Lessons about the dangers of luxury from the Roman Empire

Tacitus, a Roman writer, said that the Roman Empire was built by making slaves out of conquered people who had grown used to living in comfort.

Philippa wants to stop using social media. She's worried about how addicting it is and thinks it's doing her no good at all. But then she won't know how to talk to her aunt in South Africa. What will become of all her pictures? How is she going to plan that party?

Trevor wants to go to a different country. He doesn't trust the government or the people, and he doesn't like the weather. But he does get good care for his health. And he likes watching TV. Even the roads aren't too bad.

Philippa and Trevor are two examples of how luxury, technology, and easy-living can ensnare us or box us in. In many ways, it’s a modern and relatable phenomenon, but it goes back at least to the Roman writer, Tacitus. It’s the idea that the trappings of civilization enslave us. How is it that, without even knowing it, those things we thought were helpful and time-saving became indispensable essentials?

The hidden danger of luxury

The Roman army was one of the strongest and most successful in world history. On open land, it was almost impossible to beat their armies. But the Roman Empire wasn't just made up of smart soldiers and quick-cutting short swords. People may have been beaten by the legions, but that didn't mean they were put to sleep. What made that happen was a love of ease and comfort.

Tacitus said that the British were slaves, not because of chains, but because they wanted good wine and fancy dinner parties. In fact, Agricola, the governor of Britain, tried to calm down this group of warriors by giving them "delightful distractions" like warm baths, togas, and schooling. Tacitus wrote, "The stupid Britons called these things "civilization," but they were just part of how they were kept as slaves."

Painted, yelling warriors had changed into calm, polite civilians because of comfort and convenience. (It should be said that Tacitus probably made all of this up. In the Roman Empire, Britain was never as obedient as France or Spain.

People have always tried to win over a group of people by giving them nice things.

Faced with a trade deficit with China, the British Empire sent cheap opium from India to China in large quantities. The British traded their opium for porcelain, tea, and silk when it turned out to be more than just a luxury drug.

File:Reagan and Gorbachev in western hats 1992.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying the American way of life.

Credit: Bob Galbraith / Public domain via Wikipedia

The Cold War was also won by giving people nice things. When cheap American TVs and refrigerators made their way into the USSR, the Soviets couldn't hope to match this level of luxury. The bloc came to think that these "luxury" goods could not be made anywhere else but in the USA.

But the example that most of us can relate to right now is how we deal with Big Tech. Slowly but surely, companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google are tying our lives to their algorithms and platforms. Social media are made and set up to be addicting on purpose. Services that save time or money, like cloud storage, are becoming so common that it will soon be impossible to go back. We let our phones or apps create and store passwords for us more and more often, so we don't even have to remember them.

You can’t leave the machine

At first, a new technology or service is a luxury. But as time goes on, it becomes so common and important that we can't go back to a time before it existed. Things that were once "wants" become "needs."

"The Machine Stops," a short story by E.M. Forster, is about a world where "the machine" takes care of everything. There are buttons that let you "call for food, music, clothes, hot baths, books, and, of course, talk to your friends." How accurate has this proved to be? We now have Uber, Skype, Hello Fresh, and Amazon Prime. The machine is also connected to our friends and family.

Can I get out of here?

We think of technology as freeing, but it also limits us. If we believe Tacitus, the things we used to think of as luxury are now making us slaves. Philosophy's job is to see these chains for what they really are. And as we look at our lives, we can decide whether to keep wearing them or start the long, hard process of getting rid of them.


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