As we reflect on the rise and fall of great empires of the past, numerous markers of a declining society have been proposed. While some of these markers are almost certainly innocuous, others may be the harbinger of a failing civilization. Although we may be caught up in chronologic snobbery, the erroneous perception that we at this end of history are more advanced and above the problems of the past, we should be wary of considering our civilization insulated from the incessant ebb and flow of great civilizations of the past.
One marker thought to be a harbinger of the end of the greatness of a nation or civilization is a fascination and obsession with entertainment. As we look back at the great empires of the past, they began with what we could call grit-the willingness of the people to sacrifice, to work, to build, and to suffer, believing that they could become something great. As the empire became something great often the members of the empire lost this grit, instead prioritizing comfort and entertainment over persistent work and a willingness to sacrifice. Whether this prioritization was the cause or simply accompanied the failing of the empire could be debated, however we must recognize that essentially no great empire of history has gone without a period (as short as it may have been) of luxury and decadence, before the often rapid decline and decimation of that civilization.
In a day of the globalized economy and the rapid recognition that truly no man or nation is an island unto itself, and in light of the fact that a large portion of the world’s population lives in historically unprecedented wealth and health, we should be wary of the changing of the tides of greatness as these affect every member of planet earth. Particularly in the developed work, there is an obsession with entertainment and luxury. This is not to say that there are not many people working to become better and to better those around them, but it is to emphasize that the amount of time and money that we (as the developed world) spend on entertainment through TV, video games, books, sports, games, and a host of other activities is unprecedented and rapidly escalating. More people than ever are hoping to make a living utilizing one aspect or another of the entertainment industry whether that be in music, TV, YouTube, or the plethora of other platforms available. This trend is troubling and is only getting worse.
The hope is this. Many of the platforms by which we entertain ourselves with frivolous consumption can be leveraged for much greater benefits in education, in developing new technology, and in relating to one another in more diverse yet intimate ways. It is to this end that we must strive. Both to keep the grit that pushed us to advance, as well as to leverage our advantages for the good of our knowledge and benefit of all people. When we choose empathy over entertainment, compassion over consumption, and love over luxury, that is when we will have found true, sustainable greatness personally and societally.