Limitations and the Good Life

I like having options.

I got really excited about my electives in college and seminary, I shop on Amazon because they have about a thousand versions of everything, and I keep too many t-shirts because, well, maybe twenty-five choices won’t always be enough.

I also hate having options.

I still suffer regret wondering whether I missed out on the best electives, I spent way too much time worrying about which mouse to buy on Amazon, and I sometimes have a hard time closing my t-shirt drawer even though I basically rotate through the same five shirts every week.

The fact is that having options can enrich your life, but infinite options can drown you. And this isn’t just true of t-shirts.

G.K. Chesterton's Philosophy of Limitation

G.K. Chesterton, a 19th century Christian writer and apologist, believed that limitation is a fundamental part of being human and that humanity can only thrive in the presence of well-placed restrictions. In other words, we function best when our options are limited for us. What did Chesterton mean by limitation? Stated most simply: man is not God. Limitation is part of human nature because, while “God is that which can make something out of nothing…man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything.”[1] The distinct pleasure of God is to create a finite thing from infinite resources and limitless possibilities. The distinct pleasure of being human is to create and enjoy within God-given limits.

Limits are not boundaries on how much humans are allowed to enjoy and create, but rather limits are boundaries which make joy and creativity possible. To illustrate, Chesterton argues that the joy of property necessitates limitation:

A man with true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden; the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor’s. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.[2]

Today, there is a certain fascination with the idea of limitless possibilities. The academic and cultural elites tell us that we will be happy if only we will throw off the bonds of morality and shackles of tradition and head off into a paradise brought about by technology. But a person can only enjoy their property or their spouse if they are aware of what does not belong to them. Having a property line around your yard is what gives you special joy in maintaining your lawn. No one has been spotted pulling weeds at a gas station out of joy. It is the pride of ownership that produces joy, and ownership requires limits. As humans, we must live and work within limitations in order to experience the best things in life.

Limitation Makes Good Technology

Simple design, inside and out, has been a core principle for Apple from the computer company’s inception. The first Apple brochure proudly proclaimed, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” James Day explains that simplicity is “not merely the shallow simplicity that comes from an uncluttered look and feel and surface of a product, but the deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component.”[3] While complexity gives the appearance of being difficult to produce, it is actually the natural state of things. True simplicity, as understood by Apple, is exceedingly difficult to attain.

However, Apple’s design simplicity necessarily results in limitation for the user. Apple ruthlessly removes complexity by making as many choices as possible before users get their hands on the product.[4] Apple enthusiasts regularly bemoan how the company is loathe to include customization options common on other smartphone platforms. There is even a small community of iPhone users called “jail-breakers” who find ways to break into the software of the phone to allow more customization. Apple’s lineup of products is also much smaller than most tech companies, even after it has somewhat expanded recently. Like it or not, Apple has achieved unrivaled simplicity by limiting the user’s options.

While Apple’s pursuit of simplicity is well-documented, the important question is why the strategy works at all. How has the most successful tech company in the world built a famously loyal following by limiting options and taking freedom of choice away from their devoted customers? Does Apple thrive in spite of limiting user options or because of it? While the answers to these questions are certainly multi-faceted, it is apparent that humans and their technologies thrive in the presence of limitations.

To understand this concept we must first understand that the iPhone is a tool, and that tools are extensions of ourselves. A shovel, for instance, serves to extend your hand's ability to dig. Furthermore, a shovel is only useful because we know what it is good for: digging holes. The less clear a tool’s purpose, the less useful it becomes.

In comparison, a smartphone is an exceedingly complex tool capable of extending our ears to hear phone calls, our eyes to preserve images as pictures, and our memories as we write things down in to-do lists. Users could easily become overwhelmed and not undrstand how to use the iPhone at all. Apple’s ruthless design simplicity is all about limiting the user’s control over uneccesary options so they can focus on using the tool to its greatest effect.

Limitation Makes for a Good Life

Technology is not the only arena in which limits encourage human flourishing. God has also put limitations on the exercise of free will in the form of moral law. The Ten Commandments God delivered to Moses at Mount Sinai were not designed to curb the joy of the Israelites, but to provide the boundaries necessary to fulfill their purpose as humans created in God’s image. Each commandment is a life-giving boundary. There is a commandment that protects the joy of human life by forbidding murder. Another commandment protects the joy of property by forbidding theft. Other commandments protect the joy of marriage by forbidding adultery, the joy of communication by forbidding lies, and the joy of contentment by forbidding covetousness. Most important of all, the first commandment protects the joy of worship by forbidding the worship of false gods.

G.K. Chesterton and Apple both understand the necessity and, even more, the goodness of limitations. Limitations are foundational to being finite humans created in God’s image. Humans flourish when limits are respected, in technology design and morality alike. Some will always argue that freedom comes when all limits are cast off. Christianity proclaims that limits are necessary for freedom, joy, and flourishing.

Maybe I should get rid of some t-shirts.

Notes

[1]: G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 23.

[2]: G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 24.

[3]: James Day, “How Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled a Design Revolution”.

[4]: Macworld.com, “The Secret of Apple’s Design Success: the Humane Interface.”