I was catching up on my periodical reading recently, when I came across this little gem from Anthony Esolen in the editorial section of Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity. The basic thrust of Esolen’s editorial–more observation than argumentative essay–is that societies, whatever their time or location, structure themselves so that the filth that the upper-classes wade through (nearly) unscathed, or that they produce, is foisted upon the lower classes and results in their struggle and demise. The first, highly illustrative example he gives is of the ancient Roman sewer system which emptied at the Esquiline gate. “I’m not sure” he says “whether the Roman’s arranged it so that the end of the sewer wold be located in the poor quarter. More likely, it became the poor quarter because people don’t wan’t to live near a sewer, and will spend money to avoid it.” Later, he mentions that “…in Dickens we have the miserable corpse-robbing thieves at Old Joe’s pawn-shop, and they are but Scrooge himself, and his money-hungry class, shorn of top hat and watch fob and man-of-business etiquette.”
This little editorial struck me not only because of its truth–the poor do often suffer more for the sins they learn from the wealthy–but because of the situations I have seen that bear this out. When a woman comes into my office in need of help with groceries for the final few days before her disability or welfare check comes because she or her husband drink alcohol or smoke, it becomes clear that the simple vices the more well-heeled among us take for granted have become more immediately deadly. On the other side, in attending Sewanee, I often described the University itself as in large part a padded play-pen for wealthy southern elite. While parts of this identity may be fading (the Southern part is enduring a campaign of whitewashing and title changing) it is still amazing to see the lengths to which the institution goes to create a safe environment for wealthy adolescents to engage in behavior that would leave their less well-off contemporaries injured, sick, in jail or worse.
All this is to say that we need to take more notice of the “trickle-down effect” of decadence, and the impact it has on those without the means to mitigate the effects of the vice they mimic from their “betters.” As Esolen says:
The rich can afford their vices, for a time anyway; the poor have no such margin for comfort. They are, in fact, endangered by the vices of the rich.