I want it now!

In 1998, a U. S. president is impeached by the House of Representatives for sexual impropriety in the White House.  In 2008, a New York governor and former state attorney general resigns in the wake of public censure for his involvement in a prostitution ring.  The same year, banker greed unhinges the global economy. In  2009, a gifted golfer forfeits his marriage, perhaps his game, because of an ability to curb his sexual appetite and a Wall Street  investment counselor pleads guilty to eleven federal felony charges, costing his clients billions.  This year, 2011, an Italian prime minister faces trial for sexual and financial improprieties.  In Egypt, a nation of impoverished millions, a ruler for nearly thirty years, is ousted by his people for misrule.  Defining his nonchalance, he liked $25,000 suits with his name imprinted to form pinstripes.
For some thirty-five years as a university English prof, I taught courses several times a year called Western Classics I and II.  I found it a privilege to teach these courses, even though their subject matter was more often outside the pale of  traditional English literature:  Homer, Sophocles, Vergil, Dante, Quixote, Voltaire. While I was enthusiastic about all these works, the one I liked best was Vergil’s The Aeneid.  If I measure a book by its utilitarian value, then The Aeneid exceeds the norm.

Like epics generally, it’s an extended narrative poem, this one in Latin, consisting of twelve books.  In the 19th century, school boys in the prep schools of Britain and America toiled with translating it.  It’s seldom taught now, and when it is, largely as anthologized selections.  In my enthusiasm, I required students read the poem in its entirety. Imagine their joy.
Vergil was an interesting chap, to say the least, living in a turbulent political era which saw the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Ultimately, his nephew Octavian (Augustus) would succeed after a protracted civil war.  Many historians regard him as the greatest ruler the world has known.  Vergil penned this work as a member of his coterie.  In it, he offered his idea of the sound ruler by way of the poem’s protagonist, Aeneas, who’s modeled on Octavian.  It might well have been written today, given its keen observations that still jell with contemporary life.  For me, I also found it acutely practical at the personal level.
Central to its message is the concept of pietas, or balance.  As such, it resembles the Greek notion of arête, often translated as “virtue.”  The good leader avoids excess, not only in state matters, but more importantly, with regard to masterly over himself.  The bad leader is characterized by furor, or imbalance.  Pietas also connotes the idea of order or discipline.  On the other hand, its opposite, furor, connotes disorder or lack of discipline.  In The Aeneid, Dido, the Carthaginian queen, represents furor.  In her passionate self-indulgence, she imperils Carthage and poses a temptation for Aeneas. While the poem surely is multi-faceted in its themes, it’s ultimately about having self-control.
I think about this work often, even after nearly six years in retirement.  I suppose I’m fond of it because it expresses many of the issues I’ve faced in my own wrestlings to get a headlock on the meaningful life; it also confirms, for good or bad, character dimensions in myself and others, even friends; and, of course, it helps define much of what we observe in our public world.  While the ancient world often emphasized the role of Fate in human affairs, it also held the individual responsible as a free agent of Reason to soften its consequences.  As Aristotle argued in Poetics “character is fate.”  In agreement, I would extend Aristotle’s insight to humans generally: what primarily ails us is precisely our frequent inability to master ourselves.  I might even proffer that, in great measure, history is a legacy of excess.
Lately we’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the imbroglio between the Wisconsin Republican governor, Walter Scott, and public sector unions.  While very few of us want to see collective bargaining abolished, neither do we admire union greed that increasingly threatens the welfare of all of us, mirrored in exponential budget deficits.  Near where I live, Lexington, KY, the new mayor warns the city cannot adequately invest public employment pension funding.  Layoffs are highly likely.  (39% of firefighters have retired early on disability; police have worked excessive overtime.)  What’s happening in Wisconsin and locally in Kentucky aren’t isolated scenarios. They are occurring in most states and even many countries.
Contributing to the financial morass nationally is the exponential cost of medical treatment, currently at the rate of 10% a year, far outstripping the cost-of-living index.  Kentucky is now looking at cutting its Medicaid aid to the poor and reducing funding for education.  How do doctors and hospitals justify such increases?  Even the newly legislated Health Reform Bill will not help, since it lacks a mechanism for controlling costs.
In sports, entertainment,  the media, and on Wall Street, we’re witnessing the continuing erosion of the middle class as oligarchy siphons money in enormous amounts for themselves.  Does a news anchor warrant a 120 million dollar contract or a Yankees athlete 200 million?  Movie stars often garner16 million or more for one film.  Banking CEO’s, many of them arbiters of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, aren’t prosecuted and are even bailed out.  Their mind-boggling salaries and perks continue, even as they’re quick to foreclose on mortgages of those they’ve lured into financial jeopardy.
Nationally, our federal debt exceeds 14 trillion dollars.  Net interest (2011) on that debt runs to 202 billion.  Current federal spending stands at 3 ½ trillion, 1½ billion of that deficit spending. 
At the state level, it doesn’t get any better.  Consider these sobering figures:  California’s deficit is now 25.4 billion; Illinois, 15 billion; Texas, 123 billion. In what should serve as a sobering warning to other states, California’s liability on unfunded public sector pensions stands at a staggering 240 billion dollar shortfall.  See U.S. Debt Clock
What’s happening nationally reflects us as individuals.  We simply find it difficult to distinguish between wishes and needs.  More to the point, we’re unable to delay gratification.  We want the single marshmallow now, not the hazy promise of two marshmallows if we simply wait a bit.  Our appetites imperil us.  Sadly, studies indicate we have something in common with criminals in this respect.  Recent research abundantly indicates that most criminals are urge-driven.
Even our children increasingly reflect this syndrome, made all too easy by a pethora of technological distractions such as cellphones, videos, media games, and TV.  Why do homework?  The consequences, of course, are significant.   As renowned researcher of self-control, Walter Mischel, inventor of the marshmallow test measuring self-discipline, confirms, there’s a huge gap in SAT performance between those children who can wait and those who can’t (Akst, We Have Met the Enemy, Kindle edition, 1662).
An inability to delay gratification can affect weight, with children who are able to delay gratification consistently thinner.  Daniel Akst reports researchers have “found that self-discipline was correlated with school attendance, grades, standardized achievement test scores, and eventual admission to a competitive high school… School discipline turned out to be a vastly better predictor of grades than was IQ” (Kindle Edition, 1691).  Just maybe the crux of our difficulties with our schools lies not with teacher incompetence and inadequate funding, but with the students themselves, comatosed by a culture of indulgence, often fostered by parents dulled to indifference in their own pursuit of the good life.
Individually, the consequences of our inability to cage our desires, the furor Aeneas talks about, are enormous.  Lives shattered by financial excess, addiction to alcohol and drugs, poor health regimen by eating too much and wrong foods, smoking, lack of exercise, diminished futures in school dropout, quality goals unaccessed through wasted time.  The list is endless.   For the pleasure of the moment we forfeit the promise of tomorrow.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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