In our work with families of wealth, we focus on deeper aspects of character more than developing skillsets or financial literacy or competency. Frankly, we think the latter is not particularly effective in achieving generational financial success in families. Regardless, that focus naturally leads to discussions surrounding such big questions as what virtuous character looks like – and in particular what does virtuous character look like in families of wealth. With that as background, my hope in writing today is to ask you a question: is “simplicity” a virtue? or is it a value?
To ensure that we are on the same page, let’s define virtue as a character trait that is universally viewed as laudable while a value is a character trait or preference that is more subjective in nature. To put it another way, a value is neither good or bad from a societal perspective, but may be of particular importance to an individual or group.
As for simplicity, that can be defined as a choice to reduce one’s lifestyle below what he or she would otherwise be able to experience. I know there are some who place a high value on living life simply – some to the point of asceticism. Indeed, there are entire publications devoted to the subject. However, consider the following:
The inward reality of simplicity involves a life of joyful unconcern for possessions. Neither the greedy nor the miserly knows this liberty. It has nothing to do with abundance of possessions or their lack. It is an inward spirit of trust.
— Richard Foster
If Foster’s definition is a fair description of simplicity, that seems at least closer to the “virtue” category than the “value” category.
Personally, I am quite sympathetic to the view that having an “unconcern for possessions” is healthy and tend to see its evidence in one’s life and behavior as virtuous. I am also persuaded that the measurement of “unconcern” should have nothing to do with the absence of possessions. So I find Foster’s characterization compelling. Then again, I grew up at a time where a less accomplished thinker, with greater dispersal and publicity, observed that you should
Hold on loosely. But don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control.
— .38 Special
So what do you think? Virtue or value?