The Last Word | Out of Sight

Luxuria is one of those hard words for beginning Latin students to get their heads around. It does and doesn’t mean what we mean by “luxury.” Maybe the best explanation is that in the modern world we have a very shallow understanding of luxury. The term is used mainly in advertising, and mainly for quite ordinary goods: “luxury” dinnerware or bubble bath, or mid-price cars touted as “the ultimate in luxury.”

But for the Romans, luxuria was the near-equivalent of Greek hubris. Both have behind them the imagery of material excess leading—and this is what’s important—to a diminished sense of cause and effect, and consequently to bad character. The fruit tree that goes unpruned is useless. The overfed ox is spoiled, mean, or just too frisky, and endangers its driver.

In Greek tragedy, tyrants who no longer understand life’s ordinary conditions bring down destruction on themselves, their families, and their nations. Roman literature condemns, under the name of luxuria, the drunkenness, promiscuity, and general mischief produced by the great wealth sluicing into the imperial capital. Epicureans, with their stress on inner peace and loving friendship, disapproved of luxury as much as the lofty Stoics did, and both kinds of philosophical moralists contributed to Christian doctrine.

The evils of luxuria seem more or less a no-brainer. Unless you happen to be right in the middle of them. Yes, Americans decry “consumerism” and long for simpler, more natural lifestyles; we condemn CEOs’ hundred-million-dollar salaries and company planes. Nevertheless, luxuria has become a basic feature of the way we look at the world, coloring our expectations in ways we rarely notice.

I came of age in the late 1970s, when the nation was getting fed up with crime. During long-distance jogs, I carried a can of mace. It was useful—maybe—once, when a motorcyclist asked for directions and then exposed himself and propositioned me: I threatened him, and he rode off instantly. Outraged, I went to the nearest farmhouse, whose owner phoned the sheriff. I was encouraged by the urgency and sympathy of the response. The peace officer told me, “We’ll get him for you, Miss!” Police cars scrambled over the grid of rural roads like fighter planes across the sky. (They finally stopped somebody, but he didn’t look like the man who had bothered me.)

For another decade and a half, all through the 1980s, I never questioned my sense of entitlement to security, and neither did anyone else. Then I went to live in South Africa at the end of apartheid. Not a good fit, my attitude with local conditions. I had rationales for my attitude—the need for the rule of law in order for foreign investment to increase, the cogency of the Broken Window Theory (if it’s allowed to go unpunished, petty crime can invite more serious crime)—but I really just loathed feeling unsafe, and since I couldn’t get at the people who had ransacked my condo a couple of weeks after I moved in, I turned my attention to the local derelicts. The couple camped on the neighbors’ balcony were doing a lot of things that would have got them locked up in the United States: setting cooking fires a few feet from our walls, leaving the outdoor tap on and flooding the garden, etc. But the police weren’t interested in putting the offenders where—I told myself—they would be better off.

South Africa is poor. The criminal-justice system can barely deal with a fraction of the murderers and rapists. Besides, there’s history and its damage: most people have no reason to respect the law, and for many, lawbreaking is the only available livelihood. If the naïve privileged complain, they are told to install an alarm, build a high wall, or move to a gated community (as I ended up doing).

This is why now, in my quiet neighborhood in Connecticut, when I hear about the “epidemic of incarceration” in the United States, I realize that the theories about our unique degree of racism, the connivance of the for-profit prison industry, and other findings of the experts leave out an important part of the problem. We have the world’s largest prison population because we’re the world’s richest country, and the mass disappearance of nonviolent criminals is the luxury we demand. In many cases, ordinary trouble on our part could protect us from troublesome people, but Americans increasingly want the luxuria of trouble-free lives.

We can’t see ourselves becoming luxuriosi, our selfishness overcoming our compassion—toward a teenager, for instance, who has no father to guide him. We don’t listen to the first part of Mark 14:7: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them….” Some people need continual help; locking them up—especially the way we do it—really doesn’t count as charity. So what luxury comes next? Perhaps Google Glasses will soon be able to filter out the homeless from our field of vision (along with litter and graffiti and every other eyesore), so that these human irritants won’t even reach our eyes, let alone our minds or hearts.

Published in the August 16, 2013 issue: 

Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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