Before the Fall
“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times”. This quote is pervasive throughout the internet, mostly because it aligns with the paradigm of grindset social media influencers: work will set you free. It took a bit of searching to find its origin, but Foreign Policy attributes it to G. Michael Hopf, in his book The End. I have little intention of reading it, since it seems like thinly-veiled right-wing political diatribe.
“富不过三代” is a Chinese expression that literally means “wealth does not pass three generations”. One generation creates the wealth, the next generation spends it, and the last generation is now poor. It conveys a similar meaning to the first quote, and is simultaneously a critique and an observation of those born into wealth. It is also empirically true: the number of enfant terrible born to rich parents is too high to be mere coincidence.
My preferred quotation however, is what John Adams once wrote in a letter “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.//Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” Unlike the other two, it conveys the sentiment that the creative arts occupy the pole position in the knowledge hierarchy, the liberal arts and sciences after them, and then finally the mercenary arts.
Then again, this could merely be the wish of someone who wants to see their descendants learn to enjoy their lives. Sometimes, that’s why 富不过三代 holds true as well: so long as the livelihood of their children are secured, is it really that important for them to make money? Spending time and money on artistic endeavours, and wasting time and money in the Aegean Sea are two entirely different things, but most parents just want to see their children happy. Whoever said that a life of pleasure is a life squandered simply has never had enough pleasure.
Like John Adams, I put the creative arts above the liberal ones, and then those above the mercenary ones. With the End of History, the majority Western society resides in his dream world now. A network of alliances and economic interdependencies means that war truly affecting citizens in West is an improbability (investments and prices at the pump aside), and politics are really means for producing more good times. Fewer resources are spent on the liberal arts: how many contemporary philosophers or scientists do we know aside from Žižek and Neil deGrasse Tyson? Instead, resources are dedicated towards “painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain”, or modern variations thereof.
Of course, this growth and consumption is on the backs of the international working class, but this is mostly ignored. When someone is concerned about the fall of civilization, they are exclusively talking about the Western civilization that they live in. The fear is that exploited masses in the far-flung corners of the world will stand up for themselves, cutting into the Western slice of pie in a zero-sum game. Few are actually concerned with the collapse of human civilization as a whole.
Whether we are truly living in the end of times, or things are only going to improve in an endless hedonic treadmill of culture, it is undeniable that life right now is the best we’ve ever had it. Though modern-day serfs still can’t afford property, we have a longer life expectancy than nineteenth century nobility, and entertainment that those living at the turn of the millennium couldn’t even begin to dream of. We are living in the good times that strong men have created, studying the creative arts for our enjoyment.
Since the collapse of classical civilization, the Western world has been steadily developing; there have been a few steps back and false starts, but the definition of good times has only improved over time. In line with this economic growth is the golden age of culture we now live in. Information has never been more readily available, travel more accessible, and pleasure more affordable. Sure, people will say that certain things (be it film, comics, theater, or music), peaked in the past, but they are wrong. There is a greater number and diversity of entertainment options than ever before, catering to the specific tastes of each individual.
Life is good. Technology has brought us quick diversions that require no attention span and can provide hours of distraction. The democratization of content creation has allowed for each subculture to be adequately represented; though often outside of the mainstream, everyone can find something that is virtually tailor-made for them. In spite of the forty-hour workweek, the comfort and pleasure that the majority of society can partake in is certainly at an all time high: audiovisual entertainment that was afforded to only the ultra-rich a few centuries ago, accessible only in specialized venues a few decades ago, is now quite literally in the palm of everyone’s hands. And if some self-professed old soul can’t bear to be without Baroque, Classical, or Romantic music or art, they are also at the most accessible that they’ve ever been.
Political podcasts bemoan the decline of our society, doomsayers whine about the slowdown of the Western economy, and environmentalists sound the alarms over the collapse of the environment. Though I am certainly living in the best of all possible worlds, I also vehemently disagree that it is ending. But does it really matter? A popular millennial belief is that the Baby Boomers have ruined our economy and society, but they continue to enjoy the benefits. Although I agree that the Boomers are reaping more than they have sown, millennials have much more capacity to enjoy the products of technology and culture than their parents. The common millennial sentiment is to live in the present: the future is unaffordable, so best to enjoy what we have now. If I die, I die.
Though it seems cavalier and ignoble, I think it’s the only way to live life. In the grand scheme of things, in the infinitely large universe, we are but an infinitesimal speck, conscious for a insignificant portion of the vastness of time. I’m not advocating for pure self-centeredness; recycle, help the less fortunate, and if you have a few brain cells to rub together, perhaps embark on your noble quest to save Western civilization, if not humanity. But remember that we’re living in the best of possible worlds. Best to enjoy it while we can, regardless if society is in decline or not. Sometimes, a society in decline is the best one to enjoy oneself in. Eat the cake, play the fiddle, don’t look up, and let the band carry on.