Simplicity: Twenty-Seven Quotes & a Song

Simplicity: Twenty-Seven Quotes & a Song September 4, 2017


An old and dear friend, a Zen teacher, posted on one of the listservs to which I belong the question, “Is there a quote about simplicity that particularly touches your heart? I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity and what it means and what it doesn’t mean when it touches on walking a spiritual path. A couple of people offered quotes. And then I went off on a small search for some more. What follows are a near random collection. They come from a number of sources, although I owe a lot to that wonderful resource Good Reads. Here are twenty-seven quotes, five, possibly of course, from Henry David Thoreau. One friend has observed there must be some irony in my needing to find twenty-seven quotes about simplicity. And then adding in a song. So, perhaps, as my auntie liked to say, a bit of a muchness. To add frost to snow, I also interpolate a couple of asides…)

“The past, the present, the future –
The floodgates of time wait for Her footsteps
Yet She resides forever –
In the shape of a rising dawn,
In the sound of a humming bee,
In the chirping of a flying bird,
In the birth of a newborn,
In the blissful serenity of Nature;
For Happiness is but a reflection of simplicity.”
Debatrayee Banerjee

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simply, simplify.”
Henry David Thoreau

“Living simply makes loving simple.”
bell hooks

“Sophistication is not science people, simplicity is.”
Abhijit Naskar

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Albert Einstein

“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
Groucho Marx (Okay. I just couldn’t resist this as a compliment to Professor Einstein’s observation…)

“They think I’m simpleminded because I seem to be happy. Why shouldn’t I be happy? I have everything I ever wanted and more. Maybe I am simpleminded. Maybe that’s the key: simple.”
Dolly Parton

“It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. . . . Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving. . . . The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.”
Charles Alexander Eastman

(That last quote I was a little hesitant about, as it brushes our Native American cultures with a rather broad brush. But there seems to be a genuine current it captures, and I liked the way Dr Eastman, a Santee Dakota put it. It also reminds me, one needs to be particularly careful when considering simplicity. The traps along this way are many. One is clinging to a bare literalism that leads one to poverty of life of constriction. Another is being too metaphorical, where simplicity becomes etherial and unconnected to reality. The worst, maybe is collapsing those two extremes into a particularly ugly mishmash. I’ve seen that in several spiritual communities, including one of my own.)

“[I am] someone who represents a very complex country which insists on being simple-minded. And simplicity, it occurs to me, it has occurred to me more than once, in my somewhat stormy life, simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. And the result of this is, if you are simple-minded enough, you can become—I didn’t want to go that far [laughs]. And as long as you’re sincere in what you say, you haven’t got to know what you’re talking about. These are the American virtues—two of them anyway. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue too.”
James Baldwin

(And with that warning, back to the pointers…)

“There are two ways to be rich: One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little.”
Jackie French Koller

“Progress is in simplification, which often follows complexity.”
Pearl Zhu

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
Henry David Thoreau

“When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. he sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lampost, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “it is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.

“When I read this letter of Van Gogh’s it comforted me very much and seemed to throw a clear light on the whole road of Art. Before, I thought that to produce a work of painting or literature, you scowled and thought long and ponderously and weighed everything solemnly and learned everything that all artists had ever done aforetime, and what their influences and schools were, and you were extremely careful about *design* and *balance* and getting *interesting planes* into your painting, and avoided, with the most astringent severity, showing the faintest *acedemical* tendency, and were strictly modern. And so on and so on.

“But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.

“And Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care. ”
Brenda Ueland

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Henry David Thoreau

“My task is to simplify and then go deeper, making a commitment to what remains. That’s what I’ve been after. To care and polish what remains till it glows and comes alive from loving care.”
Sue Bender

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
Henry Miller

“Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple.”
Natalie Babbitt

“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”
Henry David Thoreau

“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with—that’s poverty—but how efficiently we can put first things first. . . . When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar.”
Victoria Moran

“It could be said of him that while others chased the mirage of happiness, he was happy with being content.”
Neel Mukherjee

“What we need are few. What we want are many.”
Sheng Yen

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”
George Sand

“The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.”
Walt Whitman

“Simplicity is ultimately a matter of focus.”
Ann Voskamp

“Vices are simply overworked virtues, anyway. Economy and frugality are to be commended but follow them on in an increasing ratio and what do we find at the other end? A miser! If we overdo the using of spare moments we may find an invalid at the end, while perhaps if we allowed ourselves more idle time we would conserve our nervous strength and health to more than the value the work we could accomplish by emulating at all times the little busy bee.

I once knew a woman, not very strong, who to the wonder of her friends went through a time of extraordinary hard work without any ill effects.

I asked her for her secret and she told me that she was able to keep her health, under the strain, because she took 20 minutes, of each day in which to absolutely relax both mind and body. She did not even “set and think.” She lay at full length, every muscle and nerve relaxed and her mind as quiet as her body. This always relieved the strain and renewed her strength.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
Jack Kerouac

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry, — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses.

“If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say,

“This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”
Henry David Thoreau


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!