Making an Enemy of Luxury

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

Following the English Revolution and a puritanical cultural interlude, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II commenced an age of excess. The new commercial wealth that began to be more widely dispersed by the century’s end set off a veritable explosion in the emulation of courtly and aristocratic styles. A much more indulgent attitude toward vice soon prevailed, and satirizing luxury thus became a leading theme in the literary utopias of this period. Memoirs Concerning the Life and Manners of Captain Mackheath (1728) comments on the epoch that:

There arose among us a general and uncommon desire of money, and after this an extraordinary appetite for power; the two great fundamentals of every evil. Avarice immediately overthrew all probity, and trust, and mutual confidence;…After this extraordinary change of property, virtue seemed to become vice, and vice, virtue; and all men inclined to think that if they had wealth, they had a right to everything;…and this poison having thus mixed with the blood and spirits of the people, they became weak and enervated: the desires of mankind after wealth being insatiable, were not to be diminished either by want or abundance. After this followed rapine, injustice, a general dissolution of morals; and in each man was found a desire after the goods of his neighbor, and the rich oppressed the poor without modesty or moderation.

Similarly, Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput (1727) laments that “wherever luxury and idleness presides, there will be room for pride, for vanity, and lust; and that led me to a reflection how much an elevated station is an enemy to virtue; and how greatly we deceive ourselves in believing that riches are the source of happiness.”

Another satire from 1744 contrasts the dissolute manners of Europe to those of Madagascar, and notes that “it is our own luxurious effeminacy that has stripped us out of our natural simplicity, and clothed us with the rags of dissimulation.” By contrast were the “happy people, unto whom the desire of gold hath not yet arrived,” for modern times “may be truly called the Age of Gold, / For it, both honor, love, and friends are sold.”

Link to the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly

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