In this post on Juvenal I highlighted his explanation of Roman decadence as the consequence of luxury. [We are now suffering the evils of a long peace. Luxury, more deadly than war, broods over the city, and avenges a conquered world.]
Such ideas are a commonplace in the ancient world, and also the early modern – Byron, for example, identified a cycle of luxury and decadence as the pattern of all history. This appears prominently in Herodotus, who saw the freedom of the ancient Greeks as the product of hardship, in contrast with eastern imperial luxury, as F. Roger Devlin explains here.
The Roman historian Tacitus noted that acquiring a taste for luxury was an important step in the reduction of barbarian tribes to servitude, for when “a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude.” The same had happened to the Romans under the empire: “the charm of indolence steals over us, and the idleness which at first we loathed we afterwards love.”
Not are such ideas new in the American context. Dan Beard, founder of the Sons of Daniel Boone (later merged into the Boy Scouts), saw things similarly. He wrote:
The writer has emphasized the danger of edged tools for beginners, but he did that to make them careful in the use of the axe, not to discourage them in acquiring skill with it. We must remember that there is nothing in life that is not dangerous, and the greatest danger of all is not firearms, is not edged tools, is not wild beasts, is not tornadoes or earthquakes, avalanches or floods, but it is LUXURY ; expressed in boy language, it is ice cream, soda water, candy, servants and automobiles; it is everything which tends to make a boy dependent upon others and soft in mind and muscle and to make him a sissy. But hardship, in the sense of undergoing privation and doing hard work like chopping trees and sawing logs, makes a rugged body, a clean, healthy mind, and gives long life. So, boys, don’t be afraid to build your own little shack, shanty or shelter, to chop the kindling wood for your mother, to split up logs for the fun of doing it, or just to show that you know how. Don’t be afraid to be a real pioneer so that you may grow up to be a real Abe Lincoln ! If I am talking to men, they need no detailed definition of luxury ; they know all about it, its cause and its effect ; they also know that luxury kills a race and hardship preserves a race. The American boy should be taught to love hardship for hardship’s sake, and then the Americans as a race will be a success, and a lasting one.