Edward Bok & The Simple Life


ANOTHER APOLOGIST for the modern work ethic, William Feather, was even more caustic in his criticism of Bok’s promotion of “simplicity and service.” Writing in Nation’s Business , he charged: “Mr. Bok is un-American. In proof of this I cite that he has quit work and is now attempting to Do Good, and conducting a vigorous propaganda to induce other business men to do likewise. Bok is ashamed to work. He is ashamed of profits. He regards trade as inferior. Doing Good, patronizing the stupid and weak, giving the people something they don’t want, is his idea of a worthwhile life.

“I contend that no 100 per cent American subscribes to such a doctrine. The 100 per cent American dies in harness.” At first glance, Feather’s comments could be taken as a witty satire of Ben Franklin’s work ethic gone out of control. But he was not joking. His ideal “100 per cent American” unashamedly believed in the “doctrine of selfishness” and was proudly “rich, fat, arrogant, superior.”


Such a brazen materialism was heard often during the 1920s. John Edgerton, for example, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, proclaimed that he was “for everything that will make work happier, but against anything that will further subordinate its importance in the program of life.” Another capitalist evangelical agreed that the summum bonum of life was the accumulation of material goods and pleasures through hard work. “Man’s nature could realize its loftiest aspirations only in a materialistic heaven on earth,” he said. Bok’s promotion of the Thoreauvian idea that prosperity offered a unique opportunity for Americans to devote more of their time and attention to “higher” pursuits seemed lost on those intoxicated by the promise of wealth. “You know the quality of the lads that come to this school,” the Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter wrote in 1924—“the best there are in the country. And yet, on the whole, a pretty crass materialism is their dominating ambition.”

That his gospel of simple living, early retirement, and public service generated such splenetic criticism was disappointing to Bok. Still, he did not slacken his efforts to elevate American priorities above mundane moneygrubbing. During the 1920s he wrote seven books, created and financed awards for community service activities, established the American Peace Award, anonymously subsidized the Philadelphia Symphony, and published numerous essays explaining and defending his enlightened philosophy of living. Bok died in 1930, just as the nation began to experience the severities of the Great Depression. He was buried at what became known as Bok Tower, a carillon he built in the Mountain Lake bird sanctuary near Lake Wales, Florida, where he had a winter home. On his crypt was etched, at his request, a favorite saying of his Dutch grandmother: “Make you the world a bit more beautiful and better because you have been in it. ”

It was a fitting epitaph for a remarkable man. True, Bok’s crusade on behalf of simple living ultimately fell far short’of its goals. Despite his Herculean efforts, his program for middle-class domestic and moral reform did not produce the widespread and enduring change in values that he desired. The accumulated momentum of modern urban industrial life and conspicuous consumption was difficult to restrain. As early as 1906 a writer in The Outlook predicted that there was “small chance that this revolt against wealth as the supreme aim of life will go too far; the tendencies in the other direction are far too powerful, the opportunities too tempting. ”

No sooner was the war over than the mood of self-sacrifice dissipated.

Still, if the middle-class simplicity that Bok advocated did not provoke a dramatic shift from the status quo of conventional urban life, it was a significant departure for many and a genuine transformation for a few. Even in its most superficial forms, Progressive simplicity did reflect a yearning for more lasting values and enriching experiences than orthodox corporate and community life had to offer. If Bok and other propagandists succeeded in luring even a few indulgent urbanités out of their cluttered houses and “nervous” frame of mind and into the countryside and a more enlightened approach to getting and spending, they considered it an important first step in restoring balance and sanity to the American way of life. “We can never make life simple,” Bok confessed, “but we can make it simpler than we do.”