I’m sitting here in SeaTac Airport waiting for my flight to Alaska on a busy travel day following an FAA grounding of all IFR traffic and a large weather event. Travelers’ nerves are frayed. Periodic outbursts fueled by a sense of entitlement and lit by piques of frustration are entertaining on the one hand, but so petty on the other.
A first class customer is asked to leave the TSA pre-check line because the ticket was not marked as such. Oh, the drama. Another waiting passenger complains about an overheated latte as if the world was about to end. Affluence isn’t always pretty, elegant, or dignified.
I just finished reading an intriguing article in The Atlantic by David Brooks entitled:
“DESPITE EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW, AMERICA IS ON THE RIGHT TRACK Yes, America is a wounded giant—but it always has been, and the case for optimism is surprisingly strong.”
Brooks argues that the rampant pessimism about our future and unrelenting negativity of the media narrative is unwarranted and distorts reality. He defends this position with a slew of facts that point to a prosperous present and increasingly bright future—from a material standpoint—and leaves us with the thought that despite being a “wounded giant,” America would press forward through perpetual ambition and aspiration.
I can’t help but juxtapose this article with another short piece I read recently, Plato’s “Dialogue of Critias,” written in 360 BCE. It is an excerpt of the story of Atlantis conveyed to him by Solon. The story was set at 9,000 years prior to their era, so roughly 9,500 BCE:
“Such was the vast power which the god settled in the lost island of Atlantis; and this he afterwards directed against our land for the following reasons, as tradition tells: For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them. By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, the qualities which we have described grew and increased among them; but when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power.”
Powerful, poignant, topical words!
Its hard not to notice the parallels between our era and the ancient one described by Plato: a time of unprecedented wealth that breeds masses of unhappy, disconnected people who live lives of gilded desperation. I see it everywhere I turn in the airport this morning. It seems to be the increasingly dominant spirit of the time, our Zeitgeist.
If our “ambition and aspiration” as Brooks called it and our “avarice and unrighteousness power” as Plato described it are one and the same, then there is cause for concern. The remedy is not more prosperity, but a renewed dedication to the cultivation of virtue and a call to remembrance of the true precious gifts that are, in fact, at hand.
Photo by Tom Coe on Unsplash