The Price of Folly

The ancient Greek word pleonexia meant "wanting to have more of something for oneself than is proper, fit or to be expected." It was akin to hybris, in that it expressed the concept of transgressing normal or appropriate boundaries. In modern terms, I would include in that definition, "wanting or expecting to have more for oneself than one has earned" -- i.e. expecting someone else to pay the bill or carry the freight.

I believe this is the root of many of America's problems these days, particularly with regard to fiscal matters. A prime example of pleonexia can be found in the whining attitude of people today, well illustrated in a comparison of the hard times experienced by pioneering families in the nineteenth century vs. the so-called hard times of today. Unfortunately, the whining about today's "hard times" is not confined to a few malcontents, but has spread to much of the population. It is the inevitable result of prolonged prosperity and easy circumstances which cause a people to lose all sense of balance and judgment. It reminds me of a question asked by Vernon Howard in one of his books, "Is it possible that you may be thinking your problems into existence?"

When I hear all the complaining about how hard life is today, or people whining about having to pay for their own health care, or not having enough money for a comfortable retirement or house, etc., and then reflect on how ninety percent of the rest of the world must still live today, lacking, often for their whole live, things that we Americans take for granted such as food, running water, and a dry, clean place to sleep, I cannot help but conclude that too many Americans display a most unhealthy degree of pleonexia. Gratitude and responsible self-control have degenerated into entitlement and self-pity, prudence and sobriety into carelessness and license, and consequently all sense of proportion has been lost. That is what afflicts Americans today, and our present fiscal and social morass is a reflection of that transformation.

What inevitably follows pleonexia or hybris is what the Greeks termed ate, an act of folly that leads to the kind of disaster all too familiar from Greek tragedy. In the case of health care, for example the act of folly of the American people is taking the excellent health care that they receive for granted, considering it an entitlement, and complaining about having to pay for it, all of which are acts of ingratitude and recklessness which contrast with the situation of billions living in squalor worldwide who are forced to do without medical care and who would willingly give half a year's wages or more, if necessary, to receive even the most basic but necessary care. The unfortunate transformation that we are starting to see in our health care system, signs of which are appearing more and more frequently every day, is the inevitable consequence of that act of folly, and is to be expected, because in a moral universe no disproportionate act of moral folly ultimately goes unopposed, without which it would not be possible to restore the moral balance to the universe.

Likewise, the ate that the American people have exhibited in considering our Constitution expendable in the face of its requirement that the people be moral, self-responsible, industrious, and sufficiently informed in order to benefit from the Constitution's benevolence. Our people began to lose these qualities more than one hundred years ago, but the process significantly accelerated during the 1960's and ever since. In other words, we are no longer worthy of the Constitution as it was originally intended, and indeed it would seem that the bulk of the population -- perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless most decidedly -- has made that choice in the face of the baubles of the welfare state. A fateful and historic choice, not just for us, but for mankind as a whole. It brings to mind a line delivered by Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca, spoken after Humphrey Bogart has roughly dismissed his French girlfriend: "How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce." So I would say, with a slight paraphrase, to the American people, "How extravagant you are, throwing away your Constitution like that. Don't you know that someday it will be scarce?" Although on second thought, I confess that my question could be regarded as superfluous, as it seems that our Constitution already is in the process of becoming scarce.

Evidently the hard times experienced by the nation during the last four years, both in the domestic and foreign arenas, have not been hard enough. Like Pharaoh who hardened his heart after every plague and would not let the Hebrews go, too many Americans hardened their hearts against acknowledging their pleonexia and instead re-elected the very instrument of their misfortune (yet another example of ate). It is clear now that we shall have to pay the full penalty, the full ten plagues if you will, in order to restore balance to the moral order. Thus I anticipate that there will be much, much more unaccustomed suffering in America. I do not say this out of despair; it is the way of things.

The ancient Greek word pleonexia meant "wanting to have more of something for oneself than is proper, fit or to be expected." It was akin to hybris, in that it expressed the concept of transgressing normal or appropriate boundaries. In modern terms, I would include in that definition, "wanting or expecting to have more for oneself than one has earned" -- i.e. expecting someone else to pay the bill or carry the freight.

I believe this is the root of many of America's problems these days, particularly with regard to fiscal matters. A prime example of pleonexia can be found in the whining attitude of people today, well illustrated in a comparison of the hard times experienced by pioneering families in the nineteenth century vs. the so-called hard times of today. Unfortunately, the whining about today's "hard times" is not confined to a few malcontents, but has spread to much of the population. It is the inevitable result of prolonged prosperity and easy circumstances which cause a people to lose all sense of balance and judgment. It reminds me of a question asked by Vernon Howard in one of his books, "Is it possible that you may be thinking your problems into existence?"

When I hear all the complaining about how hard life is today, or people whining about having to pay for their own health care, or not having enough money for a comfortable retirement or house, etc., and then reflect on how ninety percent of the rest of the world must still live today, lacking, often for their whole live, things that we Americans take for granted such as food, running water, and a dry, clean place to sleep, I cannot help but conclude that too many Americans display a most unhealthy degree of pleonexia. Gratitude and responsible self-control have degenerated into entitlement and self-pity, prudence and sobriety into carelessness and license, and consequently all sense of proportion has been lost. That is what afflicts Americans today, and our present fiscal and social morass is a reflection of that transformation.

What inevitably follows pleonexia or hybris is what the Greeks termed ate, an act of folly that leads to the kind of disaster all too familiar from Greek tragedy. In the case of health care, for example the act of folly of the American people is taking the excellent health care that they receive for granted, considering it an entitlement, and complaining about having to pay for it, all of which are acts of ingratitude and recklessness which contrast with the situation of billions living in squalor worldwide who are forced to do without medical care and who would willingly give half a year's wages or more, if necessary, to receive even the most basic but necessary care. The unfortunate transformation that we are starting to see in our health care system, signs of which are appearing more and more frequently every day, is the inevitable consequence of that act of folly, and is to be expected, because in a moral universe no disproportionate act of moral folly ultimately goes unopposed, without which it would not be possible to restore the moral balance to the universe.

Likewise, the ate that the American people have exhibited in considering our Constitution expendable in the face of its requirement that the people be moral, self-responsible, industrious, and sufficiently informed in order to benefit from the Constitution's benevolence. Our people began to lose these qualities more than one hundred years ago, but the process significantly accelerated during the 1960's and ever since. In other words, we are no longer worthy of the Constitution as it was originally intended, and indeed it would seem that the bulk of the population -- perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless most decidedly -- has made that choice in the face of the baubles of the welfare state. A fateful and historic choice, not just for us, but for mankind as a whole. It brings to mind a line delivered by Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca, spoken after Humphrey Bogart has roughly dismissed his French girlfriend: "How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce." So I would say, with a slight paraphrase, to the American people, "How extravagant you are, throwing away your Constitution like that. Don't you know that someday it will be scarce?" Although on second thought, I confess that my question could be regarded as superfluous, as it seems that our Constitution already is in the process of becoming scarce.

Evidently the hard times experienced by the nation during the last four years, both in the domestic and foreign arenas, have not been hard enough. Like Pharaoh who hardened his heart after every plague and would not let the Hebrews go, too many Americans hardened their hearts against acknowledging their pleonexia and instead re-elected the very instrument of their misfortune (yet another example of ate). It is clear now that we shall have to pay the full penalty, the full ten plagues if you will, in order to restore balance to the moral order. Thus I anticipate that there will be much, much more unaccustomed suffering in America. I do not say this out of despair; it is the way of things.