Friday, March 19, 2010

People change, humanity doesn't

I started writing, saying things that I wanted to say about our government and our society, but I ran across a quote that interested me, and tracking it to the source material, I found that someone had already written what I wanted to write. I was beaten to the punch, but here are some of the things that happen to a prosperous society:
To those who had easily endured toils, dangers, and doubtful and difficult circumstances, ease and wealth, the objects of desire to others, became a burden and a trouble. At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil. For avarice subverted honesty, integrity, and other honorable principles, and, in their stead, inculcated pride, inhumanity, contempt of religion, and general venality. Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart. These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterwards, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable.


From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at naught modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint.
Of course, Gaius Sallustius Crispus was writing about 1st century AD Rome, and Augustine was quoting him in The City of God, but I don't see anything there that isn't relevant to early 21st century America.

If I might descend, briefly, into "partisanship," passages like this are among the things that are relevant to a discussion of "conservatives" and "liberals" (as those terms are currently in use). I've written, many times, of the dangers of utopianism as a governing philosophy. How far have we come in the last 2000 years? Technologically, we've advanced tremendously, but people are still people, with all of the inherent flaws that the Romans had. Lord Acton wrote that "power corrupts" over 100 years ago, Sallust wrote about the corruption of power 1800 years before that, David slept with Bathsheba and had Uriah the Hittite killed 1000 years before that, and the Lord rained down fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah 1000 years before that.

The names change; the lessons remain the same. Human beings are inherently flawed. You cannot build a perfect entity from flawed parts.

The idea that the human condition is perfect-able is lovely but it's fantastic, not realistic, and any program or policy instituted with that idea as an underlying assumption or premise is doomed before it starts. And anyone who believes that he can order society so as to render it perfect has to, in the end, become a tyrant, because a free people will always have the freedom to make bad choices.

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