Drew McCoy
The Elusive Republic

During the Middle Ages, when luxury had been considered one of the seven deadly sins, it had been associated with debilitating and anti-social behavior that clogged the individual mind, corrupted society, and endangered the public welfare. The eighteenth century, however, marked a transitional period in the Western understanding of luxury. As men were compelled to respond to the materialistic impulses of the rich new world around them, their confrontation of luxury became an increasingly ticklish and demanding matter. Traditional moral standards were called into question, and there was much disagreement about the precise meaning of the term and its proper application. As society advanced through the stages of development, what had formerly been considered 'luxury' was now viewed by many observers as mere 'convenience' or rational improvement. Thus the English bishop William Warburton characteristically referred to luxury as 'this ambiguous term,' asserting that there was 'no word more inconstantly used and capriciously applied to particular actions.'

In his Essay on the History of Civil Society, first published in 1767, Adam Ferguson struggled to offer an objective definition of the term. Men might agree that luxury signified the 'complicated apparatus which mankind devise for the ease and convenience of life,' including 'their buildings, furniture, equipage, cloathing, train of domestics, refinement of the table, and, in general, all that assemblage which is rather intended to please the fancy, than to obviate real wants, and which is rather ornamental than useful.' The problem, however, was that men were now 'far from being agreed on the application of the term luxury, or on that degree of its meaning which is consistent with national prosperity, or with the moral rectitude of our nature.'
It is sometimes employed to signify a manner of life which we think necessary to civilization, and even to happiness. It is, in our panegyric of polished ages, the parent of arts, the support of commerce, and the minister of national greatness, and of opulence. It is, in our censure of degenerate manners, the source of corruption, and the presage of national declension and ruin. It is admired, and it is blamed; it is treated as ornamental and useful; and it is proscribed as a vice.
As Ferguson here suggested, an eighteenth-century thinker's concept of luxury generally mirrored his attitude toward the contemporary commercial revolution. While some observers voiced only fear and were unequivocal in their condemnation of the commercialization of life, there were new optimists who, for the first time in Western thought, attempted an unqualified defense of commerce and the luxury it brought with it. These two extreme positions defined the spectrum of debate, with most thinkers exploring some intermediate, more balanced perspective that often led to a guarded ambivalence.

At one end of the spectrum, traditional moralists continued to denounce luxury and modern commercial society in familiar terms. They asserted that luxury reflected as well as encouraged an unprincipled pursuit of private gain and an enervating indulgence of sordid and debauching human appetites. As society became commercialized, it was charged, men became increasingly selfish, greedy, and hedonistic, concerned more with their own personal wealth and comfort than with the welfare of society as a whole. It was common, in this regard, for eighteenth-century critics of luxury to compare contemporary society unfavorably to the ancient republic of Sparta, where commerce and the accumulation of private wealth had been banished in the interest of austerity and a virtuous, self-denying attention to the public good. According to these admirers of Sparta, commerce inevitably unleashed human avarice, and such a removal of necessary restraints promoted a devastating inequality among men that made a just social order impossible.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.