31 August 2013

The Virtue of Truthful SIMPLICITY

--- by D. Q. McInerny, Ph.D.----
Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary

The nineteenth century writer Henry David Thoreau, in his book Walden, now a classic of American literature, demonstrates a considerable amount of concern over what he regarded as the undue complicatedness of the society of his day. And the situation, as he saw things, was getting progressively worse. "Our way of life is frittered away by detail," was one way he put it. "Detail," as he uses it her, is to be understood negatively; he is referring to what he reckoned to be totally inconsequential matters. People's time and energy were being consumed by trivial concerns, in other words, while the really important things, which are few in number, were being neglected. Reading Thoreau on his theme, one is reminded of the comparable views expressed by the seventeenth century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who maintained that our lives are eaten up by "diversion," unnecessary preoccupations of various kinds, which we consciously cultivate, so that we do not have to think about the "one thing necessary," that is, God and our eternal destiny.


Thoreau's solution to the overly-complicated life, where a person is in an almost constant state of distraction, was simplicity. If our lives are weighted by excess baggage, if we are constantly "on the go" but don't have an especially clear idea of where we are going, and next to none at all of where we should be going, then it is time to jettison a lot of useless cargo. "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?" Thoreau asked. Then he had some specific advice to give: "I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count a half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail." Thoreau, who, it has to be said, practiced what he preached, living a plain, unencumbered life, summed up his philosophy with a one-word, righting imperative - Simplify!

Thoreau (1817-1862) lived at a time when the social conditions of the country were changing rapidly, what with industrialization, urbanization, and the advent of new technicalities of various sorts. American society was indeed becoming more complicated in any number of ways. The railroads were then just coming into their own and expanding rapidly, revolutionizing transportation, but Thoreau was not impressed, and tended to look upon technological advances in general with a jaundiced eye. He thought that what eventually happens is that, instead of we running our machines, they end up running us. "We do not ride on the railroad, " he quipped; "it rides upon us." When the telegraph lines were completed connecting North and South, one of Thoreau's fellow townsmen came to him one day all excited, explaining breathlessly that it was now possible, in a matter of seconds, for the people of Massachusetts to speak to the people of Texas. "Interesting," responded Henry David, "but what if the people of Massachusetts do not have anything to say to the people of Texas?" Instant communication over great distances is a technological wonder worth getting excited about only if we could be assured that what is being communicated instantaneously is worth being communicated. A lie that can be conveyed from New York to Tokyo in seconds remains a lie, and perhaps it becomes a more dangerous lie for the facility with which it can be disseminated.

Thoreau's concerns were not without foundation, and if he thought that the lives of people living some 175 years ago were lacking in a requisite simplicity, one can only imagine what he would have thought about our day and age. There is no doubt that the world in which we live is immensely more complicated that Thoreau's world, and to think that a more complicated world is a better world is to think naively. Today we can too easily get caught up in and be borne along by all sorts of things which, sub specie aeternitatis, "in the light of eternity," do not really matter, and thus can serve seriously to impede us from paying the kind of attention we should be paying to "the one thing necessary."

There is a very close connection between social conditions and psychological conditions, between what is going on all around us and what is going on within us. If our exterior lives are overly complicated and confused, this Is invariably because our interior lives are such. This connection, between interior and exterior, between state of soul and state of society, is something that Henry David Thoreau may have been marginally aware of, but St. Thomas Aquinas was keenly aware of it. Thoreau was concerned about the importance of simplicity, and so was St. Thomas, but, unlike Thoreau, he had a very precise notion of what the remedy was for a lack of simplicity, an that is because he had a very precise notion of simplicity itself, which he saw as a special kind of virtue.

In setting the stage for arriving at a clear understanding of simplicity, St. Thomas begins by contrasting simplicity with duplicity. One of the definitions the dictionary gives us for duplicity is "double-dealing," which fits in quite nicely with the way St. Thomas tends to think of it. A duplicitous person is just the opposite of a simple person because, as St. Thomas describes him, the duplicitous person "intends one thing and pretends another." In another place he says that the duplicitous person holds something in his heart which conflicts with his exterior behavior. He is, we might say, a walking war zone, a man burdened by debilitating internal complicatedness. Duplicity is the opposite of simplicity because duplicity is falsehood, and simplicity - here is a remarkable feature of St. Thomas's thought on this subject - is nothing else but truth. For St. Thomas, then, "the virtue of simplicity is the same as the virtue of truth."

By his conjoining simplicity and truth, St. Thomas suggests for us the only viable remedy for the spirit-draining social complicatedness which Thoreau found so worrisome, and which is still very much a part of contemporary society, but to a degree that he would not have been able to imagine. Simplicity is the solution to complicatedness, but the achieving of simplicity, the achievement of truth, must begin within. The task would involve a willingness to embrace the truth in its totality - the truth about ourselves, the truth about our relation to God, the truth about the realities of the social conditions of the world in which we live. "Simplify!" Thoreau proclaimed. To which we add, getting to the very heart of the matter- "Be truthful!" The truth, Our Lord tells us, will set us free, in every beneficial way conceivable, including releasing us from the confining bonds of the hurly-burly, distractingly complicated world of the early twenty-first century. To desire a simple society is to desire a truthful society, and such a society will only be brought about by simple, souls, truthful people.

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