Ostentatious displays of material wealth have become commonplace. It is increasingly normal to observe luxury cars revving down crowed city streets, and to hear passersby gushing about lavish purchases of exotic vacation houses. In our current era these shows of extravagance are more visible due to the permeation of social media and the transparency of our social hierarchy; however, the desire to acquire and flaunt material goods has tainted human decision making since our humble origins.
For example, under aristocratic systems, grand manor houses and castles were constructed to evidence a family’s royal favor or to house those holding royal titles. These palatial palaces are markers of extravagance, but they are also important historical and cultural monuments. They grant our present generation glimpses into the material, political, and social culture of those who came before. Reminding those who visit of the triumphs and follies of past inhabitants, historic royal and aristocratic residences continue to serve a public function.
Located twenty miles outside of London proper, one such residence is the Hatfield House. Built by Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, and currently inhabited by the 7th marquess of Salisbury, the Hatfield House physically proclaims the influence of and the royal favor granted to the Cecil family. Surrounded by mazes of hedged gardens and water sculptures, the house exudes an air of grandeur. Housing a library of over 30,000 written works and countless museum-worthy paintings, such as the Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Hatfield House is a vital educational and cultural entity. It is a link to England’s past, an example of the privilege and prominence once enjoyed by an elite group as well a reminder that this royal past has been superseded by the new present people-based order.
The division between those who live in luxury and those who live in squalor is an unfortunate consequence of social hierarchy. This divide will likely continue to characterize social systems for the unforeseeable future. However, this fact is increasingly troubling as conspicuous consumption in the 21st century encourages the investment in luxury goods that phase out within a period of a few months or years. This generation is in peril of leaving behind an ephemeral legacy. By flipping properties and demolishing past-structures, the uber rich of the current generation may not leave behind physical markers of its triumphs and follies to teach the generations who come after us.