Ancient and modern

Why do we assume our western good life will last for ever?

The ancients were so used to constant death and disaster they grew worried when things went too well

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

The slaughter in Paris is a catastrophe for the victims and their families, but the usual hysterical response across the media reminds us, yet again, what an extraordinary achievement it is that we Westerners simply assume the world owes us a life lived to the full, in comfort and security.

From the ancient world until relatively recently, there was little sense that the world owed us anything. About half of Romans would not make the age of five; probably a third would not make three months. War was commonplace, as deadly for civilians as soldiers, as were disease and famine. The destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius was greeted with relative indifference. Ancients simply accepted that this sort of thing was bound to happen.


The murderous emperor Caligula made a joke out of it all. Suetonius wrote: ‘He openly deplored the state of his times, because they had been marked by no public disasters: the rule of Augustus had been made famous by the massacre of Varus’ three legions in Germany and that of Tiberius by the collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidenae. But the prosperity of his own times threatened his reign with oblivion!’ So he occasionally expressed a wish for ‘the destruction of his armies, for famine, plague, conflagrations, or a gigantic earthquake’.

The popular response to this world was one of brutal pessimism. Everyday proverbs, fables and sayings suggested that man was better not born at all, and second best was an early death; life was fragile, ruthless and short; all man could do was endure, making decisions in response to circumstances that would enable him at least to survive; only the lucky could expect happiness. None of this meant that personal grief was in any way less raw. Emotions were handled with traditional rituals and laments, communal and personal.

The depth of unreality into which the West’s uniquely blessed condition is plunged is demonstrated by the only analogy endlessly invoked to describe the Parisian slaughter: it was like a movie. And it was in this respect: a movie made by Isis.

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  • Pioneer

    Excellent article.

    “what an extraordinary achievement it is that we Westerners simply assume
    the world owes us a life lived to the full, in comfort and security.”

    Cultural Marxism has removed any understanding of that from the consciousness of the masses.

    They assume it is a natural state of affairs. They do not understand the great freedoms they enjoy were hard won. They have no idea of their heritage, or that it needs to be defended.

    The end of Western civilization is nigh.

  • Gilbert White

    Great thing about these students they will indeed inherit a cashless society. The good times have finished?

  • Chamber Pot

    It won’t as our idiotic leaders are too busy throwing it away.

    • Leftism is a societal cancer

      So are the people.

  • Bonkim

    Spot on – we have been numbed into believing life would be honey and cake forever – it is only post-WW2 that Western Europe got stability and increasing prosperity.

    No birth-right things will be good for ever.

  • Jurgen Naseema Tess Tickles

    Lyfe be like Alan Sugar, nasty, brutish andst short.

    • Standish79

      Even spelling and typos don’t matter in Alan’s brutal world! 😉

  • Dominic Stockford

    Life is about more than ‘having stuff’. Time people got that.

    • Frank Marker

      Yup! Life is not one big fluffy Facebook entry.

    • Malcolm Smith

      Having certain stuff though is essential though.
      Health , proper nutrition, shelter.
      Regarding the more flashy competitive though things I agree.

  • carl jacobs

    Why do we assume our western good life will last forever?

    Western Man declared God dead. In so doing he traded meaning and purpose for moral freedom. And he thinks that a pretty good exchange so long as he is warm, comfortable, well-fed and has money to purchase leisure activities. Wealth is used to narcotize the fundamental meaninglessness inherent in the formal/functional atheism that has gripped the West.

    So what happens to this perspective when there isn’t any more money? What happens when meaninglessness confronts destitution and hardship and poverty and sickness and pain and suffering and death? People don’t want to think about that. So they pretend the good times will go on forever. Better that than to confront the existential crisis induced by a failed worldview.

    If God is dead, it really doesn’t matter if you find an org@sm in every orifice or starve to death on the street. You are just a random collection of molecules and your fate doesn’t mean anything at all. Who will remember your sufferings once you are dead? Who will vindicate the wrongs imposed. Who make up for the years the locusts have consumed?

    No one.

    • ohforheavensake

      Speaking as an atheist- don’t you think this is a tad overdone?

      • hobspawn

        You are welcome to try to communicate something as sensitive, profound, and inspiring, but as an atheist you may not have time.

      • carl jacobs

        No, I don’t. What I said is true.

        • Standish79

          Perhaps, and it is a valuable contribution to a philosophical discussion, but I wonder whether the atheist has any need for eternal remembrance of his sufferings, or cares one iota for the locusts that will eventually consume his random collection of cells. Indeed, even the Christian Afterlife has no (immediate) need for the mortal remains.

          • Kate S.

            A thoughtful response. My own position could best be described as cultural Catholicism with agnostic leanings — this is just to clarify where I stand. I can’t be completely certain, but I think that even atheists desire to be remembered. The human condition always includes suffering, hence, it would appear logical that those experiences are remembered as well.

          • carl jacobs

            The hope of the atheist is “Mountain, fall upon me. Earth, cover me up.” That is not just the cry of the damned when they are called forth to judgment. That is the presumed basis of man’s moral freedom. “Surely my deeds will be buried with me, for I am beyond reach when I am dead. Who is there who sees? Who is there who remembers? Who is there who can punish?” This moral freedom is found in the ability to act without fear of retribution. All one needs is the strength.

            But one may ask “What of the weak?” What of those who must live with the consequences of another man’s freedom to act as his strength allows? They live with the ever-present knowledge that the wrong done will never be vindicated. A man is dead, or a woman is despoiled, or a child is missing never to be found. The criminal goes free, and by his freedom demonstrates the utter pointlessness of the suffering and loss he inflicted. It cannot even so much as be established that the benefit the criminal received is not worth the pain he induced. Certainly it was worth it for him.

            The reference to locusts comes from the Book of Habbakuk. It is God who promises “I will restore the years the locusts have consumed.” God watches, and remembers, and restores. It is He who gives meaning to the suffering in life. He guarantees that the last word is written not by the right hand of the strong man, but by the Righteous Hand of Omnipotent God.

            This is what Western man has forgotten. He hopes only to live out his days in comfort and ease. And he crosses his fingers against the possibility of encountering the strong man on his path. He can do nothing else, you see. He crosses his fingers because he has forgotten how to pray.

          • Roger Sponge

            Carl

            Am deeply moved and impressed by all you have written here. Thankyou.

          • carl jacobs

            Thank you for the kind words. 🙂

        • siphil

          No, rather what you said is your opinion. We have a right to disagree.

          • Paul B

            Yes, you have a right to be wrong. Where is the virtue in that?

    • sfin

      As an agnostic, I don’t necessarily agree with your literal conclusions, but this is an eloquent post decrying the absence of…depth(?) in people’s lives. Pioneer’s post also touches on this, in a more secular way.

      I see society as infantilised. Material wealth and state welfare systems have created a society of dependant – and now entitled – children who, every five years or so, gets to vote for the next adult to look after them. In Britain, you cannot choose your health care, in Scandinavia you cannot choose your pension scheme, in France you cannot choose your unemployment insurance – and none of us are allowed to defend ourselves, our loved ones or our property – it’s all the job of Mummy and Daddy State.

      The state’s role is, of course, to keep the seething masses well fed, entertained, dumb and quiescent. “Don’t worry your little heads over matters such as history or philosophy (that might lead you to challenge our authority) – look! X factor’s just started!”

      • carl jacobs

        I think there is truth in what you say. But consider this. When men surrender belief in God, they become aware of the great void over which they hang. The question becomes “If I fall, who will catch me? There is no god. I can’t do it myself. To whom may I appeal?” And their eyes naturally turn upwards to the state. I wonder if the emergence of the collectivist state is simply the result of man seeking a replacement for divine security. As man becomes more secular, he submits himself to this infantilization in order to protect himself from uncertainty.

        Thus is why I think Libertarianism (American sense of the word. I don’t know what to call it in Europe) will never emerge. Libertarians react to the void by proclaiming opportunity. But most men are driven be fear – fear of the plunge into the void of meaningless suffering. “What if I get sick? What if I lose my job? What if I am rendered destitute? Who will notice what happened to me? Who will restore me? Or will I plunge into forgotten darkness and be left to deal with my situation on my own?”

        If God exists, the each man matters. But if there is no God, then what of the man who falls? What does he matter? That question terrifies people. And they seek out a substitute god

        • Your hope is not for God as a perfect Being, but for a celestial nanny to take care of you. If a perfect Being were to exist, no aspect of your finite and fallible person could merit its attention, let alone warrant its concern.

          • Paul B

            Theology has answers for you, as does maths with its infinities of different sizes. There are infinitely more real numbers than integers, and God isn’t troubled by the size of the Universe. Well, He wouldn’t be, were He to exist 🙂

            [Since Godel (a fortuitously similar name) it isn’t even safe to believe in maths!]

          • Well, no. Attending to transient and mutable matters involves undergoing change that nothing perfect can suffer. Accordingly, if God is perfect, you and I are beneath His notice. Contrapositively, deigning to notice us would make Him anything but perfect.

          • Paul B

            If there is no change there is no time. What was perfect then becomes a different perfect thru time, continuously. If God isn’t driving this process He must keep up! But He is, why not?, and so He does. [If he exists.] Not noticing something, even if that thing is imperfect, would make him less than perfect. Being omnipresent, omnipotent, omnieverything would allow nothing less.

          • carl jacobs

            Except of course that He declares precisely the opposite. Let’s weigh this question in the balance. To whom should I listen?

            1. The Infinite Eternal God who made heaven and Earth
            2. Michael Zeleny

            Hrmmm. I’ll have to ponder that decision a while.

          • Consider listening to reason instead. Socrates will tell you how.

          • carl jacobs

            Reason is a process and not an authority. It depends entirely upon the first principles that inform it.

          • Sure it does. The first principles as excogitated, not revealed.

          • carl jacobs

            And how does that solve the problem of authority? Your first principles are not binding upon me or anyone else. They have no more authority than the reach of your arm.

            How does it even change the nature of reason? You don’t start with a blank slate. How do you “think out, plan, or devise” first principles without the prior structures that enable you to “think out, plan, and devise?”

          • I cannot overstate the degree of my unconcern for binding anything whatsoever upon you or anyone else. That said, the only authority beyond the reach of my arm to matter in reproducing my civilization is that of a projectile aimed and launched thereby. Men who wish to reproduce their civilization through revealed authority fail to impress me intellectually, and I am more than willing and able to rebut any physical imposition they might muster; and likewise, I trust, is my civilization in any clash with what passes for theirs.

            As for thinking out, planning, and devising the first principles, accept no substitutes for theoretical insight, a sense of harmony, and geometrical education.

          • Malcolm Smith

            Michael Zeleny

    • Kate S.

      This is without a doubt one of the ten best comments I have ever read: eloquent, profound, and to the point. As a somewhat lapsed Catholic who, despite disagreeing with many RC doctrines, still finds a sense of belonging when I do attend mass, I couldn’t agree more that we (i.e., the West) have lost our way. I was a very young teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed, and very surprised when the Russian Orthodox Church suddenly emerged as a powerful social force after decades of state-enforced atheism. Now, as an adult, I understand that most humans have a spiritual side that is not satisfied by mass consumption and material wealth.

      As an avid reader of newspapers and magazines, I’ve noticed that many European politicians suddenly talk about values, and how we have to instill our values in Middle Eastern and North African migrants. This begs the question: What values do we actually have that are worth espousing and emulating? Some might say, freedom or liberty, but with freedom also comes great responsibility — as the philosophers of the Enlightenment well knew. I dare that say that even the mediaeval church fathers and rulers were aware of that, but unlike the later philosophers they did not believe that the majority of people were ready and able to deal with freedom, and feared the fallout. Human nature doesn’t really change, and we see people who crave order, structure and even instructions; for whom freedom with all its rights and duties is too great of a burden.

      What other values do we have: Family? Looking at the divorce rate, the growing number of people who prefer to stay childless, the elderly who live and die alone, I have serious doubts.
      Tolerance? Well, if you take the dictionary definition, it simply means to endure or suffer something that you don’t agree with. Again, I am not so sure that we really practise what we preach. Oh sure, we pay lip service, but most of us, and I include myself, prefer to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. It’s just so much more comfortable. Tolerance also has the potential to be exploited (as can be seen in the cultural relativism crowd), and to undermine the very ideas we claim to preserve.

      What are the solutions? I am not sure. I don’t even know for certain when it all started going downhill, but it might be worth taking a much closer look at the reasons and causes if we hope to save our civilization. Of course, it may already be too late for that — as the German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler predicted in his 1918 work “The Decline of the West”. Spengler viewed cultures and civilizations as organisms, living structures, that eventually decline and cease to exist.

      • carl jacobs

        I appreciate the kind words for my effort. Thank you.

      • As for human values independent of the putative Nobodaddy, in my land we claim Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Spinoza got it right: no perfect Being can suffer the vagaries of personhood. If you feel yourself being supervised by a supernatural agency, assume it to be indifferent, if not malevolent.

        • carl jacobs

          in my land …

          Evidently my land as well. I am an American.

          … we claim Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

          So that’s your authority then. A Superman comic? What is Truth, finite limited creature? Thunder your mighty proclamations from the heavens that we may know. Are you also the right hand of Justice? Can you tread down the wicked where they stand, and hide them all in the dust together? And what is the “American Way” that it has anything to do with either Truth or Justice?

          Spinoza got it right

          And who is Spinoza that he should proclaim with authority upon the nature of the God who made him?

          no perfect Being can suffer the vagaries of personhood.

          And you know this how exactly? Or would these be those thunderous eternal truths that you would proclaim from your little inconsequential perch? You define God as you think He must be according to nothing more than your own speculation, and then you judge Him based upon your own definition. What have you said?

          “Given that God is exactly as I define Him to be, then He will act according to my definition.”

          And we are to quail in fear before this argument from authority? It lacks only one thing – authority.

          … if not malevolent

          Ironic. If not for God, you would not be able to reliably differentiate malevolence from mercy.

          • My authority is the Constitution of the United States, which suffices to witness the human value of republican citizenship independent of the putative Nobodaddy, never mind the inspiration of Superman comics. As for Spinoza, his authority is that of reason, not of revelation. I have neither the time nor the inclination to offer you remedial instruction in rationalist philosophy, but unlike revealed religion, it is available even to an autodidact proceeding from the first principles. As for the secular ability to differentiate malevolence from mercy, I commend you the Categorical Imperative.

          • carl jacobs

            I have neither the time nor the inclination to offer you remedial instruction in rationalist philosophy

            I don’t care a tinker’s dam about your rationalist philosophy. I care about the authority with which you would establish it. Anyone can produce volumes of books with paragraphs of consistent answers. Find me the man who can produce those answers with authority. Everything you could produce suffers from that same principle defect of arbitrariness. You cannot even justify with authority why your opponent shouldn’t respond to your syllogisms by just shooting you in the head.

            Your first principles are assumed. By definition, you cannot prove them. They constitute your faith system and determine the output of your reason. You do not believe because you are compelled to believe. You believe because you follow the dictates of your faith. Just like everyone else. You just want to maintain the illusion of compelled belief.

          • I make no claims for the authority of my reason trumping that of your unreason. No disparagement of antipodean values is implied in citing republican citizenship as one among many exceptions to “the fundamental meaninglessness inherent in the formal/functional atheism that has gripped the West”. Of course the most valuable among such exceptions is the rationalist philosophy that gives rise to the constitutional principles of our republic. But as Gemma Frisius pointed out to Johannes Stadius 460 years ago, in natural philosophy and mathematics authority has no cogency, and their contents cannot be grasped by those lacking theoretical insight (ἀθεορητοί), a sense of harmony (ἀμούσοι), and geometrical education (ἀγεωμέτρητοι). Which is to say that I cannot expect this conversation to give out more light than heat.

            https://books.google.com/books?id=vCpHb4uL3rcC&pg=PP16#v=onepage&q&f=false

          • carl jacobs

            Your “reason” is killing your own civilization. It can’t even muster the will to reproduce itself anymore. You should stop and ask yourself how it can be rational when it produces that result.

            Of course you make no claims to authority. You know that you have abolished it. So you must retreat to the collective and a few Greek words as if they have some meaning or significance. Your philosophy is dead. You cannot hide the corpse behind a veil of intellectual intimidation.

          • Answered below.

          • Roger Sponge

            .”My authority is the Constitution of the United States”

            What kind of reply is that to the rest of the world?

          • An inspiration to form new constitutional republics of their own, or cultivate the ones extant.

          • Roger Sponge

            Thanks, but no thanks. With all the UK’s faults, failings and weaknesses, it also has many, many strengths. Too many for me to wish to overthrow the Monarchy.

          • Good luck finding human values in subjection to a dynasty of chinless wonders. Then again, you people master masochism like no one else.

          • Roger Sponge

            You’re so funny!

    • Paul B

      Yes. Yes. But the problem remaining with your otherwise excellent comment is that your questions, rhetorical to you and to me (so I do arrogantly assert), are not rhetorical to others especially to those whose moral freedom reduces merely to “if it feels good to me, then it is good.” The problem with modern Western so-called civilisation is that our morals follow our behaviour, (and I have to add this for the benefit of those about whom I speak) whereas our morals should drive our behaviour. It is one thing to allow moral freedom to those who read Aquinas and Aristotle and Plato, another entirely for the uneducated masses. They should be in church! (I’m not a religious person, just an elitist.)

      • carl jacobs

        The problem is that morality does not proceed from education. One does not become morally improved by reading Aquinas and Aristotle and Plato. One simply becomes educated in the ideas of Aquinas and Aristotle and Plato.

        Lenin after all was a highly educated man. Most of the Old Bolsheviks were highly educated. And look at what they did.

        • Paul B

          I doubt Lenin was a monster because of his education rather than despite it, but even if I’m wrong. one cannot draw conclusions about the general from the specific. Sure, *some* bolsheviks were educated, but how many of them, and in what? This all comes down to fundamental beliefs about humanity.

          One cannot help but be better at being good, if that is our nature, by being exposed to well thought out ideas. Our current education does not do that. It teaches us skills only. Let’s teach the humanities, philosophy, theology and the classics. Let’s expose people to ideas.

          Otherwise well meaning several generations of people have become adults without ever the issue of whether there are such things as good and evil ever been considered by them.

          Look at what Lenin replaced!

          • carl jacobs

            I doubt Lenin was a monster because of his education rather than despite it

            I agree completely. My point was only that education does not necessarily lead to moral improvement.

            One cannot help but be better at being good

            You have assumed here an objective standard called ‘good.’ You must first tell me what ‘good’ is and you must root it in something external to man.

            Our current education does not do that. It teaches us skills only. Let’s teach the humanities, philosophy, theology and the classics. Let’s expose people to ideas.

            Again, I agree with this completely. (And I am an Engineer with all the attendant biases. I did not agree with this when I was 20. With age comes wisdom.) But remember that the original concept of the Humanities assumed the existence of knowable universals. It’s not just about teaching the Humanities but setting the assumptions that inform them. It’s about identifying that objective standard called ‘good.’ This is the crisis that is literally killing the West. It can’t get outside of man and his limited finite nature to any knowable universals.

            Look at what Lenin replaced!

            What Lenin replaced was quite benign compared to what he installed. Russia was well on its way to evolving into a Constitutional Monarchy. It was developing both economically and socially. Not to say it didn’t have a long way to go. But one of the great tragedies of history is that WWI aborted Russia’s development, and threw it into the long blood-soaked night of Bolshevism.

          • Paul B

            Correct, I have so assumed such an objective standard. But your argument that it must be rooted in something is circular, the rooting medium itself needing to be rooted in something, etc. So Escher’s hand drawing the hand which draws the hand will have to do, but nothing is answered thereby.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    People who have a good life expect that good life to last their lifetime with the hope that it would last the next generation. That is about as “forever” as it gets.

  • hobspawn

     “Everyday proverbs, fables and sayings suggested that man was better not born at all…”

    You remind me of a proverb I once heard: conceived in sin, born in pain, life of toil, certain death. Which itself reminds me of some graffiti I saw in the US in the eighties: a crude drawing of a TV, the screen displaying the words “consume, be silent, die”.

    It’s all bollocks. Just one whiff of bacon frying makes any life worth living, thank God.

  • Simon Fay

    “Why do we assume our western good life will last for ever?”

    We don’t, but democracy and Ponzi capitalism act to create a superficial noisily-pervasive sense that they will.

  • andychrist

    all civilisations think they are there for good . the greeks ,egyptians ,mongols ,romans all thought they were gonna be around and running things till the end of time . our way of life WILL be replaced by another , weve had a good run , longer than some and the next transition is happening now , what to only time will tell

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