As the Greek historian Herodotus describes it:
“Seeing that Zeus grants lordship to the Persian people, and to you, Cyrus, among them, by bringing Astyages low," [said the nobles], "Let us now remove out of the little and rugged land that we possess and take to ourselves one that is better. There be many such on our borders, and many further distant; if we take one of these we shall have more reasons for renown. It is but reasonable that a ruling people should act thus; for when shall we have a fairer occasion than now, when we are lords of so many men and of all Asia?” Cyrus heard them, and found nought to marvel at in their design; “Do so,” said he; “but if you do, make ready to be no longer rulers, but subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.” Thereat the Persians saw that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed from before him, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than slaves dwelling in tilled valleys.
Cyrus was making an excellent point that his ancestors would have done well to remember. In his own time, the Persians overthrew the empire of the Medians, then conquered the powerful states of the Neo-Babylonians and the Lydians, creating an empire that stretched from the Indus River almost to the Aegean Sea. Even after his death, with his people retaining a feeling of their roots, the empire continued expanding, with his son Cambyses bringing Egypt under Persian sway. But as centuries passed, the Persians lost their respect for the values that had brought them success and began to fall into decadence, just as Cyrus had feared. The tough generation of Persians that Cyrus had led eventually gave way to the enfeebled courtiers of Darius and Xerxes. The once mighty Persian Empire was defeated by the Greeks and, a century-and-a-half later, easily swept aside by Alexander the Great.
It's a story repeated many times throughout history. Take a look at Rome. In the centuries following the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC, the small city-state on the banks of the Tiber River maintained its independence in the face of attacks by more powerful peoples, then embarked on a campaign of conquest that brought the entire Mediterranean under its control. For centuries, law and order prevailed over a vast realm in a way never since equaled. As with the Persians, though, the notions of virtus and pietas that had once characterized the Roman mindset eventually gave way to wealth and debauchery. When this process was completed, the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of internal decay and the spears of barbarian warriors.
I was led to this line of thinking at a recent "professional development session" for history teachers (why we don't just call them "training sessions" is beyond me). To illustrate the problems faced by students for whom English is a second language, we were asked to read a passage in Italian describing simple facts about the solar system. Some words were obvious due to their close relation to English, others could be divined through context clues, while others remained mysterious. After we finished the activity, one of my colleagues pulled out her smart phone, took a picture of the paragraph, and held up the screen to reveal a perfect English version, done by a translation "app" in less than a second. Most people in the room were impressed, but I found it more than a little unsettling.
The English language happily provides me with sufficiently strong verbs - such as loathe, detest, despise, abhor, and execrate - with which to express my feelings about smart phones. I have many reasons for feeling so, not least because they are simply the most annoying invention ever created (their only possible rival being car alarms). But my fundamental problem with them is that smart phones are a manifestation of a seemingly unstoppable social trend: things are simply getting too easy and too convenient.
If our smart phones are capable of instantly and perfectly translating one language into another, what is the use of learning another language? Most people would simply consider it a waste of time, since it is far easier and cheaper to buy a smart phone than to endure the time and rigor involved in learning to speak and write in a language one did not grow up speaking. Many will applaud this, calling it progress. After all, it makes things easy and convenient, doesn't it?
It does, but therein lies the problem. Learning another language does far more for a person than giving them a practical skill. It also trains the mind, instilling a sense of cerebral discipline and preparing us for the rigor that comes with difficult mental efforts. This is why I encourage my middle school students to take Latin when they get to high school. In fact, if I had my way, no American student would be allowed to graduate high school without a firm grounding in Latin.
This problem is as real in our physical lives as in our mental ones. We used to worry about malnutrition, fearful that our children were not getting enough to eat and would go hungry. Now, our chief health concern is obesity, because we are simply eating too much. Worse, we are eating the wrong kinds of stuff, gorging ourselves on fast food and frozen pizza that consist more of chemicals than anything resembling food. Our forefathers grew or raised their own food, earning their calories with their own sweat and effort. It made their meals rather more meaningful, I expect.
Consider one of the most ridiculous inventions we have come up with: the "StairMaster". We invent elevators and escalators to free us from the burden of having to walk up stairs. We then realize that not walking up stairs has diminished the amount of physical exercise we get and is contributing to our increase in obesity. So we invent the StairMaster, put them into gyms all over the country, and now look ridiculous as we walk up an endlessly repeating flight of stairs that goes nowhere. If we simply got rid of elevators and escalators, we could toss all the StairMasters into the garbage. Indeed, we could toss all such exercise equipment into the garbage and simply take walks outside. If it's cold, hot, or raining, so much the better, as Americans need to toughen themselves up.
Everywhere we look, we see examples of the problem. I don't know if any academic study has been done about the prevalence of the words "easy", "hassle free" or "no need to worry" and other such things in our advertisements, but I think we can guess just how common they are. We see books titled "A Complete Idiot's Guide to [Insert Subject Here], suggesting that complicated and complex ideas can be easily packaged and understood without much trouble. TEDTalks, the popular online lecture series, tries to cram expert ideas on complicated questions into eighteen minute slots, which is frankly impossible and gives the false impression that mastering such things can be easy.
One of my heroes, whose picture adores the wall by my desk at work, is the Roman statesman Cato the Elder, sometimes known as Cato the Censor. He is most famous for coining the phrase Carthago delenda est ("Carthage must be destroyed"), with which he ended every one of his speeches in the Senate, no matter what the subject. Yet in his time, he was renowned for he adherence to the old Roman ways of virtus and pietas and his opposition to the steady encroachment of luxury and dissipation into Roman society. As wealth flooded into Rome after the conclusion of the Punic Wars, Cato strenuously opposed the repeal of wartime laws limiting the amount of jewelry and finery women could display, much to the anger of the city's females. He even prosecuted Scipio Africanus, Rome;s greatest general and the man who had defeated Hannibal, for corruption and what might be called conduct unbecoming a Roman general.
Cato was a wealthy man himself, being a successful farmer and businessman, but he always ate from the same bench as his slaves, consuming the same cheap bread and cheap wine as they did. He labored in his fields alongside them. He would never have considered wearing fine clothes, content to don the shabby tunics of the peasants. Yet he also could be generous, once dispensing the hard-won loot of a military campaign among his soldiers when he might have kept it for himself.
He was against the introduction of Greek philosophical ideas into Rome, worrying that they would contribute to the disintegration of the values that the Roman Republic had been built up. Rome had grown from a small city of the Tiber River to a powerful state dominating the Mediterranean because it had adhered to the values of civic virtue, agrarianism, and individual self-denial. Becoming fixated on Hellenistic culture, Cato believed, would bring no good and much ill into Roman society. Better, by far, to cling to the old ways.
Now, Cato the Elder is an extreme case. I highly doubt that reading Greek philosophy contributed to the fall of the Republic and its replacement with the autocratic Empire. But I believe Cato was correct when he worried about the decline of traditional Roman virtue and that this was the root cause of his society's eventual collapse. In America today, we face the same choice.
Does the convenience of using smart phones make up for the dependence and loss of self-sufficiency that inevitably goes along with it? Does the ease of consuming frozen food or drive-through meals compensate for the absence of meaningful connection between ourselves and our food? Do we really think we can read a single book or listen to a single brief lecture and obtain the knowledge of a topic that can only truly come from long and in-depth study?
We would be wise to heed the warnings of both Cyrus the Great and Cato the Elder. If we really want to build the kind of society in which we want to live, we are going to have to work for it. Nobody is going to do it for us. We have to abandon our obsession with ease and convenience and come to grips with the fact that we have a heavy responsibility before us. Unless we do this, the United States of America will eventually go the way of the Roman Republic.