November, 1977

The Quaker testimony of simplicity arose out of the concern for living lives of truthfulness in all things. Thus it became essential for Quakers to avoid owning or having things which were unnecessary, and to avoid having things which were intended to create artificial effects such as rank or station, and to avoid saying or doing things for devious or hidden purposes. They became known for their bluntness in telling what they saw, for their disuse of embellishments and ornaments in speech dress, and living arrangements, and for their refusal to say things whiCh they did not know to be true even if it was for their own advantage, or to use political devices merely for their own personal benefit. In a word, they sought to live lives of integrity, wherein all their actions could be judged by a single standard of truth. Of course, they also sought to live compassionately, in the light of the oneness of all persons, but this is an enrichment of truth-telling, and is not dependent on it nor does it contradict it. But it seems clear that simplicity in our words, and in our actions, and in our possessions follows from the testimony of truth-telling that is we only speak and do and have those things which are true or honest or necessary.

The testimony of truthfulness in turn springs originally from Moses' commandment not to bear false witness, and later from Jesus' admonition to "Swear not at all, but let your speech be Yea, yea; or Nay, nay; and whatsoever is more than these is out of the divine spirit. And truthfulness in possessions may be measured by Moses' rule that "Man does not live by bread alone", that is, life ultimately comes not from bread, or possessions, or power, or rank or station, but from that same divine spirit. From these it follows naturally that only those possesions which are truly necessary are to be owned, and only those words which are actually so are to be spoken and all adornments and frills in language, dress or actions are unnecessary and in fact bring one away from the divine spirit.

To me it seems to follow further that we can in fact own nothing, except possibly the results of our own labor; and also that insofar as we have more than our neighbor we have more than we are entitled to. I believe that this imposes on us the obligation to use only what we need in order to sustain our physical lives, and as much as possible to restore that which we have used so that someone else may use it. Our estimates of our needs may differ, and something may be regarded as essential by one person and not by another, but the rule of replenishment would still seem to be applicable whenever we use something which someone else does not consider to be needful, since if it's a necessity we ought to restore it, and if it's a luxury we also ought to restore it. We are thus stewards of the world and not merely inhabitants.

Thus the problem in simple living reduces to judging what is really necessary for our lives just as the problem in speech reduces to judging what is really so before we speak. And the more I study this problem the more I come to think that there is almost nothing that I really need, that I cannot even do without, save perhaps interaction with other people. For me this is the meaning of Jesus' statement that we should "Be not anxious for our life, or our food, or our raiment." It requires but little acumen to see that we don't need big houses, or fancy clothes, or big cars or much or fancy food, or books and records and televisions and movies, although we do probably require stimulation of some sort; what is more difficult to see is not so much what are the absolute necessities for our own lives but rather whether it is necessary to urge or push the same limits on other people and to take steps to gently (or vigorously) coerce them into living according
to standards which we set for ourselves.

The difficulty in these days and these times is that almost any time we purchase anything we are probably buying from someone who is exploiting someone somewhere, or who is acquiring thereby more than they are entitled to or really need, and at the same time we do not individually have all the skills and knowledge necessary to avoid purchasing some of those things, nor do we have the power to stop these people from their exploitive behavior. Thus our endeavors must be twofold: to lead our own lives according to the principles of least use and replenishment, and to educate others into those principles. But whether we succeed in the second endeavor seems to me to depend on the degree to which we truly achieve the first, and also on whether we can be patient with those whose behavior we deem exploitive or harmful while we are trying to educate them.

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)