By Matthew Ung
We all know lavishness is one thing that brought down the Roman Empire. Enemies invaded, yes, but it was destroyed from within. I’m sure Romans warned about that happening, just like President Lincoln warned the American Republic. Both have vast differences, but their chief similarity is their hegemony— “preponderant influence or authority over others” in Webster’s Dictionary.
This paramount power and the respect that came with it was earned, not given. Both republics formed by revolting against a king, both produced compelling ideas and immortal heroes, both created legal systems to secure liberties for posterity… and both have notorious senators.
Without getting into the weeds of what constitutes an “entitlement,” suffice to say we are drowning in them—in the unintended consequences of our hedonistically good intentions. Detroit has been brought to its knees by unfunded pensions. Economists say Chicago faces the same fate. So does our entire country, with unfunded liabilities between $90-200 trillion, depending on who you listen to. We can’t ask the government, because they don’t consider it an issue. Greece got so broke the world expected them to sell their islands; Did anyone care that all of California’s debt ratios and deficits are worse? And yet… before being the greatest debtor nation of all time, we were the greatest lender nation of all time.
My point in this column is that the entitlement mentality in economics and politics (as above) leads to the decay of nations, of law and liberty, while the entitlement mentality in one’s personal life leads to the decay of the civil society, of community and relationships. And the latter comes before the former.
We as inherently selfish souls have created an era of demanded respect, of “selfies.” We live in an era of radical gay activists who hunt down bakers and florists who disagree with them and sue them for not “respecting” them. The more the Roman emperors felt disrespected, the more they demanded it. They assassinated family, burned cities, and if you’re Caligula, you grab the citizen who disrespected you to your face and torture them for three months before beheading them.
President Coolidge said, “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.” As a person, is respect something you think you are entitled to?
The Roman Empire’s decline coincided with the gradual perversion of Roman Law by thin-skinned emperors who said it before Rodney Dangerfield ever did: “I don’t get no respect!” After the empire lost its hegemony, a French philosopher looked at Roman Law, interpreted it, and from it more or less authored the concept of what we call “the divine right of kings.” Yikes.
People who claim this “right” to be respected cause all sorts of harm, not just to nations, but to families and friends. This entitlement mentality overpowers the real truth that we must give our love and efforts as a gift, not a loan that we demand be repaid.
Even the most nurturing among us, the mother, can become so threatened and fearful of feeling disrespected by her child being married off that she becomes the stereotypical, divisive, punitive mother-in-law. Most of them do. Hence, the stereotype. Likewise, the father’s more forceful drive for his own respect can hurt the family, which is why the Bible commands, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children/provoke them to anger” (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). My point is that the Bible commands respect be given (e.g. from a child to a parent), but it does not command respect be demanded… there is no “ye, verily, fight for thine respect among men until thine flesh is sufficiently praised, even if it causeth the mountains to crumble” verse in the Bible. Yet people of any faith or no faith often treat that as their life verse.
We can blame the individualistic American culture for how we have a sense of entitlement for our own respect, until we realize that we make up the culture. Our first and most humble president said, “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” Be respectable… and respect will come.
I can tell you from personal experience, joy, and heartbreak, that people do change. But that is also the good news: People can break free from the entitlement mentality, just like nations can return to founding principles and be revived.