Among the conclusions offered in the sociological study Lost in Transition (2011) is that materialism from consumer capitalism is rampant in our society; almost none of the youth surveyed “had any concept of life beyond material consumption, family, and friends.” Our Founders learned from the Romans to fear the voluptuousness and degeneracy that now characterize our time.
In The Creation of the American Republic (1969), emeritus Brown historian Gordon S. Wood explains that the Founders’ familiarity with Rome was not simply the consequence of
its preeminence in the ancient world and its influence on Western culture but was also the result of the peculiar character of the literacy Rome had passed on to the modern world, a body of writing that was obsessed with the same questions about degeneracy that fascinated the eighteenth century. Enlightened men everywhere in the eighteenth century found much of what they wanted to know about antiquity from the period…called the Roman Enlightenment.
Wood describes what the Founders learned:
It was not the force of arms which made the ancient republics great or which ultimately destroyed them. It was rather the character and spirit of their people. Frugality, industry, temperance and simplicity—the rustic traits of the sturdy yeoman—were the stuff that made a society strong. The virile martial qualities—the scorn of ease, the contempt of danger, the love of valor—were what made a nation great. But luxury was what corrupted a society: the love of refinement, the desire for distinction and elegance eventually weakened a people and left them soft and effeminate, dissipated cowards, unfit and undesiring to serve the state.
The Founders’ concern about luxury was not confined to wealth, notes Wood, but included that “dull animal enjoyment” which left “minds stupefied, and bodies enervated, by wallowing forever in one continual puddle of voluptuousness.”
Voluptuous is defined here as “fond of or directed toward luxury, elegance, and pleasures of the senses.” We live in an age of hedonistic materialism and driven self-indulgence, like the avaricious late Romans. Wealthy elites and an envious, debt-ridden middle class—and their children—have and grasp at lifestyles and “positional goods" (status symbols) that only the wealthiest adults possessed in earlier generations. Through the media, the secular offertory of corporate consumer advertising promises ever-expanding extravagances of the passing moment. The relativistic ethos of postmodern multiculturalism is reflected throughout the media and mass culture. The cultural moguls of Hollywood and an infantilized video and music culture have created a cult of celebrity entertainers who flaunt salacious behavior, often first performing as adolescents. This is the kind of voluptuousness that the Founders sought to avoid.
By degeneracy, we mean “having sunk below a normal condition or character,” including being corrupted by desire and displaying “lowness or meanness.” That description is properly applied to our generally banal entertainment culture. Moreover, a great deal of information now provided through the press as well as television and the Internet is corrupted by political correctness and laced with postmodern philodoxy. Much of the media displays both lowness—in disingenuous and biased reporting that often becomes propaganda—and meanness, through unconcealed contempt towards ordinary Americans.
During the late 1960s, with One-Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse became “the father of the New Left” and began to turn it towards cultural and sexual liberation—cultural Marxism. Marcuse railed against the false consciousness and existential alienation that he believed characterized a soul-destroying consumer society in which Americans found their selves only in their possessions. His solution was to destroy the existing oppressive and repressive, societal and capitalist, Western order and liberate eros.
Marcuse’s academic cadres developed a sweeping program of human self-actualization reaching beyond every “normal” boundary or taboo: gender, race, and especially sexual preference. “Freedom of choice” was extended into nearly every private realm, from lifestyle to sexuality. “Liberation,” so-called, became freedom from responsibility. Cultural Marxism and psychoanalysis converged on the theory that the patriarchal, authoritarian family and its repressive morality served the interests of the ruling class. Sexual obsession and self-centered expressive individualism spread from the academy to society. The answer to economic consumerism was individual relativism and social self-indulgence.
In today’s academy, degeneracy has decayed into decadence. Most college degrees have been devalued by postmodern multiculturalism. Too many students take trivialized courses, do little or no intellectual work, and receive inflated grades. As Peter Wood observed recently in Too Much For Too Little, academia has “stripped the college degree of much of its value as a guarantor of broad competency.” The wisdom of Western civilization has been discarded along with most other components of a traditional liberal education.
Aristotle argued in his Nicomachean Ethics that a truly happy life is an existence of goodness, free from impediments—that is, reasonably secure from poverty, sickness, and restrictions. Such a life of moral excellence may be attained through observance of the mean: Be neither ascetic nor gluttonous, be temperate; be neither cowardly nor rash, be prudently courageous; be neither subservient nor arrogant, be self-respecting.
Ironically, a member of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Ferguson, anticipated our present circumstances. Ferguson worried that affluence from a commercial society would sap vital traditions of civic spirit from civil society. In his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), he reminded the world of the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome: “Their ardent attachments to their country… their manly apprehensions of personal independence, which rendered every individual, even under tottering establishments and imperfect laws, the guardian of freedom to his fellow citizens…”
But Ferguson saw emerging in his day that “the individual considers his community only so far as it can be rendered subservient to his personal advancement and profit.” Human beings become weak and soft; they must have their creature comforts, no matter what. In a vivid passage in which the eighteenth century is paraded in all its new-found ostentation, the very consciousness of “being” in modern society vanishes behind “having,” as “the idea of perfection” is transferred “from the character to the equipage.” The moral personality becomes “a mere pageant, adorned at a great expense, by the labours of many workmen.” Ferguson saw civil society as not only the source of civic virtue and the public good, but the wellspring of human morals and actions and, indeed, of the human condition itself.
In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville offered similar thoughts about our nation.
Materialism is a dangerous malady of the human mind….One must dread it particularly in a democratic people….Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments. This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is nothing but matter; and materialism in its turn serves to carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor. Such is the fatal circle into which democratic nations are propelled. It is good for them to see the peril and restrain themselves.
Tocqueville emphasized the importance of religion and family life as a counterweight to acquisitive individualism, to temper the degeneracy of democracy into excessive and mere materialism. This is an especially good time of year to revisit his recognition of Puritanism—what became the Protestant ethic—as “the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”
The answer to the voluptuousness and degeneracy that our Founders feared, our rampant consumer materialism and its attendant corruptions, is not the alternative relativism and self-indulgence of cultural Marxism, “self-esteem” psychology and postmodern multiculturalism. Rather, it is the wisdom of Aristotle, Ferguson, Tocqueville, and many other secular and religious thinkers of Western civilization, which our colleges and universities need once again to teach, as NAS has recommended.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).