For what is a luxury to one class of people, or in one country, or in one period, may be a necessary to another class, in another country, or another period. As the standards of living rise, things that were luxuries to the grandfathers become necessaries to their grandsons. As the economists classify things as necessaries and luxuries, perhaps it will help us to a definition of the latter word, if we consider necessaries for a minute. Necessaries for life and efficiency are a sufficient quantity of wholesome food, warm clothing, fuel and shelter. If a man has these, he cannot only maintain life, but keep physically fit.
But can any man, except the poorest, be content with only such bare necessaries? The Bible says, “Man doth not live by bread alone.” Man is not a mere animal; he has a mind and a soul to feed as well as a body. And for real living, as distinguished from mere existence, many other things than food and clothes and a house and fuel are necessary. And the higher the standard of life to which any particular man has become accustomed, the greater the number and variety of things that are necessary.
A child brought up in a poor working-man’s home is quite comfortable and happy with very few things; but a boy reared in a well-to-do family becomes so accustomed to a certain standard of house, furniture, meals, dress, servants, and various conveniences, that he would be absolutely miserable if he were compelled to live in a working-class family. These things, which to the poorer man would be luxuries, are, therefore, to him real necessaries; for though he might exist without them, he could not live (in the fullest sense of the term) without them. Again, the tastes of individual men differ widely. To an eager scholar, books (which to many men are luxuries and quite unnecessary) are more necessary even than food and drink and shelter; and many a student would rather go without a fire on a cold night than deprive himself of his books.
Luxury, however, in colloquial speech, has always a shade of bad meaning. It is something to be condemned. It means living in ignoble ease, self-indulgence, and expensive pleasure. Such a life leads to moral deterioration, and often to vice. The lover of luxury loses his capacity for work or sustained effort of any kind; his moral fiber is softened, the distinction between right and wrong is blurred, and the whole man becomes in time physically, mentally, and intellectually degenerate.
Luxury has ruined whole nations. When Rome was a small republic, the Romans were noted for their simplicity of life, self-control, courage, loyalty, honesty, and hardihood. But when Rome became a wealthy empire, the Romans gave themselves up to luxury, and in time became so effeminate and pampered that they fell an easy prey to the hardy barbarian invaders from North, who overran and conquered their great Empire.