Tuesday, August 22, 2006


I have been reading James Bowman's lovely new book, Honor: A History. I highly recommend it. And beyond that book, I think there's a lot of merit in the genre of which it is a distinguished part - the inquiring essay into a moral virtue such as honor - an inquiry that cuts across disciplines of philosophy, literature, art, psychology, history, and so on.

In somewhat similar fashion, I have been wondering about the concept of decadence. Is it possible to give a conceptual account of decadence that does none of the following:

  • Treats decadence merely as a synonym for indulgence, i.e., does not give any more interesting intellectual history or conceptual weight.
  • Treats decadence merely as nothing more interesting or compelling than what an older generation, grown curmudgeonly, inevitably complains about in the shifting mores of the younger generation.
  • Collapses, in giving an account of decadence while rejecting it, into rightwing authoritarianism - disciplined, yes, but not infrequently facist.

What would an account of decadence look like if it avoided all three temptations - indulgences, one might say - listed above? Can there be a general account of decadence in that sense?

(My thanks to Nathan Wagner for his thoughtful comments.)


Anonymous said...

How about one of the following:

(1) When a system ceases to be able to perform the role for which it was originally designed without positively commencing a new role

I don't have the detailed historical knowledge needed to do more than paint with a broad brush in this area, but it seems that the case could be made that by the nineteenth century the courts of equity in England were so encumbered by legal niceties that they were often unable to provide timely remedies of the sort required to give "equity" any meaning. Dickens' Bleak House, though certainly exagerated as to historical fact, portrays a decadent system. The origin of the word Byzantine describes something similar.

(2) When the inheritors of a movement or idea lose sight of its inspirational and motivating force and instead keep at the forefront arguments about its minutia

As an example, Thomas Carlyle argues that the Church in the East at the time of Mohamed was so intellectually concerned with questions such as whether the Holy Spirt proceeds from the the Father only or from both the Father and the Son that it ceased to offer a vital alternative to Mohamed's urgent sense of the need to submit to God.

(3) When the inheritors of a movement insist on seeing the world in the terms that the movement's founders saw it when the circumstances have materially changed

This is an imperfect example, but if there are people who insist that the US should be isolationist and avoid all foreign entanglements precisely because the founding generation thought that the best policy - being oblivious to the fact that our ocean moats are not what they once were - that would be decadence.

Anonymous said...

On second thought, my last comment may have gone too far in trying to avoid indulgence. Decadence is not merely ossification but typically also seems to imply some sort of indulgence. Decadence and indulgence are not identical, but perhaps a sort of indulgence forms a necessary component of decadence. Perhaps decadence involves the occupation of institutions by individuals who (a)cease to believe that the founding principles of the instutions have value, (b) have not themselves positively redirected those institutions along lines they can believe in, and (c) use the institutions they have inherited for personal gain.

An example here might be some of the monastic houses in England during the Middle Ages - which were founded under ascetic ideals but became wealthy and powerful, and finally ceased to regard the aceticism and contemplative life sought by their founders as being worthwhile pursuits.