On Luxury


On Luxury

A Cautionary Tale: A Short History of the Perils of Excess from Ancient Times to the Beginning of the Modern Era

William Howard Adams

228 pages


October 2012


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eBook (PDF)
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December 2012


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About the Book

Diamond-encrusted, alligator-skin handbags. Eighteen-course feasts. Yachts the length of city blocks. In the twenty-first century, many point to such conspicuous consumption as reflecting the moral failings of a rampant capitalism that sacrifices community values on an altar of greed. Television shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians illustrate the folly of wealth without responsibility even as they elevate their subjects on pedestals of desire. Our discomfort with extravagance is not new. The ancient Greeks and Romans fretted over the ideal relationship between morality and luxury. Politics, religion, and economics influenced the debate, with the concept of luxury as a moral question becoming a core issue in Christian theology and even a cornerstone of the founding of America. People have long feared luxury’s evil influence. Society has publicly and privately extolled the virtues of moderation and restraint, and condemned luxury as a breeding ground for vice and sin. After capitalism and the consumer revolution removed its stigma, the concept of luxury underwent a radical transformation, from a vice to be feared to a marketing tool of the new capitalist era. In this lively and thought-provoking narrative, William Howard Adams shows how this simultaneous distrust and embrace of luxury has pervaded Western thought for three millennia, leading us to the question, what price the soul?

Author Bio

William Howard Adams, an independent scholar, lives and writes at his farm in the Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia. His books include Nature Perfected: Gardens through HistoryThe Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life. He was curator of the National Gallery of Art’s landmark exhibition “The Eye of Thomas Jefferson” and the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Roberto Burle Marx: The Unnatural Art of the Garden.”


“In On Luxury, William Howard Adams gives us the most comprehensive and accessible history to date of luxury and Western culture’s ongoing engagement of it. Together, his conversational style and impeccable scholarship make this volume a treasure for every thinking American.”—Phyllis Tickle, author of Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins

“Some today lust for luxury. Others snicker at it. In a world of outrageously concentrated wealth and dwindling natural resources, William Howard Adams helps us understand that both these responses doom us to dangerous dead ends. His insightful—and eminently readable—history offers up a far better path.”—Sam Pizzigati, author of The Rich Don’t Always Win and editor of Too Much, an online weekly on excess and inequality

“William Howard Adams’s On Luxury is an intellectual and insightful study of what luxury is—its history, its evolution, and how it is in danger of extinction. A must read for anyone who wants to understand our consumer society today.”—Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

“This is a delightful reflection on luxury and excess—from the ‘pernicious cash’ that the ancient Romans believed sapped their moral fiber to the gold-plated yachts and vast ranches of the modern super-rich. Adams offers some well-timed warnings here, but with a lively elegance and without preaching.”—Mary Beard, professor of classics, Cambridge University