The Simple Life.
Multum non Multa, or Simplicity
Part of the Education Is for Life Series
It is true that education is a life, and it is true that Life is an education, but it is also true that education is for life. If this classical education we are seeking for our children is meant to prepare them for life – and it is – then is it not true that we ourselves – as mothers, as women – need this preparation?
While I do believe that reading Homer and Shakespeare and learning Latin and logic is beneficial to humans in general (including mothers), I am getting even more basic than that.
The principles that we base our education upon are the same principles we can base our home routines, our activity choices, and our personal goals upon. These are truly principle principles, first things, foundational things.
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Multum non multa
Much not many. I must admit that part of the reason I love this phrase is that using much and many incorrectly is a pet peeve of mine. In English, much and many distinguish between non-count and count nouns. So the phrase implies having much of something more abstract – like virtues, education, knowledge, wisdom, etc. – and not many tangible, countable, material things.
Another way the Latin phrase can be translated is ‘not quantity but quality.’ This sentiment is one that has several traditional English proverbs, as well: Quality over quantity, and less is more.
The principle tells us that we should privilege depth and quality over breadth and quantity. It means that it is ok to say no to good things when we realize that saying yes would diminish the quality and depth of the good things we are already committed to. It helps us recognize and be content with our finiteness.
No one person or family can do all the legitimately good things there are to be done, so praise God there are lots of people in the world!
Multum non multa means simplicity.
Simplicity is a good principle to filter choices through, but it must remain a subordinate filter to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. If it isn’t true, then it doesn’t matter if it is quality. If it isn’t good, it doesn’t matter if it is deep. If it isn’t beautiful, it doesn’t matter if it is simple. Children are a Good, but they definitely complicate life. Quality over quantity is generally true, but when it comes to time for building relationships, quantity is just as important.
But, there are yet many opportunities for us that are true, good, and beautiful, that are excellent, pure, praiseworthy, and lovely. We cannot do it all.
So what sort of filter does simplicity provide? I appreciate Tsh Oxenreider’s definition in Organized Simplicity:
The definition of simple living is this: living holistically with your life’s purpose.
Later in the same chapter, she develops this thought:
Holistic living means that your spiritual, relational, emotional, intellectual, physical, and financial lives are working together.
Living simply means you have a focus and direction, and all aspects of your life cohere around that focus and help move it forward. It means you do not have compartmentalized portions of your life. It means your energies are not scattershot across a wide field, aiming at no target other than forward momentum.
Sure, Tsh’s strategy for this kind of focus is to create a personal and family mission statement, but I don’t actually think that’s necessary. It might be what the hip kids are doing, but if we’re taking our cues from historical practices rather than current trends, then we can resist the fad.
However, we would still benefit from having these sorts of conversations, from knowing what is important to us, from understanding what gifts we have and how best to invest them. Thinking about what you’re hoping for before you decide what to do is traditional, proverbial wisdom. One maxim that applies is from the Greek philosopher Epictetus:
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
So, a written mission statement is fine and dandy, but I’m not going to push that. However, do think about where you want to be, about who you want to be, and then make choices holistically based on that end rather than on immediate expediency.
To live holistically, one does need a unifying principle. And for the Christian, that unifying principle will be some variation of “glorify God, grow in wisdom and holiness, and use my gifts and talents to further His kingdom.”
Simplicity at Home
Of course the obvious application of multum non multa in our homes is in the “stuff” department. Get rid of the junk. Choose few quality tools over many cheap gadgets. Moreover, choose few quality tools over many quality tools. A smaller house is easier and faster to clean (if the stuff inside is also proportionate). Declutter the closets, toss the extra papers, and don’t buy things just because they’re on sale.
This is the principle that I formed Simplified Dinners on: how far can I pare down my pantry and still make a variety of flexible meals? Right now, I’m playing with applying this principle in my wardrobe: with how few things could I manage a variety of flexible outfits? Do I really need a shirt in every color that looks good on me? Do I really need both brown and black everything? I’m only in the declutter & experiment stage there, because I’m still shifting sizes and shape post-baby.
Then there is this holistic aspect to simplicity which is less obvious to apply. Sometimes it feels like keeping a clean house is its own separate and additional wheel that we have to keep spinning, a thing unto itself and not integrated into the other aspects of our lives. Yet, our home is probably the thing most integrated into our lives. It is the backdrop of that life. It is not a separate thing, but a setting – a stage – on which the drama of life is being played out.
So, rather than seeing the house as yet another separate entity demanding our attention, we should see it as the setting, the backdrop: necessary, helpful, and not an end in itself.
Simplicity in Schedule
I’ve written a not-unfavorable review before of Managers of Their Homes, wherein Terri Maxwell instructs you how to schedule by the half-hour – every half-hour of the day – each child and yourself. Talk about many: a half-hour block from 7am-7pm for each child and myself is 72 blocks! Keeping tabs on, enforcing, and also implementing 72 blocks of time each day is crazy-making.
How many time blocks in each day are you trying to keep rolling? Can we apply multum non multa to our calendars and schedules? If Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis is valid, then it takes 10,000 hours to become a real proficient in something, which works out to about 3 hours a day for 10 years. If we want to learn something really well, if we want it internalized, then it’s going to take time and application, not dabbling. And we cannot give adequate time and application to many opportunities, hobbies, or skill sets. Spend 3 hours a day outside. Spend 3 hours a day immersed in language – singing, reading, talking, writing. Think in big chunks, not every minutia.
The multum non multa principle guides us to pick much, quality, deep, over many, quantity, and shallow. If you are going to do something, do it – and that will mean not doing other things. Let this principle reassure you that choosing much of one good thing over a little of many good things is the better choice.
Simplicity as Mothers
How does multum non multa apply to us in our role as mother? Are we trying to be many things to our children rather than much? Are we switching from mother to taskmaster to teacher to P.E. director to cook to maid to tutor to entertainer to chauffer, feeling that these are all different, distinct, separate roles we are playing in our children’s lives, roles we have to get Right? Instead, wouldn’t it be, feel, and look different to address all these aspects as one life and as one person? Can we see it all, as Ann Voskamp writes, “a one-piece life”? Would that remove some of the crazy-hat-switching stress?
If we are feeling like we are being pulled a million different directions at once, can we pull back and evaluate? Can we change our orientation, remove some clutter – whether it be physical, schedule, or mental – and live our life integrated upon a unifying, central purpose?
Can we apply multum non multa in our everyday lives to reduce stress?
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This is a fantastic post. I have experienced the stress and anxiety that goes with trying to keep too many balls in the air or trying to track my day in lots of shorter time chunks instead of large swaths of time. This is also where multi-tasking gets me into trouble- I’m trying to do several little things at once (making an appt on the phone with the doctors office, sweeping the floor, watching that the noodles don’t boil over, and keeping the toddler out of mischief- I often end up with an appt time that doesn’t work very well for our routine, debris on the floor that I missed, over cooked noodles, and a toddler jamming markers into the toilet).
I can’t attend to ANY of my tasks when I’m living in “many” instead of “much.”
Anyway, great post. I usually only think about education when I’m pondering this principle, so your post is helping me consider the wider implications it has in my life.
I LOVE this. Thank you for prompting me to examine how multum non multa can be lived out in the entirety of our lives, not strictly in our homeschool. Excellent, thought provoking post. Thank you!
How does this fit in with Charlotte Mason’s idea of spreading an abundant feast?
I believe all of life is the feast and keeping school hours short and focused (which CM recommended) allows for a feast of free play and reading. A feast isn’t a myriad of small tastes of many things, but an abundance of good things we must all choose from.
Everything doesn’t need to (and can’t) happen every day. A feast is abundant in time and quality, not mere quantity.