I first learned of Richard Gregg when I read Duane Elgin’s book Voluntary Simplicity a couple years ago.
I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read Gregg’s original writing where he coined the concept “voluntary simplicity.”
The Value of Voluntary Simplicity by Richard B. Gregg (Amazon) was published in 1936—coming up on a century ago—but most of it could have been just as easily written today.
Richard Gregg turns out to be quite a fascinating human. After graduating from Harvard and Harvard Law in the early 1900s, he sailed to India in the 1920s and was one of the first Americans to live and work with Gandhi. (1)(2)
As a side note, Gandhi’s own story is amazing—he also studied law and didn’t have his own life-transforming moment until his twenties.
- All quotes are from the author unless otherwise stated.
- I’ve added emphasis (in bold) to quotes throughout this post.
- This summary is organized by themes I’ve identified (not necessarily by the author’s chapters).
Summary Contents: Click a link to jump to a section below
- What is Voluntary Simplicity?
- Simplicity & Purpose
- Simplicity & Civilization
- Simplicity & Environment
- Simplicity & Consumption
- Simplicity & Psychology
- Simplicity & Spirituality
- Cultivation of Simplicity
The Value of Voluntary Simplicity by Richard Gregg (Essay Summary)
“Voluntary simplicity of living has been advocated and practiced by the founders of most of the great religions: Buddha, Lao Tse, Moses and Mohammed—also by many saints and wise men such as St. Francis, John Woolman, the Hindu rishis, the Hebrew prophets, the Moslem sufis; by many artists and scientists; and by such great modern leaders as Lenin and Gandhi.”
- “Our present ‘mental climate’ is not favorable either to a clear understanding of the value of simplicity or to its practice. Simplicity seems to be a foible of saints and occasional geniuses, but not something for the rest of us.”
- “We are not here considering asceticism in the sense of a suppression of instincts. What we mean by voluntary simplicity is not so austere and rigid. Simplicity is a relative matter, depending on climate, customs, culture, the character of the individual.“
What is Voluntary Simplicity?
“Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.”
- “It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose.”
- “Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another. Yet it is easy to see that our individual lives and community life would be much changed if every one organized and graded and simplified his purposes so that one purpose would easily dominate all the others, and if each person then re-organized his outer life in accordance with this new arrangement of purposes—discarding possessions and activities irrelevant to the main purpose.”
- “The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself, but the meaning of the principle is now perhaps clear enough for discussion, even though the applications of it may differ.”
- “There are a number of reasons for voluntary simplicity of living, a considerable number, but perhaps not so many as to make the discussion of simplicity itself complex. If it seems complex, it is because so much intellectual clutter and underbrush has to be removed in order to see clearly.“
Simplicity & Purpose
“Simplicity is clearly a sign of a pure heart, i.e., a single purpose. Also, because environment has an undeniable influence on character, simplicity of living would help to stimulate and maintain such singleness of purpose.”
- “There can be beauty in complexity but complexity is not the essence of beauty. Harmony of line, proportion, and color are much more important. In a sense, simplicity is an important element in all great art, for it means the removal of all details that are irrelevant to a given purpose. It is one of the arts within the great art of life. And perhaps the mind can be guided best if its activities are always kept organically related to the most important purposes in life. Mahatma Gandhi believes that the great need of young people is not so much education of the head as education of the heart.”
- “There is the simplicity of the fool and the simplicity of the wise man. The fool is simple because his mind and will are incapable of dealing with many things. The wise man is simple not for that reason but because he knows that all life, both individual and group, has a certain few essential strands or elements and outside of those are a vast multiplicity of other things. If the few essential strands are kept healthy and vigorous, the rest of the details develop almost automatically, like the bark and twigs and leaves of a tree. So the wise man confines most of his attention to the few essentials of life, and that constitutes his simplicity.” (Note: See my book summary of Essentialism)
Simplicity & Civilization
“The great advances in science and technology have not solved the moral problems of civilization. Those advances have altered the form of some of those problems, greatly increased others, dramatized some, and made others much more difficult of solution. The just distribution of material things is not merely a problem of technique or of organization. It is primarily a moral problem.”
- “Quantitative measurement and the use of quantitative relationships are among the most powerful elements in science, technology, and money. Because of this, the preponderating stimuli exerted by science, technology, and money are on the quantitative rather than the qualitative aspects of life. The qualitative elements are cramped. But the essence of man’s social life lies in qualitative rather than quantitative relationships: it is moral, not technological.“
- “We had better turn our attention to cultivating qualitative relationships and the ways of life which promote them. Our technology is overdeveloped. It rests on a moral foundation which had developed in a simpler world and was intended for simpler conditions. Our civilization is like a huge engine resting on too small and weak a foundation.”
- “In Volume III of Arnold J. Toynbee’s great Study of History he discusses the growth of civilizations. For some sixty pages he considers what constitutes growth of civilization, including in that term growth in wisdom as well as in stature. With immense learning he traces the developments of many civilizations—Egyptian, Sumeric, Minoan, Hellenic, Syriac, Indic, Iranian, Chinese, Babylonic, Mayan, Japanese, etc. After spreading out the evidence, he comes to the conclusion that real growth of a civilization does not consist of increasing command over the physical environment, nor of increasing command over the human environment (i.e., over other nations or civilizations), but that it lies in what he calls ‘etherealization’: a development of intangible relationships. He points out that this process involves both a simplification of the apparatus of life and also a transfer of interest and energy from material things to a higher sphere. He follows Bergson in equating complexity with Matter and simplicity with Life.”
- “To those who say that machinery and the apparatus of living are merely instruments and devices which are without moral nature in themselves, but which can be used for either good or evil, I would point out that we are all influenced by the tools and means which we use. Again and again in the lives of individuals and of nations we see that when certain means are used vigorously, thoroughly, and for a long time, those means assume the character and influence of an end in themselves. We become obsessed by our tools. The strong quantitative elements in science, machinery, and money, and in their products, tend to make the thinking and life of those who use them mechanistic and divided. The relationships which science, machinery, and money create are mechanical rather than organic. Machinery and money give us more energy outwardly but they live upon and take away from us our inner energy.”
- “We think that our machinery and technology will save us time and give us more leisure, but really they make life more crowded and hurried.”
- “The mechanized countries are not the countries noted for their leisure. Any traveller to the Orient can testify that the tempo of life there is far more leisurely than it is in the industrialized West.”
- “No—the way to master the increasing complexity of life is not through more complexity. The way is to turn inward to that which unifies all—not the intellect but the spirit—and then to devise and put into operation new forms and modes of economic and social life that will truly and vigorously express that spirit. As an aid to that and as a corrective to our feverish over-mechanization, simplicity is not outmoded but greatly needed.“
- “There are certain elemental human needs which have to be met—food, clothing and shelter. These vary according to climate, custom and development of civilization, yet in any one place certain minima of these must be met if life is to exist at all. And if life is to be vigorous, there must be a margin above the minima, so as to provide physiological reserves for endurance, resistance to disease, and sudden emergencies requiring unusual exertion; and to provide mental and moral reserves for the work of adaptation to changes and making progress in civilization.”
- “Simplicity of living is, as we have seen, one of the conditions of reaching and maintaining these right relationships. Therefore simplicity is an important condition for permanent satisfaction with life. And inasmuch as national self-respect is a necessary condition for the maintenance of a nation or a civilization it would seem that widespread simplicity, as a cultural habit of an entire nation, would in the long run be essential for its civilization to endure.”
Simplicity & Environment
“Observance of simplicity is a recognition of the fact that everyone is greatly influenced by his surroundings and all their subtle implications. The power of environment modifies all living organisms.”
- “Therefore each person will be wise to select and create deliberately such an immediate environment of home things as will influence his character in the direction which he deems most important and such as will make it easier for him to live in the way that he believes wisest. Simplicity gives him a certain kind of freedom and clearness of vision.“
- “A lesser consideration is that in these days of rapid change, it is easier to adapt oneself if one is not much cumbered with things. Physical mobility in these days is an asset.“
- “In our American mechanized environment it will take intelligence to change successfully from living a complex life to a simple life.”
- “What is simplicity for an American would be far from simple to a Chinese peasant.”
Simplicity & Consumption
“Simplicity of living affects primarily consumption. It sets a standard of consumption. Consumption is the area within which each individual can affect the economic life of the community. Small as his own share may be, that is the area within which every person can exercise his control over the forces of economic production and distribution.”
- “Competitive ostentation—’keeping up with the Joneses,’—is a prominent feature of modern social life. Simplicity of living acts as a deterrent to such ostentation and hence to both greed and competition.“
- “The first step I can take to cut down my share in exploitation is to live simply. All luxuries require unnecessary labor.”
- “The production and consumption of luxuries divert labor and capital from tasks which are socially more productive and beneficial; they often take land away from wise use; and they waste raw materials which might be used to better advantage.”
- “A recent study by Professor E. L. Thorndike, of Columbia University, indicates that the actual American expenditures for food, clothing and housing are considerably larger than the actual necessities to sustain life.”
- Ruskin: “Possession is in use only, which for each man is sternly limited; so that such things and so much of them as he can use, are, indeed, well for him, or Wealth; and more of them, or any other things, are ill for him, or Illth.”
- “The greatest characters, those who have influenced the largest numbers of people for the longest time, have been people with extremely few possessions. For example, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Kagawa, Socrates, St. Francis, Confucius, Sun Yat Sen, Lenin, Gandhi, many scientists, inventors, and artists.”
- Vida D. Scudder: “The higher ranges of life where personality has fullest play and is most nearly free from the tyranny of circumstances, are precisely those where it depends least on possessions … The higher we ascend among human types and the more intense personalities become, the more the importance of possessions dwindles.“
Simplicity & Psychology
“There is one further value to simplicity. It may be regarded as a mode of psychological hygiene. Just as eating too much is harmful to the body, even though the quality of all food eaten is excellent, so it seems that there may be a limit to the number of things or the amount of property which a person may own and yet keep himself psychologically healthy.”
- “The possession of many things and of great wealth creates so many possible choices and decisions to be made every day that it becomes a nervous strain.”
- “If a person lives among great possessions, they constitute an environment which influences him. His sensitiveness to certain important human relations is apt to become clogged and dulled, his imagination in regard to the subtle but important elements of personal relationships or in regard to lives in circumstances less fortunate than his own is apt to become less active and less keen. This is not always the result, but the exception is rare. When enlarged to inter-group relationships this tends to create social misunderstandings and friction.”
- “The athlete, in order to win his contest, strips off the non-essentials of clothing, is careful of what he eats, simplifies his life in a number of ways. Great achievements of the mind, of the imagination, and of the will also require similar discriminations and disciplines.”
- “If simplicity of living is a valid principle there is one important precaution and condition of its application. I can explain it best by something which Mahatma Gandhi said to me. We were talking about simple living and I said that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, ‘Then don’t give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.‘ It is interesting to note that this advice agrees with modern Western psychology of wishes and suppressed desires.”
Simplicity & Spirituality
“The most permanent, most secure, and most satisfying sort of possession of things other than the materials needed for bodily life, lies not in physical control and power of exclusion but in intellectual, emotional, and spiritual understanding and appreciation. This is especially clear in regard to beauty. He who appreciates and understands a song, a symphony, a painting, some sculpture or architecture gets more satisfaction than he who owns musical instruments or works of art. The world of nature and the museums afford ample scope for such spiritual possession. Such appreciation is what some economists call ‘psychic goods.’ Entering into the spirit which lies at the heart of things is what enriches and enlarges personality.“
- “We cannot have deep and enduring satisfaction, happiness, or joy unless we have self-respect. There is good reason to believe that self-respect is the basis for all higher morality. We cannot have self-respect unless our lives are an earnest attempt to express the finest and most enduring values which we are able to appreciate. That is to say, unless we come into close and right relationships with our fellow-men, with nature, and with Truth (or God), we cannot achieve full self-respect.
- “Living simply seems to be an important element in this effort to manifest love and human unity, and hence, to live in accordance with Jesus’ commands. Love is the sentiment which accompanies the realization of human unity. It expresses that unity and stimulates and helps to maintain it. We have seen in the case of St. Francis how simplicity aided in his attainment of unity with his fellow creatures. Likewise simplicity helps to express and aid love.”
- “Hinduism and Buddhism have also emphasized the value of simplicity.”
- “Tender-heartedness, together with great intelligence and strength of character, has in the cases of such leaders as Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, George Fox, John Woolman and Gandhi, resulted in simplicity. Tender-heartedness seems to have been one of the elements which compelled those men to recognize human unity and to live in accordance with it and to share their property and lives with those who had need.”
- “Simplicity would constitute part of a code of moral hygiene necessary for a healthy and vigorous spiritual life. The verse, ‘He that loseth his life shall find it,’ may mean, for one thing, that he that loseth his keen sense of separate individuality and acquireth a strong sense and practice of human unity shall find his truer and more enduring and richer life.”
- “The heart of the problem of simplicity is spiritual and lies in inner detachment. But the inner state must be expressed by an outer act, in order to have sincerity, in order to prevent self-deception, in order to strengthen the inner attitude and in order to gain further insight for the next step.”
Cultivation of Simplicity
“Practicing simplicity means not only that you have made this decision, but that you are doing one of the important parts of it, you are conforming with one of its essential preconditions, you are expressing your preference by actual conduct.“
- “If I wish actively to participate in this transformation, I myself must begin to alter my own life in the desired direction.”
- “My changes must be both inner and outer, and must, I believe, be in the direction of more simplicity.”
- “Simplicity, to be more effective, must inform and be integrated with many aspects of life. It needs to become more social in purpose and method.”
- “Inasmuch as the essence of the matter does not lie in externals but in inner attitude, let us discuss certain ways by which that attitude can be cultivated. Since simplicity means the supplanting of certain kinds of desires by other desires, the best aid in that process is directing the imagination toward the new desires. We must try, of course, to understand intellectually all the implications of the new desires, but further than that, make the imagination dwell upon them in spare moments, and just before going to sleep and just after awakening. Read books or articles dealing with them. Associate with people who have ideas similar to those which you wish to cultivate. Exercise your discrimination in the relative values of different modes of living, and in the little details that compose them. Practice the desired simplicity in small ways as well as the large. Provide as many small stimuli as possible for this line of thought and conduct.”
- “Inasmuch as competition and emulation, especially the variety known as ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ lead to complexity of living, and inasmuch as competition is encouraged by a sense of diversity and exaggerated individualism, we will help ourselves toward simplicity by cultivating a strong and constant feeling of human unity. Try to cultivate the ability to work without attachment to the fruit of works. If you realize that the purpose of advertising is to stimulate your desires for material things, you will be wise to avoid reading many advertisements. At least exercise selection in so doing.”
- “Other elements of character which will be desirable to cultivate for this purpose are: strength to resist the pressure of group opinion; ability to withstand misunderstanding, unfavorable comment, or ridicule; sensitiveness to intangible values and relationships more than to sense impressions; greater sensitiveness to moral beauty than to beauty perceptible by the physical senses; persistence, endurance, and strength of will.”
- Ruskin: “Three-fourths of the demands existing in the world are romantic: founded on visions, idealisms, hopes, and affections; and the regulation of the purse is, in its essence, regulation of the imagination and the heart…. We need examples of people who, leaving to Heaven to decide whether they are to rise in the world, decide for themselves that they will be happy in it, and have resolved to seek—not greater wealth, but simpler pleasure, not higher fortune, but deeper felicity; making the first of possessions, self-possession.“
- “Modern discoveries about vitamins, mineral content of foods, calories, food mixtures, sunshine, and fresh air show that it is entirely possible to live simply and have an optimum of health.”
- “If such simple action by me seems too tiny and insignificant to make it worth while to attempt, I should remember that it is not really insignificant, because it is an organic part of the great spirit of millions throughout the ages who have voluntarily lived simple lives. The meaning of my part in such a movement does not lie in the size of my accomplishment so far as I am aware of it, but in the quality of the principle and the quality of my participation.”
- “No matter what changes take place in human affairs, the need for simplicity will always remain.”
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Kim @ The Frugal Engineers
I read “Voluntary Simplicity” for pleasure in college and it was life changing. It lined up with my goals for sustainable low-impact living and financial freedom. A very under-rated book!
I agree, Kim! Highly underrated. That’s fantastic that you were exposed to it in college. You got a head start!