Thursday, February 4, 2010

Luxury & Technology (Part I)


What is it about luxury and technology that makes us so uneasy?

Nowadays, whenever a certain technology becomes widespread, it always seems to come under attack from self-appointed guardians of public morality preaching a new gospel of the good old days when everything was somehow "simpler." Just as modern life seems better than ever, these would-be traditionalists inevitably arise to denounce everything that makes modern life so much better. At the same time, though, even these critics of the new technology have become dependent on it themselves. As a result, they come off as a bunch of hypocrites who demand a return to the good old days, yet are incapable of living out their message themselves.

Examples abound today. We have “green” celebrities who jet around the world warning us that we have to reduce the air pollution which contributes to global warming. We have bloggers warning us that blogging leads to a lack of reverence for words. (One blogger with a sense of humor, "Fr. Gassalasca Jape," even warns us that blogging kills.) Back in the 1930s we had city-dwelling university professors (the Southern Agrarians) warning us that we needed to return to the land.

This yearning for the simpler ways of the past probably seems like a quintessentially modern problem. Ever since the Industrial Revolution made technology and luxury available to the masses, the world has been filled with Romantics yearning for a simpler life but never completely able to lead a simple life themselves.

However, this Romantic yearning is actually nothing new. There was an analogous phenomenon in ancient Rome of “traditionalist” denunciations of contemporary life. These ancient traditionalists, though, focused not so much on technology as on luxury. Interestingly enough, these denunciations of luxury were probably at their strongest when the Roman Empire had attained the height of its power in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

A good illustration of the Romans’ uneasiness with luxury can be found in Tacitus’ Annals. In Book III, Tacitus tells us that many Romans urged Tiberius to enact stricter sumptuary laws. The wealthy were building villas that were obscenely large; they were keeping virtual armies of slaves; they were holding extravagant dinner parties, and importing expensive delicacies from every corner of the Mediterranean. Luxury was simply out of control. But, where did people talk about the need for sumptuary laws to control these wild dinner parties? At those very same dinner parties, of course!

Tiberius, in a speech before the Roman Senate, declined to enact stricter sumptuary laws, for a number of reasons. One reason he gave was that he did not desire the thankless task of enforcing unpopular laws:

If there is a magistrate who can promise the requisite energy and severity, I give him my praises and confess my responsibilities lightened. But if it is the way of reformers to be zealous in denouncing corruption, and later, after reaping the credit of their denunciation, to create enmities and bequeath them to myself, then believe me, Conscript Fathers, I too am not eager to incur animosities. (Tr. by John Jackson)
On the face of it, this seems like a very pragmatic reason, perfect for a politician like Tiberius. However, it points to a more serious problem: most members of the patrician class who demanded stricter laws could not live up to them. For this reason, Tiberius responded that “the remedy must be within our own breasts; let improvement come to you and me from self-respect, to the poor from necessity, to the rich from satiety.” In other words, the reformers needed to reform themselves first.

Were these reformers really just a bunch of hypocrites?
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