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For some, it’s about fine wines, penthouses, exclusive clubs and designer clothes. For others, it can be as simple as settling down for the afternoon with a good book. Now a two-part BBC miniseries, presented by Cambridge University academic Dr Michael Scott, is to reveal how the ambiguous meaning of luxury is the very thing that has defined our often-troubled relationship with it throughout history – and thwarted multiple attempts to stamp it out.
Starting on Monday (June 27), as part of BBC Four’s Luxury season, Guilty Pleasures; Luxury In Ancient Greece And The Medieval World aims to trace the way in which human attitudes towards symbols of wealth, power and indulgence developed, from Ancient Athens to the time of the Black Death.
By examining how different societies dealt with the acquisition and flaunting of rare and expensive goods, Scott, from the University’s Faculty of Classics, believes we can get closer to understanding how luxury became a “four-letter word” – something that we frequently despise, but also can’t quite live without.
In the austere economic climate (not least in Greece itself), and amid growing concerns about the environmental impact of trade and commerce, he believes that luxury should not simply be associated with over-indulgence. History suggests that our craving for the exquisite and the extravagant is too instinctive to be brought under control, but can be harnessed to better principles and good causes.
“Luxury isn’t just a question of expensive and beautiful things for the rich and powerful – it feeds into ideas about democracy, patriotism and social harmony, as well as our values and our relationships with the divine,” Scott says. “It is impossible to define, but we all know it when we see it because we each have our own ideas of what luxury is. That makes it a good tool for understanding the values and priorities of different societies, present and past.”
Historical attempts to rein in people’s cravings for indulgence and luxury goods rarely succeeded. Even the Spartans, whose name became a byword for abstention – struggled with the issue. The lesson is still relevant today: China has recently introduced bans on luxury advertising because of fears that it might further agitate unrest about the country’s wealth gap. The message from the past seems to be that such restrictions will fail.
Scott’s examination starts in the 6th to 4th centuries BCE, when the inimical city states of Athens and Sparta both broke away from the traditional idea that luxury was something ruling monarchs and aristocrats brandished as a sign of personal power.
Athens, home to the first democracy, was also one of the first societies to try to manage luxury goods. Where wealth had once belonged to elite ruling clans, rich citizens were asked to pamper the democratic ideal instead, by channelling their money into communal services or public events. This was relatively successful, but attempts to specify what constituted luxury in sharper terms, such as what food people should buy, simply served to foment social unrest.
Sparta’s contrasting efforts to stamp luxury out were a dismal failure. A raft of measures, such as bans on fancy clothes and the minting of coinage too heavy to carry around, were adopted to reinforce principles of self-discipline and self-restraint. These were ignored from the start, however, and after Sparta won the Peloponnesian Wars and became the dominant power in Greece, the flow of wealth into the city only exacerbated its rich-poor divide, stirring up the discontent that led to its implosion and decline at the end of the 4th century.
Scott views these early experiments as an “aberration” later smoothed over by Alexander the Great, who had a more conventional approach to showing off wealth. “What they struggled with was a fundamental dichotomy between political theory and reality – between the idea of all citizens being equal, and the fact that ideas about luxury and inequality would nevertheless always remain,” he says.
The second episode looks at how Christianity added a moral dimension to the problem. As it became an alternate force of government, the Church tried to treat luxury as a sin, but also knew that it could not afford to ignore it if it wanted power.
The Middle Ages saw a series of ecclesiastical condemnations of luxury goods like spices and State attempts, in assorted acts of apparel, to prevent the wearing of clothes deemed above one’s station. Overall, however, the Church became a major consumer of luxuries – whether investing in fine architecture, or producing beautiful, illuminated manuscripts. Luxury was employed in the service of God. As consumerism also became an important social force, earlier efforts to ban certain goods according to feudal strata became increasingly irrelevant.
By the 15th century, Scott believes that society had evolved something resembling the complex consumerist attitude to luxury it has today. “The power of luxury is its relativity,” he concludes. “It is not confined by a thing, a time or a period. That means it’s probably here to stay. Like the Athenian example, or the medieval Church, it works best when instead of trying to get rid of it, we find ways to accommodate and manage our need for it instead.”
Guilty Pleasures began yesterday on BBC Four, and continues on Monday 4 July.
Source: University of Cambridge