Saturday, March 13, 2010

True Simplicity I -- Things Opposed to Simplicity

In this post on contentment with simplicity I mentioned that there was a discussion of True Simplicity over on Real Learning. This is from a chapter in Dietrich von Hildebrand's book Transformation in Christ.

The first part was about how simplicity contrasts with disunity. Disunity means lack of integration -- one's motivations and desires are all warring with each other, one's outward actions aren't in tune with one's inner self.

I think I read once about how a philosophical approach to a difficult subject is first to define what something is NOT. I wish I could remember where I read it. Father Dubay's book started by talking about what poverty is not, before he went on to discuss what it is, and this chapter on Simplicity by von Hildebrand similarly starts with the shading, the chipping away at the block of marble to reveal the shape of the statue, so to speak.

NB He uses the word "logos" quite a bit; here is a Wikipedia article on the use of the word. For now I'll go with this statement unless and until I find a better definition:

Originally a word meaning "word," "account," or "reason," it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus.., who used the term for the principle of order and knowledge in the universe
Here are some things that are in contradiction to simplicity:

Motivational Disunity: Already mentioned. This is when one is simply carried by whatever tide is strongest. You see this all around you, and for most Americans, it is seen in oneself. It takes a lot of strength and "simplicity" to resist all the swirling currents: politics, consumer trends, entertainment, the various forms of media, opinions of people around one, even religious devotions and practices. It's not that these things are bad; some are important. It's that it's easy to get pulled this way and that and find that one's inner sanctum has become a "house divided".

Psychological convolutedness. This is when, as he says, a person doesn't respond directly to the "logos" of a situation, which I take to be the intrinsic reality. When I used to read a lot about unschooling and psychology I got the sense that convolutedness can be a matter of problematic upbringing or at least some people's reaction to their early impressions of life. He describes the person who finds himself reacting inappropriately to the situation as it exists -- feeling sad and deflated at a joyous time, or being ashamed and confused by a compliment or favor that others would more simply find pleasant and well-intended. Anyway, I'm sure we're all subject to it to some extent, but it might be more common for a more introverted, introspective type of person. DVH says that "the most unequivocal tasks are denatured into portentous problems" and a false way of being conscious becomes habitual, "in the sense of an ever-present reflectiveness." I think TS Eliot is one who describes the convoluted modern man very perceptively.

Complexity mistaken for profundity. Some people over-complicate simple things because they think that profound things have to be very complicated and hard to understand. This is more an intellectual than a psychological error. I used to write a lot about how jargon is used to baffle outsiders in a given field; Richard Mitchell, the "Underground Grammarian" is one of those who writes often and scathingly about how people misuse syntax and vocabulary, either deliberately or inadvertently, and how the effect is to confuse rather than enlighten. DVH says that profound things are usually basically simple, though not easy to understand. Consider the lily of the field, a miracle of engineering, yet approachable by the toddler who can barely walk.

Von Hildebrand quotes a dictum: "Simplicity is the seal of verity." Richard Feynman, a secular physicist, has said a similar thing in a different context, and so has Roger Penrose.

The Cult of the Abstruse. This is somewhat related to the above; it is an intellectual flaw. This is evidenced when someone pursues intellectual "signs and wonders" above real truth. They get caught up in the glamor of new theories for their own sakes, not because they help us approach nearer to actual knowledge. I saw it a lot in my English lit department in college.

The protean vastness of untruth, the maze of arbitrary and extravagant but witty errors and sophistries are considered with great interest -- if only because they divert the intellect from platitude and simplicity.
DVH says that those infatuated with complexity often enjoy the the involved aspects of their own psychic life.
A person of this type takes pleasure in his emotional detours and blind alleys which provide him with a sense of being deep and interesting.
This fascination with the subjective psyche almost originated in Germany with the Sturm und Drang movement. My guess is this is distinct from the psychological convolutedness mentioned above because that would be more involuntary, where this is actual pleasure of a kind taken in inner complexity. I remember reading bits of Rousseau's "Confessions" and being rather appalled by his delving into his inner man -- it had a rather narcissistic feel but with the added twist that he even seemed to love his ugliness. ... as if Bottom really admired his own donkey's head and thought it made him look unique and interesting.

DVH goes on to say:

This perverted spirituality hides an inherent impotence to penetrate the world of being, directly and essentially. The mind that wallows in complexity is unable to grasp the logos of what is in a straightforward way, to establish a vital contact therewith. It rambles around objects, without ever communicating with them intimately; its ideas are not inspired by the logos of the reality in question and are therefore devoid of intrinsic necessity. A sterile missing of the mark is the invariable fate of such minds; they are forever prey to an infinitude of possibilities instead of coming close to the one reality. All intoxication with complexity betrays the hunger of those who feed on stones instead of bread.
This is all a diagnosis, not a remedy, not yet.

He uses his pen with great strength, don't you think? The text is not easy going, punctuated by heavy-duty words as it is, and it's certainly not very soothing, but every sentence is both dense and spare. Even the passive constructions pack a punch. It strikes me as German scientific writing at its best.