“Say, I guess America is just about the best country that has ever existed in the history of mankind.”

I have been hearing this assertion all my life and never fully understood what is intended, unless it is merely one of those ahems that we Americans inject into a conversation when we have nothing to say—which, for most of us, is most of the time.  When an old friend recently interjected this fervent declaration of faith in American superiority, I wanted to ask him—though it would have been bad manners—what basis for comparison he had.  After all, he had never lived in ancient Athens or 18th-century France; indeed, on most of his travels abroad he had been chaperoned by tour guides whose professional raison d’être is to keep the tourist in a state of perfect ignorance.

My mind was wandering, as it so often does these days, when I was brought back to attention by the word Pompeii.  On a recent tour of Italy, he had visited Pompeii, where the guide had explained to him some of the conveniences of ancient Roman houses—for example, running water, heated baths, and a sewage system.

“Imagine, this was almost a thousand years ago, and they lived almost as good a life as we have today.”

American greatness, then, would appear to consist in the conveniences of life.  It is pretty obvious, in fact, that the middling classes of the modern world enjoy more creature comforts than any comparable group in history.  We live longer and keep our teeth longer than even the Romans did.  Every American today is entitled to eat himself into obesity, and we work so little (unless you would dignify computer programming and hairstyling with the term work) that we have to go to a gymnasium to stay fit.  Our houses are miraculously lit, plumbed, and drained, and they are equipped with an amazing array of ingenious devices designed to distract us from the ugly business of living in the modern age.  No Roman emperor or French king ever had it so “good,” if by good we mean effortless comfort.

But even on the animal level it is not obvious that comfort really is the same thing as goodness.  François I and Louis XIV made sure that they were provided with every possible comfort and luxury.  They collected chateaux the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes, but French kings also sang and danced, hunted and wrestled.  They dined well and drank better, and they chased—or were chased by—the loveliest women of France, which is to say the loveliest women of the world, and some of them, when they were through drinking and wenching, turned to the austere comforts of a religion that was as demanding as it was understanding, whose divines from Augustine to Bossuet were grave and learned men who wrote prose the way Rameau and Lully wrote music.

“Yeah but,” I can hear my friend answering, “when they got sick or had a toothache, what did they do?”  If they were smart, they did not let a doctor touch them but allowed their body to heal itself—or die.  People died young in those days, though it is remarkable how many famous people lived to a ripe old age.  Edmund Burke was 68 when he died, and his friend Samuel Johnson—sickly all his life—lived to be 75.  Louis XIV lived 77 years, Voltaire 84, Ben Franklin 96.  But I grant the point.  Many people died in infancy, and those who survived childhood could be taken away by a sudden illness that modern medicine would have no difficulty in treating.  But, to take an extreme case, does a music lover have a better life in the lifetime of Mozart and Haydn or in the age of Philip Glass and Rihanna?  A novel-reader in the days of Austen and Scott (or Dickens and Thackeray) or in the age of Naomi Wolf and graphic novels?

On any aesthetic index—literary, culinary, or piscatorial—Americans today have more and better toys with which they extract poorer results.  Izaak Walton was a fisherman; today’s bassmasters are prisoners of technology, and, as for American cooking today, the best I can say of it is that it is hardly worse than the cooking of my childhood.  Yes, we have fresh pears and strawberries in January, but the one is as hard as the other is flavorless—and vice versa.  Even in summer, our supermarkets supply tough-skinned squarish tomatoes that have been gassed to look as red as the cheeks of the poor souls who commit suicide by running a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car, with the radio tuned in to the light-rock-classics station my dentist plays to distract me from the pain of drilling by inflicting a worse affront to my senses.

It is not simply a question of money.  It costs as much to see Britney Spears as to go to the Metropolitan Opera.  The average French or Italian laborer eats better than an American banker or brain surgeon.  If we spent a trillion dollars on food stamps, Americans would be eating Whoppers made with Kobe beef.

Here is a question I often ponder.  Do Americans eat so much because they are trying to fill the emptiness in their souls or because they are making up with quantity for the lack of quality?  The tons of junk we collect and mislabel “antiques” suggests the latter answer, while the drugs we take—legal more than illegal—suggest the former.  We look into the “Heart of Darkness,” and as we begin to glimpse “the horror, the horror,” we numb the pain with Oxycontin or a Philly cheesesteak.

But, I would tell my friend, we make a mistake in concentrating too much on the mere facts of staying alive.  To illustrate what I mean, I reach over to grab a book.  I was searching for Plato or Plotinus, who most fully developed the argument I wish to make, but here is Augustine’s City of God, which will do almost as well.  Augustine repeats the familiar argument that man is a hybrid creature.  He has a physical body, like the beasts, and a higher nature—mind and soul—which is a reflection of the divine.

My friend is not a Christian or even a Platonist, but he would agree, I hope, that what makes us most human is not what we do to maintain and extend physical existence—eating, copulating, and fighting to defend our access to food and sex—but the minds and moral sense that make us, if not like God or gods, then at least something nobler than the rabbits who survive by multiplying or the foxes that feed on them.

“Well, a man’s got to eat, and, as you say, why should he eat poorly if he can eat well, and that takes money.  Like a lot of people too bright for your own good, you seem to despise money or, at least, take it for granted.”

“Not at all, at least not in the way you think, but this is no place for a discussion of money.”  I content myself with repeating what Augustine says, that it is self-evident that men would rather have money than not have it, though this is not a belief held by the President and his advisors, who appear to think that we are better off if they spend our money—on our behalf, of course.

But we Americans devote so much of our time to making money that we do not know how to spend it.  We not only believe that everything and everyone has its price, but we further equate that price with a person’s or thing’s value.  “You get what you pay for,” we say of someone who thought he found a bargain and ended up with junk.  Money is thus our ultimate, perhaps our sole, measure of worth.  It is like the Heraclitean fire to which everything else can be equated and into which everything else can be resolved.  We rarely stop to ask, when we praise our new Lexus or iPhone as a good thing, “good for what?”

We cram our existences with electronic gimcracks made in China, but when the power goes out, we are left alone in the dark, wondering who or what is out there, and does It hate or love us?  Years ago I attended a concert given by the Deller Consort.  The lutenist Desmond Dupré made a little presentation on his instrument, comparing it to the harpsichord of the Baroque era, the spinet of the 19th century, and (this was 1972) the gramophone today.

Of course, there are people today who do play the violin, and not all of them are little Asian girls.  Some people garden; others hunt for the table; and my old boss John Howard, now in his 80’s, can entertain a party with funny anecdotes of driving a tank through a house in an English village or with strange games of pen and paper he learned in a different time and a better world.  Most of us, however, eat bad food that has been raised, harvested, packaged, and even cooked by someone else, and when we wish to be entertained, we press a button and let Britney or Yo-Yo Ma do it.

The best part of all this is the predictability, the uniformity, the repeatability.  We can play Mr. Ma’s recording of Bach over and over until we could play it ourselves in exactly the same way, supposing we wanted to take the time to learn how to play the cello, and, apart from an occasional lapse, we can eat, over and over, the same cheese-drenched steak fajitas and recooked frozen fries at Applebee’s until we have to have our stomachs stapled and the fat liposucked out of our thighs.  Marshall McLuhan once said something about the infinite repeatability of moveable type, which he compared with bricks.  Thou hast conquered, O Gutenberg!

“If what you say is true—and I do not deny there is some validity—what do you propose?  Should we outlaw fast food and texting?  Give more money to the National Endowment for the Arts to waste?  Put people in cultural concentration camps?”

“Obviously not,” I tell him, though I do not have the heart to point out that we are already living in a cultural gulag, made up of public schooling and mass media.  No piece of legislation or government agency can improve the minds of people who spend their lives destroying their minds or save the souls of men and women who have already decided that Hell is a tropical paradise.  Any improvements we wish to make have to start with ourselves.  We might begin by refusing to go to that “neighborhood bar and grill”—neighborhood now referring to 300 million TV-watchers—and by learning how to cook.

Instead of watching gorillas pumped on steroids beating one another’s brains out in the virtual sports shown on TV, why not play golf or go fishing?  Instead of listening to the puerile and degrading lies repeated endlessly on CNN, FOX, and NPR, why not study a foreign language so that when you go back to Europe you can talk to people and find out what they think?  Instead of putting on a pop-music CD, why not learn to play a musical instrument or at least improve your singing?

I am being unfair to my friend, who wastes very little time either on TV or on the greatest mind-waster of all time, the internet, but, as civilization withdraws from the centers of public life, it becomes more difficult to avoid technology.  Serious bookstores have virtually disappeared, but I can now go on the Amazon or Powell’s website to find books I could never have dreamed of getting 20 years ago.  Here in the Midwest chamber-music concerts are as scarce as good meals—and record stores are a thing of the past—but iTunes provides me with D’Oyly Carte productions from the 1940’s and 50’s, and recordings of the grand old singers (Martinelli, Bergonzi, Schlusnus) and pianists (Schnabel and Gieseking).  By subscribing to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, I have access to nearly everything surviving in the Greek language from (literarily speaking) the Sack of Troy to the Fall of Constantinople.  With laptop and mobile phone, I might spend January in a sunny apartment in Rome, writing articles and doing business no more inefficiently than in Rockford, which (apart from a few pleasant days in spring and fall) has the weather of Hell—alternately freezing and scorching.

For a man who has foregone Wikipedia or even the encyclopedia and stuck to primary texts, these technological miracles can be liberating, so long as he does not find himself wasting hours reading articles on the Drudge Report or listening in on nasty exchanges of childish scurrility that make it easier than ever for the Tempter to roam the blog-osphere seeking the ruin of souls.

For me, technology is an evil with which I could happily dispense, so long as I could be transported to Oxford or Paris before World War I, and, when the lights do finally go out, I have a library of books I can still read or remember, a wife who can bang out a little Schubert on the piano, and a memory that can recall some stretches of Homer and Shakespeare and some Latin prayers.  I can “whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore” and recall most of the words of four or five Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that I can sing to while away the time or annoy my friends.

It is a true saying that “you can’t take it with you,” it being your wealth and possessions.  Originally, the expression referred to the fact that in dying we had to leave our money behind, but these days we depend on things we cannot really use in the North Woods or during a blackout.  To improve your life, forget about plots to save the world or restore sanity to your Alma Mater.  (Note to Notre Dame alumni: Send your annual donation to The Rockford Institute.)

Spend less time on passively consuming information and more on actively assimilating knowledge, whether the knowledge consists of Latin irregular verbs or Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Living well—which includes reading well and learning well—is the best revenge.  We cannot save the world and probably cannot do much about restoring the republic.  The government can and will raise our taxes, fight unjustifiable wars of aggression, and flood the country with unassimilable aliens, but it cannot, without our complicity, rob us of our identity or our memory.  When modern life becomes unbearably stupid, we can retreat to the Forest of Arden or the walls of Troy.  The morphine addict Alexander King recalls that the only thing that kept him from going mad, while incarcerated for rehabilitation at Lexington, was his vast memory of poetry.  The poet we love may be dead, but, as Callimachus said of one of them who had been his friend,

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake


For death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.