''Simplify! Simplify!'' cried Thoreau, and the man had to be taken seriously when, in a bout of asceticism, he tossed out of his Walden cabin a stone serving as paperweight.
But beware of most Americans when they echo Thoreau's words. ''Give me the simple life!'' is a slogan that has made advertising copywriters rich, leading to designer jeans, dude ranches, and gourmet spice racks and four-cubic-feet refrigerators around the old campfire.
The latest case of reverse simplicity concerns the American motorcyclist. According to a current report, there are 8.5 million motorcycles in the United States, compared to less than 100,000 bikes 35 years ago. New motorcycles are selling almost as fast as new cars are not. Assuming that two wheels make a vehicle half as complex as four wheels -- a rule that would make humans half as complex as dogs -- a number of pop sociologists have taken off like drag racers, recklessly generalizing about the New Simplicity in transportation.
Such analysts are not paying attention to the road and ought to have their licenses for theorizing immediately revoked. Look to the right of you. Look to the left of you. And don't neglect your rear-view mirror either. They're everywhere -- these new buffalo-sized motorcycles that look bigger than VW Beetles, and are twice as complicated.
Gone are the days when a motorcycle was a bicycle frame with padding, and a couple of token springs for the potholes. A little over 10 years ago 60 percent of the motorcycles on American roads boasted a single cylinder. They were known as ''one-lungers.'' Today the fashion calls for four cylinders, water-cooled, with five or even six gears, and a top speed ranging above 130 mph, or two and a half times your legal limit.
A new motorcycle these days will run from $2,000 to a very unsimple $7,000, give or take a little at either end. And that can be just the beginning.
To this Spartan vehicle, a rider who is in style will want to add a fairing to protect him from the wind and rain - just like a car. Cost: $500-$600. To provide the look of a true tourer, he will certainly add a couple of bags and a trunk, all on the scale of a small sea chest. Cost: $350 or so.
For a touch of comfort, he will add sheepskin seat covers and a backrest for the passenger. Cost: around $150. But who would accept a ride, even on buffered sheepskin, without the luxury of a decent radio? Cost: $100-$160.
Extra lights are de rigeur, including even an exotic lighted bumper in back. One can spend hundreds of dollars turning one's bike into a rolling Christmas tree. But let's say you're going to restrict yourself to a light that warns tailgaters exactly how hard you're stomping on your brake. Only it's called a ''computerized deceleration-communications device,'' and that will nail you for
By now you've invested enough in your simple little two-wheeler to require a burglar alarm to protect it. Cost: $30-$160.
Even with the trunk on the fender and the luggage cases on either side you may run out of storage space when you and the sharer of your sheepskin saddle take a trip. Not to worry. A motorcycle trailer is available for $160, with a trailer hitch for another $70.
Now you are a car.
But wait. We haven't even outfitted you. Helmet: $100. Riding suit: $200. Boots: $75-$130. Gloves: $18-$35.
Shall we do a rough total? Vroom! What do you know? We've added another couple of thousand to the base price. And we haven't even mentioned sissy bars.
There are several good excuses for buying a motorcycle - we've managed to invent 12 over the years - but simplicity no longer seems to be one of them.
We're not sure what this little fable of reverse simplicity signifies. Does the refining and compounding of runaway gadgets explain how defense budgets get so big? Or does the saga of the unsimple motorcycle tell us more about our civilian habits of turning luxuries into necessities?
If we all feed the problem into the home computer that replaced our pocket calculators that replaced our slide-rules, maybe somebody can come up with the answer.