The Virtue of Simplicity

Dr. Bob, “The Doctor’s Nightmare”

Simplicity is a basic operating principle of the program and of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without it neither would work. Hence Dr. Bob’s last words to Bill, quoted here.

The need for simplicity arises from the fact that what we are dealing with is not simple. Life is not simple. People and relationships are not simple. God is not simple.

So when we say that AA is a simple program, we need to be clear on what we are saying. AA is a simple program in that it gives us a set of simple tools to deal with what are in fact complicated matters. We use those tools to work our way through the real complexities of life and in the process simplify it and come out on the other side of those complexities.

The program’s simplicity is written into the very concept of steps. The 12 Steps represent a gradual process of growth one step and one principle at a time. From a simple admission of powerlessness we move to a minimal belief in a Higher Power to a plain willingness to let that Power help us.

Simplicity extends to the rest of the Steps. Step 4 may look very complicated, for we are taking inventory of our entire lives. But we do it one emotion, one defect, one relationship, one situation at a time. Prayer may seem to present all kinds of difficulties, but we can start by simply asking for help in the morning and giving thanks at night. Meditation may sound even harder, but we can begin by reflecting on a simple daily reading, or even just a phrase from that reading.

Always aiming for the greatest simplicity possible, we come up with all kinds of maxims and slogans which make the abstract concrete and the conceptual practical. The first three Steps are distilled into three succinct sentences: “I can’t. He can. I’ll let Him.” The “how” of the program is explained with a handy acronym which spells out the bottom-line, essential, indispensable principles: honesty, open-mindedness, willingness (HOW). Indeed, the whole program is summed up in a straightforward formula: “Don’t drink. Clean house. Help another alcoholic.”

“First things first,” “Live and let live,” “Easy does it,” “One day at a Time,” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “Do what’s in front of you,” “Put one foot in front of another,” and “Utilize, don’t analyze” are among the other sayings which seek to simplify the process of recovery.  

Simplicity is also written into the very concept of traditions, which are handed down to us for the very simple reason that they work. As with the Steps, the simplicity of the Traditions also was achieved by working our way through a lot of complications, in this case the task of trying to get a bunch of self-seeking and generally disorderly drunks to work together for the common good. Out of that experience came such policies as sticking to one primary purpose, having but one membership requirement, acknowledging one sole Authority, and other policies which sought to avoid all the complexities intrinsic to organizations and keep the alcoholic ego at bay. 

As we can gather from these few examples, simplicity seeks to dispense with the extraneous and the superfluous, the unnecessary and the unessential. It favors the plain, the minimal, the ordinary, the unassuming, that which is down-to-earth. It is the opposite of duplicity, complexity, and multiplicity. It works together with such virtues as humility and modesty, and stands against such defects as pride.  Pride or ego is among the biggest obstacles to simplicity, for it conflates it with simple-mindedness and sees complexity as a sign of superiority. 

Yet keeping it simple does not mean being simplistic or simple-minded, shallow or superficial. It does not mean we avoid exploring, inquiring, and digging deeper into things. Simplicity is not opposed to thinking. It is opposed to “stinking” thinking. Our ability to think is a gift from God and a grateful response implies treasuring that gift and using it to serve and to honor him.

When we say that AA is a simple program, we sometimes add “for complicated people.” Of course, we drunks are no more complicated than anybody else. But when we drank, we had a definite tendency to complicate our lives. That’s why they became unmanageable. Drinking exacerbated our defects and thus compounded our difficulties. We were naturally predisposed to excess, and excess creates chaos and disorder.

As we grow in recovery, it becomes increasingly evident to us that the good life is the simple life. We work toward it by working on the defects of character and emotion which complicate it. Where before we wanted more, we are now content with less. We appreciate the little things. We make fewer demands on people. We don’t seek the limelight. We avoid excess. We keep it simple. 

[Image: Dr. Bob, AA co-founder and author of "Dr. Bob's Nightmare." The words quoted were his last to Bill W. before passing away. He died November 16, 1950 at Akron City Hospital. For photos of his grave, audio of his storyQ&A about it, and talk by him, please click on links. See also "AA Dr. Bob: The Man and the Physician," 1978 Grapevine article by someone who knew him personally.] 

Dr. Bob
"Remember, Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple." – Dr. Bob   

Big Book"All of us . . . are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try." – Big Book

"As the day goes on, we can pause where situations must be met and decisions made, and renew the simple request: ‘Thy will, not mine, be done.’” – 12&12

Life Recovery Bible"Be still, and know that I am God." – Psalm 46:10
“Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly." – Micah 6:8   

"I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures." – Lao Tzu   

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life." – Socrates   

"In order to seek one’s own direction, one must simplify the mechanics of ordinary, everyday life." – Plato   

William of Ockham
"Plurality should not be assumed without necessity. It is vain to do with more what can be done with less." – William of Ockham  

Meister Eckhart
"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice." – Meister Eckhart    

Isaac Newton
"Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things." – Isaac Newton   

Henry David Thoreau
"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." – Henry David Thoreau 

George Santayana
"The spirit’s foe in man has not been simplicity, but sophistication." – George Santayana   

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Simplicity in character, in manners, in style. In all things the supreme excellence is simplicity." – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow   

Agatha Christie"You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely." – Agatha Christie   

Frederic Chopin"Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art."
– Frédéric Chopin    

"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least." – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  

Elbert Hubbard
"The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed—it is a process of elimination." – Elbert Hubbard   

Martin H. Fischer
"Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification." – Martin H. Fischer   

Lin Yutang"Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials."
– Lin Yutang   

Robert Browning
Less is more." – Robert Browning   

Terri Guillemets
"Eliminate physical clutter. More importantly, eliminate spiritual clutter." – Terri Guillemets   

Edwin Way Teale
"Reduce the complexity of life by eliminating the needless wants of life, and the labors of life reduce themselves." – Edwin Way Teale  

T. S. Eliot"Quick now, here, now, always- / A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one." – T. S. Eliot  

Jack Welch
"Don’t make the process harder than it is." – Jack Welch   

Robert Brault
"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things." – Robert Brault  

Oliver Wendell Holmes
"I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." – Oliver Wendell Holmes   

Charles Mingus
"Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple." – Charles Mingus 

Emily Dickinson
"Nature is what we know – Yet have not art to say – So impotent our wisdom is to her simplicity." – Emily Dickinson 

Alan Perlis
"Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it." – Alan Perlis   

John Morley
"Simplicity of character is no hindrance to the subtlety of intellect." – John Morley  

Anne Morrow Lindbergh "Certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others. There are, in fact, certain roads that one may follow. Simplification of life is one of them." – Ann Morrow Lindbergh    

Ludwig Wittgenstein
"The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity." – Ludwig Wittgenstein   

Kahlil Gibran
"The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply." – Kahlil Gibran   

Michael B. Kitson
"When you have cleared all of your clutter, you can be of greater service to those around you." – Michael B. Kitson  

Leo Babauta
"Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest." – Leo Babauta   

Albert Einstein
"If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." – Albert Einstein  

C. S. Lewis
"Where a clear and simple explanation completely covers the facts no other explanation is in court." – C. S. Lewis   

André Comte-Sponville
"What could be simpler than E=mc2? Simplicity of the real, even when complex; clarity of thought, even when difficult." – André Comte-Sponville   

David Schmidtz & John Thrasher"Simplicity is a theoretical virtue, but when a phenomenon looks complex—when an orbit seems to have two foci, not one—the simplest explanation may be that it looks complex because it is." – David Schmidtz & John Thrasher  

Joshua Becker
"Maybe the life you’ve always wanted is buried under everything you own." – Joshua Becker  

Bell Hooks
"Living simply makes loving simple." – Bell Hooks   

J. R. R. Tolkien
"It is not a bad thing to celebrate a simple life." – J. R. R. Tolkien

"The less you own, the less that owns you." – Anonymous  

The Artist’s Way
"Clutter is the enemy of clarity." – The Artist’s Way   

Ashley Brilliant
"What we need is to realize how little we really need." – Ashleigh Brilliant   

Thessalonians 4:11
"Aspire to live a quiet life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands." – Thessalonians 4:11   

AA slogan
"First Things First.” “Live and Let Live.” "Keep It Simple." “Easy Does It.” “One Day at a Time." – AA slogans   

"[W[hile it isn’t always easy, if I keep it simple, it works.” – A.A.’s Daily Reflections   

Twenty-Four Hours a Day
"Love the humble things of life. Reverence the simple things." – Twenty-Four Hours a Day   

Courage to Change
"If I am overwhelmed, I may be trying to do too much. Today I will try to keep it simple." – Al-Anon's Courage to Change   

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "I will keep it simple by living in this moment only. Today, I will tackle only today's problems; I will leave tomorrow's problems to tomorrow." – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts   

"Sometimes we take pride in how complex we can make something seem." – Touchstones: A Book of Daily Meditations for Men  

PTP123"We arrive in the rooms tangled up in a web of complexity and confusion. Our lives are unmanageable because our minds are unmanageable . . . Keeping it simple is essential if we are to act." – PTP123   

PTP4"We can begin at the very simplest level. This is what we do the first time we take inventory in Step 4. We start with the questions the Big Book suggests: Where were we at fault? Where were we to blame? Whom have we hurt?" – PTP4   

Practice These: Simplicity - Hans Hofmann
Practice These: Simplicity - Keep It Simple

For more PTP123 passages on simplicity, see, among others, pp. 70, 97, 119, 133, 140. For PTP4, see pp. 16, 264, 299. For Big Book and 12&12  passages, click on and search under simplicity and its cognates. 

Additional Resources

  1. “Let’s Keep It Simple—But How?” in The Language of the Heart: Bill W.’s Grapevine Writings 
  2. Reflection for 01/22 in AA’s Daily Reflections 
  3. Reading for 03/12 in Twenty-Four Hours a Day 
  4. Meditations for 05/22 and 07/23 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 
  5. Meditations for 02/09 and 11/23 in Al-Anon’s The Courage to Change 
  6. Meditation for 07/01 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts 
  7. Meditation for 06/25 in Each Day a New Beginning 
  8. Meditation for 10/13 in The Business of Heaven: Daily Meditations from C. S. Lewis 
  9. “Simplicity,” entry in The One-Minute Philosopher, by Montague Brown      
  10. “Simplicity,” chapter in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, by André Comte-Sponville, a secular view                       

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