Why Read Old Books?

Becoming Affluent and Breaking Bad

Another classical downer: with material progress often comes moral regress.

Cranky Hesiod saw that in the fading tough world of early 7th-century Boeotia, as the advent of the city-state led to more claim jumpers, oath breakers, and crooked judges. The idea of the need for a daily struggle to survive to keep moral balance is best explored in the great tetrad of Roman imperial pessimists -- Juvenal, Petronius, Suetonius, and Tacitus. If late republicans like Horace and Livy had hinted that a rich, globalized Roman Mediterranean was destroying the old rural Italian virtue, then the later four chronicled in graphic detail just how -- and how fun it was to squander what others far better for seven centuries had bequeathed. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner might as well take place in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.

It is not just that plenty of slaves, purple dye, marble, forced vomiting, and piped-in water mean that we don’t have to rise at dawn to hoe the vineyard and bathe in ice-cold streams and therefore become lazy, corpulent, and decadent. Rather, material progress is usually accompanied by moral regress largely because of the leisure to master a critical consciousness and intellectual gymnastics well apart from the fears of religion: if we can explain, in a sophisticated and convincing manner, why something bankrupt is true, then it surely must be true: Vero possumus! Who is to say that Lindsay Lohan is not more interesting than Gen. Mattis?

Language in the postmodern world becomes more layered -- and fluid -- (compare "overseas contingency operations" for terrorism or “investments” for deficit spending). The sophistic citizen has the leisure and training to third-guess ancient protocols. Without a soul, the good life here is it. Sarcasm, cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism so abound that there must always be a third and fourth meaning. The in-the-know smirk of Jon Stewart or David Letterman and the gobbledygook mush that pours out the mouths of our talking head analysts conspire to make us incapable of saying any of the following: ‘The Tsarnaevs are repulsive and evil. Their mother is unhinged. Fire those who let in these repellent people. Something has gone terribly wrong with the FBI.” Say that and you are guilty of a thought crime greater than the mayhem committed on the street.

Major Hasan kills 13 and wounds 29, yelling out Allahu Akbar as he shoots. In response, the head of the Army joins the Obama Borg (of Brennan, Clapper, Holder, and Napolitano) to lecture us that the greater tragedy in this “workplace violence” would be the loss of the Army’s diversity program. Next thing, the head of NASA might be lecturing us that his foremost aim is reaching out to aggrieved Muslims.

It is not just that Juvenal’s Sejanus, Petronius’s Trimalchio, Suetonius’s Caligula, and Tacitus’s Nero are evil, but that they are products of a society in which the more clever it sounds, the more clothes it has, and the larger the house it inhabits, the more amoral it becomes. If Rome did not have a Caligula, it would have had to invent one.

Thus the weird backlash romance that arises for Ovid’s Philemon and Baucis with their simple beech wood cups and daily material grind. From Virgil’s mythical Arcadia to Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, there grows always this wish of the metrosexual to give up the world of Justin Bieber, Facebook, and the Upper West Side for something simple and true -- but perceived as gone forever.

How odd that these guys are not even happy when they win what they sought. By hook or crook they win Obamacare and now those who wrote the bill wish themselves and their staffs to be exempt from it, as if ol’ Doc’ is still around to practice folksy medicine out of his office at home. They want the dwindling rivers to run freely to the Bay deltas to allow mythical salmon to swim to the Sierra, but count on the awful man-caused reservoirs alone to give them the water to waste.

Palo Alto and Menlo Park got everything they ever dreamed up: Obama, diversity, vast cash redistributions, a left-wing governor and legislature, a new race/class/gender school curriculum, unionized state employees, a blue political class, vast riches from a green Silicon Valley ... and what? The young millionaires scramble to get their children into one of the growing number of private academies so they will not have to study the curricula with the "other" and join the poorly prepared students who are the logical ramifications of their own ideology. If they had a drawl, it might be the South's 1965-era academies all over again.

When I see the contemporary CSU campus -- larger than ever, more administrators than at any time in its past, greatest enrollments in history, students on generous subsidies with an array of electronic gadgetry and new Camrys and Accords in the brand-new solar-roofed parking lots -- and I hear of “crippling budget cuts,” “shorting the students,” and “a campus in crisis,” I assume that most of those who graduated in 1960 would find the current curricula a bad joke, and that today’s students would flunk most of the classes offered fifty years ago -- iPads and Twitter notwithstanding. If the choice for today’s serious student with ear phones is either to text an earth-shattering “I just walked into the Student Center” or to memorize "amo, amas, amat," then it is no mystery where the never-to-be regained minute goes, in this zero-sum game of 24 hours in a vanishing day.