by Jonny Thomson
Public domain via Wikipedia
by the finer
things in life...?
The Roman writer, Tacitus, argued that the Roman
Empire was built by enslaving conquered people who
became accustomed to fine living and luxury.
Technology today has become so essential to our
daily lives that it seems impossible to break free
of it. It's as much a cage as a luxury.
Being dependent on a thing gives it power over you.
To need something or someone is, for better or
worse, to limit yourself...
has decided she wants to quit social media. She's worried about
how addictive it is and thinks it's not doing her any good at
How will she
speak to her aunt in South Africa?
What will happen
to all of her photos?
And how can she
organize that party?
wants to leave the country. He distrusts the government,
dislikes the people, and hates the weather.
But, then, he does
get good healthcare. And he does like the TV. The roads are
pretty good, too.
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
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?
danger of luxury
The Roman army was one of the most militarily effective and
successful forces the world has ever known.
On open land, their
legions were pretty much unbeatable...
But the Roman Empire was
not built on the back of military genius and short, stabbing swords
The legions might
have beaten a people, but they did not subdue them.
It was the love of
luxury and easy living that did that...
The Britons, Tacitus
noted, were enslaved, not by chains, but by their desire for good
wine and elegant dinner parties.
In fact, the governor of
Agricola, deliberately sought
to pacify this tribal warrior society by the "delightful
distractions" of warm baths, togas, and education.
As Tacitus wrote,
"The na´ve Britons
described these things as 'civilization,' when in fact they were
simply part of their enslavement."
Comfort and convenience
had morphed painted, screaming warriors into genteel, pacified
(It should be noted
that Tacitus likely over-exaggerated all this. Britain was never
as compliant as France or Spain in the Roman Empire.)
The use of luxury to win
over a people is a tactic mirrored across time.
Faced with a trade
deficit with China, the British Empire flooded their country
with cheap opium they had shipped over from India.
A luxury drug became
an addiction, and the British traded their opium for porcelain,
tea, and silk.
Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying the American way of life.
Credit: Bob Galbraith / Public domain via Wikipedia
Cold War was also won on the
back of luxury.
When cheap American
TVs and refrigerators inevitably worked their way into the USSR,
the Soviets couldn't hope to match such opulence.
The bloc came to see
such "luxury" domestic goods as essential, and only the USA
could give them.
But the most relatable
example for most of us today is our relationship with
...slowly and surely wire
our lives into their
algorithms and platforms.
Social media are designed and
calibrated to be deliberately addictive.
Time- or money-saving
services, like cloud-based storage, have become so
universal, that going back is becoming impossible.
It's increasingly the
case that we don't even know our passwords for things - we let our
phones or apps invent and store them for us.
leave the machine
A new technology or service is initially a luxury - until it becomes
so normalized and ubiquitous, so essential - that we can't go back
to the time before it appeared.
What was once a "want"
becomes a "need."
E.M. Forster's novella, "The
Machine Stops", imagines a world where every facet of
life is provided by "the machine."
There are buttons,
"to call for food,
music, clothing, hot baths, literature and, of course,
communication with friends."
How prescient has this
turned out to be...?
Today, we have,
Our friends and family
are also plugged into the machine...
Is it possible to leave?
Though we view
technology as liberating, it also boxes us in...
If we believe Tacitus, we
are now enslaved by the things we once saw as luxury.
It's the job of
philosophy to see these chains for what they are...
And, as we examine our
lives, we can then choose to wear them happily or start the long
hard journey of throwing them off...