Throughout recorded history runs a thread whereupon an older and often distinguished figure rants about the failures of the young and how they fail to learn the lessons of their forebears and how this will lead to the downfall of society.  While many cite Plato and his words about the coming failure of Greek youth because they fail to learn music and poetry and thus cannot distinguish between the values of the ancient levels of wisdom ascribed to gold, silver, and bronze, such warnings precede the Greeks and follow them through Cicero and others.  They also occur in other cultures than in western European descended societies.

Generally, at the time of such warnings, as with the case of Alcibiades with Socrates, there are generally two reactions, one usually from the young and one usually from the older members of society.  One is: “We’re still here; what’s the problem; you don’t understand that we’re different.”  The other is: “The young never understand until it’s too late.”

I’ve heard my share of speeches and talks that debunk the words of warning, and generally, these “debunkers” point out that Socrates and Cicero and all the others warned everyone, but today we live at the peak of human civilization and technology.  And we do… but that’s not the point.

Within a generation of the time of Plato’s reports of Socrates’ warnings, Greece was spiraling down into internecine warfare from which it, as a civilization, never fully recovered.  The same was true of Cicero, but the process was far more prolonged in the case of the Roman Empire, although the Roman Republic, which laid the foundation of the empire, was essentially dead at the time of Cicero’s execution/murder.

The patterns of rise and fall, rise and fall, of cultures and civilizations permeate human history, and so far, no civilization has escaped such a fate, although some have lasted far longer than others.

There’s an American saying that was popular a generation or so ago – “From shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in four generations.”  What it meant was that a man [because it was a society even more male-dominated then] worked hard to build up the foundation for his children, and then the next generation turned that foundation into wealth and success, and the third generation spent the wealth, and those of the fourth generation were impoverished and back in shirt-sleeves.

To build anything requires effort, and concentrated effort requires dedication and expertise in something, which requires concentration and knowledge.  Building also requires saving in some form or another, and that means forgoing consumption and immediate satisfaction.  In societal terms, that requires the “old virtues.”  When consumption and pleasure outweigh those virtues, a society declines, either gradually or precipitously.  Now… some societies, such as that of Great Britain, for years pulled themselves back from the total loss of “virtues.”

But, in the end, the lure of pleasure and consumption has felled, directly or indirectly, every civilization.  The only question appears to be not whether this will happen, but when.

So… don’t be cavalier about those doddering old fogies who predict that the excess of pleasure-seeking and self-interest will doom society.  They’ll be right… sooner or later.

4 thoughts on “Jeremiads”

  1. christoph says:

    I am reminded of words written in an open letter from an erudite Buddhist lama who is an accomplished master meditation to a rather pig-headed and meddlesome professor at a prestigious university in the northeastern U.S.:

    “The young generations of this country badly need training in how to think and evaluate. This I can see clearly. In the last 25 years of experience in the USA, I have seen that in every decade people are becoming more and more machine-minded and naive. If they see something special or interesting they don’t know how to go and explore the background. Instead, they follow it like a stream of water winding forwards and never looking back. This is a great nation formed by very, very wise people. If the people of today do not learn how to judge religion, politics and leaders, I am afraid that one day this great country will fall into a dark age.”

  2. John says:

    typo: Alcibiades, not Alciabiades

  3. Thank you. Correction made.

  4. John says:

    Sadly, almost no one reads or studies the classics anymore. Michigan State University was talking about(and may have) dropped the classics as a major. Amusing since they are the ‘spartans.’

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