Ancient-World Lessons In Simplicity

In the ancient world, people had time to create such remarkable works of art. They’re not simple at all, but are simpler lives the reason they were able to complete such amazing tasks?

The pyramids in Egypt and the beautiful and functional carvings of the Mayas aren’t simple at all. They’re highly complex works that required specialized skill and years of effort to create. There are some simple lessons in them, however, if we can find them.

In December, I visited two museums, and I came away with something worth mentioning.

First, David and I visited an exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History exploring what modern science has taught us about ancient Egyptian society. The next week, we spent David’s birthday, December 15, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth — one of the most respected museums in the country — exploring some Mayan artifacts in a traveling exhibit.

The Egyptians and the Mayans share many things in common, not the least of which is the careful attention to detail in their art, structures and religious devotion.

Building a pyramid is a mind-bogglingly complex task, but don’t you admire the simplicity of a spiritual practice intended to equip the dead for a comfortable afterlife? And creating earthen vessels requires a set of skills very few people have, but isn’t the act of drawing what you need from the planet itself really simplicity in its purest form?

For many people in these cultures, life was hard and consumed by the work necessary to support their families. The things of these cultures that survive, however, often show that both common people and the elite of their times took great care in building or having built remarkable structures, commissioning or creating amazingly powerful works of art and carefully tending to the burial and remembrance of the dead.

It’s easy to idealize a culture based on a positive portrayal of it in a well-meaning museum. Things like poverty, slavery and disease are easily glossed over, and they shouldn’t be forgotten. Life in the ancient world was difficult from many people who were born in the wrong place or bloodline — as it is today.

Still, does the care and attention some ancient people put into their work have a lesson for us?

Without televisions, blenders, the Internet or triple-bladed razors, some people of the ancient world lived beautifully intricate lives that live again because their greatest works have been rediscovered. Will your life’s work be worth rediscovering?

Do you think the ancient world hold any lessons we can apply to our simple, deliberate lives?


  1. Sorry for the late comment, but I hadn’t found your blog when this was originally posted.
    I can’t find much to admire in something like a pyramid, which took a huge amount of human suffering to create. I do admire small, personal works of art like pottery or beadwork. These, to me, show the true artistic human spirit.
    Since I’m not an artist, and I have no children, I doubt I’ll leave anything of note behind. But hopefully, through living a more simple and thoughtful life, I’ll have some kind of positive impact in the here and now.

    1. Maybe the best legacy, Nancy, is to leave nothing behind — no damage, no hurting, no resentment…

      There are worse things to leave behind than nothing. Since most of my writing is digital, I suppose it will all disappear when I die and stop paying the hosting bill.


  2. This is an interesting theory Gip. I’ve always felt that the ancient Egyptians and Mayans were a more evolved human species than we are today (maybe even aliens).

    I’ve never considered that the lack of distractions in their lives might have contributed to everything they were able to accomplish. You’re right, maybe the simplicity of their existence allowed them to focus to intensely on their craft that these civilizations were able to create amazing beauty and breathtaking structures.

    Even with our ever advancing technology, we still can’t replicate the perfection of the pyramids — and they were built by hand (allegedly — remember, alien theory)!

    1. I don’t think I can go along with the aliens theory, but it does seem we’ve lost some things that they knew. In other words, human knowledge took some steps backwards for a while.

  3. Snap Nancy

    Giving our best effort each day is a wonderful goal. I think the other things we can learn from these ancient people is that they saw their lives in a context of a higher power. The work they did was motivated by their belief system. While those belief systems don’t stack up for us today I’ve found that the exploration of my own belief system has a profound effect on my daily experiences.

    1. I don’t think So Much More Life has ever had a “snap” in its comments before, Deb.

      What fascinates me about ancient cultures, in part, is their devotion. I don’t see many people now who are as devoted as ancients seemed to be — and I also wonder how many of them were as devoted as history tells us they were.

  4. Good observation. Our great ancestors did leave us great legacies. We think we are much more privileged because of these available high technology gadgets at our disposal. The inventors, creators, designers developers are to be lauded for using their brain to come up with such ideas. But we as end-users, what does it benefit us in the long run? Sure everything is as easy as pushing a button but on the extreme it’s making people lazy–manually and mentally.

    1. You’re right that our work ethic is different. Of course, we don’t have slaves to do much of the work for us either, although many people still have servants or another kind of servant called an employee.

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