A Definition Of Decadence
With all the talk about the birth dearth and cultural decadence, it occurs to me that we have to have some way to recognize decadence if we are going to have a meaningful discussion about whether or not we are in a decadent era. That is, we need to have some ideal by which to measure our decline, and to recognize it when it comes (as it one day will, as part of the natural order of things). I’m wondering if it’s possible to come up with a reasonably apolitical standard, one that stands outside the particulars of our culture wars and suchlike over the past few decades, and takes a long view. A standard that most of us could agree on.
But here’s a possibility, from the recently deceased polymath Jacques Barzun’s magisterial book “From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 To The Present: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life”. Barzun begins by saying that the peoples of the West during the last 500 years
… offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere. As already remarked, it has been a unity combined with enormous diversity. Borrowing widely from other lands, thriving on dissent and originality, the West has been the mongrel civilization par excellence. But in spite of patchwork and conflict it has pursued characteristic purposes — that is its unity — and now these purposes, carried out to their utmost possibility, are bringing about its demise. This ending is shown by the deadlocks of our time: for and against nationalism, for and against individualism, for and against the high arts, for and against strict morals and religious belief.
But why should the story [of the West] come to an end? It doesn’t, of course, in the literal sense of stoppage or total ruin. All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but pecularily restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss if faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been ruh through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
It will be asked, how does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths.
When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.
That last line is important. Barzun was a cultural historian, not a polemicist with an axe to grind. I never did read all of his big book, but it seems to me that he finds the West decadent because it has lost a sense of purpose, its sense of itself as engaged in a meaningful collective project — and that it was this shared sense of purpose that forged the West’s cultural unity amid its diversity.
Might we say, then, that a culture that has lost its sense of a reason, or reasons, to perpetuate itself is decadent? If so, then it shouldn’t be all that controversial to see a decline in rates of childbirth as a primary symptom of a decaying culture.
If this definition of decadence seems wrong to you, then give us a better one.