Ross Douthat penned a pretty decadent essay last Sunday, contending that, yes, Virginia! we are living in a time of generalized decadence, and then, arguing that, though decadence ought to be resisted, at least, a bit, really decadence is not so bad after all. Yup, there is decadence for you, alright.
Following in the footsteps of the great cultural critic Jacques Barzun, we can say that decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. Under decadence, Barzun wrote, â€œThe forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.â€ He added, â€œWhen people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.â€ And crucially, the stagnation is often a consequence of previous development: The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own success.
Note that this definition does not imply a definitive moral or aesthetic judgment. (â€œThe term is not a slur,â€ Barzun wrote. â€œIt is a technical label.â€) A society that generates a lot of bad movies need not be decadent; a society that makes the same movies over and over again might be. A society run by the cruel and arrogant might not be decadent; a society where even the wise and good canâ€™t legislate might be. A crime-ridden society isnâ€™t necessarily decadent; a peaceable, aging, childless society beset by flares of nihilistic violence looks closer to our definition.
Nor does this definition imply that decadence is necessarily an overture to a catastrophe, in which Visigoths torch Manhattan or the coronavirus has dominion over all. History isnâ€™t always a morality play, and decadence is a comfortable disease: The Chinese and Ottoman empires persisted for centuries under decadent conditions, and it was more than 400 years from Caligula to the actual fall of Rome.
â€œWhat fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash,â€ wrote W.H. Auden of that endless autumn, but rather that â€œit managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.â€
Whether we are waiting for Christians or barbarians, a renaissance or the Singularity, the dilemma that Auden described is now not Romeâ€™s but ours.