes, that sounds right,” Babyshoes said.
“And what is your biggest expense?” I asked.
“Surely my rent is my biggest expense.” Babyshoes replied. “I spend a lot of money on my housing. I live in town close to my work in a glorified hotel room, when I could spend far less to live a bit further away.”
“Hmm,” I said and stroked the pathetic stubble on my chin. “So is a large, cheap house out of town more or less simple than a small, expensive apartment with a convenient location?”
“Well, at first I would say the cheap, large house is the simpler of the two, because simple things are supposed to be less expensive. When I think about it, though, I am not so certain.” Babyshoes said. “The large house may be cheaper, but probably has more rooms than I need. I would also be required to do maintenance, and drive to work every day. Sometimes in terrible weather. In the small apartment, I don’t have to shovel snow, fix appliances, or plan extra time to get to work. So, now that I think about it, I believe the small, expensive apartment to be more simple than the large, cheap house.”
“Then simplicity has not much to do with money at all?” I asked.
“No, I suppose not” Babyshoes replied. “What I like about my current place is that I don’t have to do extra things, like drive or shovel. I am more comfortable when I don’t have to worry about those things.”
“So then does simplicity have to do with comfort?” I asked. “Simple things are comfortable, and uncomfortable things are not simple?”
“Yes. That sounds reasonable. I want things to be simple, and I want things to be comfortable, so comfort and simplicity must be the same thing. Or at least closely related.”
“Of course,” I said. “And very well-reasoned. Surely I should look no further for an expert in simplicity. But where you are smart, I am stupid and still find myself confused. Would you allow me to ask more questions to clear my muddled mind?”
Babyshoes nodded. “Of course. I am honored to be asked, and will do my best to answer.”
“Great,” I said. “Tell me, which of the two is more simple, a wood-burning stove or a modern, central heating system?”
“Surely the stove is more simple,” Babyshoes said.
“Yes, I am inclined to agree with you,” I replied. “But in order to use a wood-burning stove, don’t you need a certain amount of wood to be chopped and stacked in preparation for the flame?”
“You do.” Babyshoes said. “A wood-burning stove is just a bunch of stone or metal without any wood to burn, and the wood must first be prepared.”
“And would you say preparing wood for the stove is a comfortable task?” I asked.
“Maybe for some, but I find no comfort in chopping and stacking wood.” Babyshoes replied.
“But the wood stove is still simpler than the modern heating system, which requires no work on your part at all?” I asked.
“I think so. Yes.” Babyshoes said.
“Then to use the more simple device, you must first perform an uncomfortable task?” I said.
“It would appear so,” Babyshoes replied with suspicion growing in his voice.
“So does simplicity still have to do with comfort, or is it something else?” I asked.
“Something else, I should say,” Babyshoes replied. “But I am not certain what that is. Simplicity is something I want, but it seems I can’t define it.”
“You must!” I proclaimed. “For I am told that simplicity is a desirable thing. If one as wise as you cannot define simplicity, how will I ever know what simplicity truly is?”
“What can I say?” my friend said. “I know what simplicity is, but I can’t really describe it.”
I was determined to shed light on my ignorance of simplicity, and was certain my friend Babyshoes could help me still. “Perhaps,” I said, “with your insight and my stupid questions we can arrive together at an acceptable definition of simplicity?”
“Perhaps we can,” Babyshoes said. His voice had gone flat, but I took no notice at the time.
“Very good.” I said. “So, if we cannot define simplicity, maybe we can define its opposite, and then go from there. Would you say the opposite of simple is complicated?”
“I would,” Babyshoes replied, but he was being rather shifty.
“What are some examples of complicated things, and what common thread ties the examples together?” I asked. At this point, I felt we were really getting somewhere. Apparently Babyshoes did not agree.
“Look,” he said. “Listen, my wife is calling me, and so I really must go talk with her.”
“Excellent!” I said. “Does she know what simplicity is? Can she help us solve this vexing problem of definition?”
“No, no,” Babyshoes said gently, but not without edge. “I’m sorry, Mavis, but I really must be going. I will speak with you later.”
“Wait!” I cried. “You were going to help me learn about simplicity, and now you propose to leave me in the dark? What could be more important than knowledge?”
But Babyshoes was already gone, off to tend more pressing matters that I know nothing about.
I was forced to continue in inquiry into simplicity alone. This was a great detriment to me, for I am very stupid, but we must all make do with the circumstances that are presented to us.
“What are some examples of complicated things, and what is the common thread that ties them together.” I asked myself, expecting no inspired answers.
I have heard it said that some romantic relationships can be described as complicated. Teen dramas and Facebook status updates have shown me that a complicated relationships might even be common. I am not sure what this really means. Human relationships are not exactly my strong area.
If pressed, the reason I would say some relationships are considered complicated it that they have many different levels. Maybe two people are friends, but one or both also harbors romantic feelings. Two people may be in love, but forced to work against each other for some reason. Or maybe a woman’s husband had a brain transplant, so the mind she loves is now housed in a body she does not. These, and surely many others, are examples of complicated relationships.
What is another complicated thing? I think cities are quite complicated. In a big, or even a small city, there is always a lot of stuff going on. There are a lot of different systems interacting with each other. Plumbing, wiring, transport, government, and other systems are all laid down on top of each other. Villages and small towns also have component parts that make them work, but not nearly as many as a big city. This is what makes big cities complicated.
Living organisms are another example of a complicated thing. A human, or a cow, is really just a bunch of independent organs working together. And organs are just a bunch of tissues joined for a common purpose. And tissues are made from billions of cells, each with their own smaller constituent parts. Like a complicated relationship, or a big city, living organisms exist in a multi-layered state.
All of these examples of complicated things share the trait of many-layeredness. If complicated things have a lot of layers, then simple things must have the opposite.
When you call something simple, you are saying it doesn’t have very many layers.
Now that we know what simplicity is, can we determine if it is still a desirable thing? Maybe simplicity is good, or maybe simplicity is bad. In order to find out, we should consider something easy, that can have layers, or not. Something like a cake.
A single layered cake is a simple thing, and is perfectly acceptable. As far as cake is concerned, simplicity is a good thing.
A fancy, layered cake is more complicated, and therefore less simple. A cake with lots of layers and frosting can look really cool, and it might even impress people, but it doesn’t really taste better than more simple versions of the same cake. A certain amount of complexity isn’t bad, but is probably most useful for superficial things.
Then there are cakes that are layered and shaped to look like something completely different. A cake that looks like a cheeseburger is entirely too complicated. It ruins the cake, and it ruins cheeseburgers. A little complexity can be ok, but too much complexity is bad.
So we have established that simplicity is good, but a little bit of complication isn’t necessarily bad. As long as things don’t get too complicated. And, if you want to live a simple life, all you need to do is limit the number of layers you are dealing with at a single time.
So ends my inquiry on simplicity. But I an still unsatisfied. There are so many more questions to ask. If only I were not so stupid, and instinctively knew things, as so many other people do. Then I would not have to waste so many words. Then I would not be a philosopher.