It’s an old idea, but — in my view — worth frequent repetition. So recently I repeated it:

In many ways, even the lowliest of us, or at least the reasonably lowly, live better than the royalty of old.

Predictably, you had some interesting things to say.

Eric Batson: “My favorite is just how easily we access ice on demand. Ice water is free in any restaurant. I was taught in elementary school that the Roman emperors had an outpost in the mountains. At midnight they sent out a chariot with a chest full of snow so the emperor could have ice for his morning orange juice.”

Russell Turpin: “You wrote: ‘… most of us live better in many ways than the princes of Egypt.’ Well .. I’ve developed some skepticism of this kind of claim. The modern economy and its accompanying technology are wondrous, indeed, letting most of us live far better than common folks of past times. But better than the Princes of Egypt? I will argue otherwise by looking at what the modern economy brings the average person.

“1. Material well-being. In the US, the average person does not want for the material necessities: shelter, food, and clothing. But as wonderful as are the products of industrial economy, I think the Princes of Egypt had it better. A modern house is not a palace, off-the-rack clothing is not tailored fare, and no grocery store will be quite as accommodating as your own chef. True, the Prince lacked ice cream. But we don’t know what delicacies his chef prepared.”

I have just two words for you, Russell: air conditioning.

And if those two aren’t enough, I can think of a million more. E.g., Shakespeare. Seinfeld. Telephones. Bright reading lights. Nintendo. And of course most important by far: longevity.

I am not arguing people today are happier. I tend to agree that ignorance is bliss, and all that. (Are we miserable today because we lack tomorrow’s wonders?) And I recognize that with TV news casts and the competition for ratings came TV violence, new fears, the loss of innocence, and so forth. But I still believe that in many ways most of us live better than the princes of Egypt.

“2. Service. The service economy is much lauded, but the average person still spends a lot of time doing their own chores. She vacuums her own floors, makes her own bed, mows her own yard, buys her own groceries, prepares her own meals, and maybe even changes her own oil. This is much better than the farmer a century ago who had to sweep his floor, grow his groceries, and feed his horse. The average person undoubtedly pays for *some* of these services *some* of the time, but even there, mass supplied services involve the customer arranging, verifying, and waiting. Going to Jiffylube is more convenient than changing your own oil, but it is still a chore. And only someone who is fairly well off can indulge in all the kinds of services the modern economy offers on a routine basis. The Prince had it much better. He had a staff of lifelong servants who did for him whatever he needed, AND who knew what this was without him having to explain it each time. Automation is starting to make *small* headway here, but it will be a long time before the modern economy provides this degree of luxury.”

Yeah, well, there’s something to that. But how about their boredom? What about those stories — not Egyptian, but still — of royalty that longed to get out among the commoners and live a “real” life. I love grocery shopping! I wish I had time to do more of it. Imagine the prince’s wonder at the thousands of amazing choices, all an arm’s reach away. That’s not a chore, it’s a marvel! (Have you seen the new chocolate-dipped Tropicana frozen orange-juice bars?)

“3. Entertainment. This is where the modern economy excels. Not only are shows and music pumped into the average home, but theatres are convenient to almost every neighborhood, and even those of moderate means can afford to travel to distant lands. But those shows and movies typically focus on the interesting people of this and past times. One visits Egypt to glance in awe at what the Prince of Egypt did, where he lived, and what was built for him. Somehow, I suspect there is no entertainment quite like being one of the most important people of your society, and knowing it. You don’t get Spielberg, but you do get your own theatre troop. You don’t have TV, but you do have your own harem. You don’t get PBS, but you do get to hobnob with the learned and important people of your time. And for the Prince, this all comes at *your* convenience.”

I’m not saying being a prince was all bad.

But how about, also, the decidedly unentertaining aspect of being treated like a prince and feeling you don’t deserve it? I suppose most of them were not guilt-ridden by the inequality. But I know some “princes” today who, handed their millions simply by virtue of birth, spend a great deal of time in psychotherapy.

“4. Social belonging and affirmation. It is fun to travel on vacation, and financially rewarding to open the geographic scope of one’s vocation. The downside of the latter is that people often live great distances from family and old friends, and many adopt migratory lifestyles to the service of their career. Even those who live in the ‘same place’ may commute an hour or more each day, and while they may restrict their careers to one metropolis (and even one large company), they are still likely to change jobs every two or three years. They are financially rewarded for the commuting, travel, and disruption they endure, but it also creates stress, alienation, and faux community. Modern communications somewhat compensates, but talking with friend or family on the phone is not the same as continual, personal interaction [Yes! If only our parents lived with us full-time! — A.T.], and Internet communities are not real communities. Undoubtedly, the new arrangement is better for most people than being stuck as a serf in a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden Medieval village. But being Prince of Egypt is better. True, I can fly cross-country four times a month. Indeed, I must. And therein lies the rub.”

But also the frequent flier miles.

“5. There is only one area of life where I think the average, modern man clearly has it better than the Prince of Egypt: medical care. If the Prince of Egypt was diabetic, he died. The modern man takes insulin. The examples are well-known and plentiful. But even here, keep in mind the difference between being an average person of times past and a Prince of Egypt. The Prince did not suffer as a great risk from bad water, bad food, and infectious disease. Much of this century’s lifespan increase is not due to *individual* medical care, but to better sanitation and public health measures. Even though the ancients did not know about sanitation, the Prince enjoyed it by accident of wanting and having a more pleasant environment, further from animals, crowds, and dirt.”

The part about the harem may not have helped, however. Yes, they were probably all virgins. But that’s still a lot of different germ-sets to be exposed to. (I am not a doctor, but I am Jewish, and thus have strong feelings about germ-sets.)

“Bottom line: If it did not come with an inherited disease, I think it would be better to be Prince of Egypt. The state of the average person has advanced tremendously, but don’t underestimate the benefit of being a Prince!”

Or the difficulty of learning Egyptian.

Thanks, Russell.


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