Decadence in the Modern World

Decadence has become the latest obsession for a segment of America’s intelligentsia.

Many intellectuals led by New York Times tame house conservative Ross Douthat have determined that America is decadent. Apparently, Douthat thinks America is decadent because pop music is repetitive and Americans watch Fast & Furious sequels instead of John Ford Films.

In his latest book, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of our Own Success,Douthat joins unlikely collaborator Silicon Valley rebel Peter Thiel in spreading the false narrative that technological progress has ceased. The irony that many of Douthat’s fans will read The Decadent Society on a Kindle delivered by Amazon does not occur to the author.

Are we Decadent?

Instead, America is now decadent because NASA made the logical decision to scrap the flying dinosaur they call the space shuttle in 2011.

The notion that the shuttle was obsolete and dangerous 40-year-old technology never occurs to Douthat. In my opinion, NASA flew the shuttle for 20 years too long. I think they should have scrapped the Shuttle after the Challenger tragedy in 1987.

In an ironic twist of fate, Douthat’s book hit Amazon and shelves just as NASA plans to resume manned space flight with an American-built space capsule. To explain, NASA plans to use SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to send two astronauts to the International Space Station on 27 May 2020. Elon Musk’s SpaceX designed and built the Crew Dragon in decadent America.

Hence, history is making a mockery of one of Douthat’s key assertions. But what of the rest of his claims that America and the modern world are decadent.

What is Decadence?

The standard definition of decadence is “moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.”

Decadence usually occurs in peaceful and prosperous societies such as ours. The most common modern example of decadence is the Roman Empire. Historians and intellectuals dislike the early Roman Empire because it was peaceful and prosperous, in other words, boring, unlike the Republic.

The Roman Empire; however, was far from static. Imperial Rome made tremendous progress in fields such as science, medicine in particular, finance, technology, and engineering. In addition, the Imperial Romans displayed strong scholarship in history and made progress in religion by adopting Christianity.

Decadence and Democracy

The Roman Empire gave us such geniuses as Galen, Pliny, Seneca, the Apostles, and the authors of the New Testament. In fact, Christian theology is largely a Roman creation.

In addition, Imperial Rome accomplished some of the greatest feats of ancient engineering, building the Coliseum, aqueducts, roads, harbors, sewers, and mines. Part of the problem intellectuals have with Imperial Romans is how they used their genius.

The Imperial Romans used their genius to supply clean water, food, and popular entertainment to the masses. Hence, they served the needs of the people rather than the elite. Galen for example learned medicine by studying inured gladiators.

Thus, it is Rome’s democracy and populism that offends many modern intellectuals. Hence, President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) horrifies many of today’s foes of decadence. Popular culture and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) also offend Douthat and other neo-puritans. Neo-puritans fear Sanders because of Bernie’s proposals to expand the welfare state and take away incentives to work. 

Imperial Roman peace and prosperity, however, was not conductive to art and literature. Hence, one reason intellectuals dislike progress is that it could be fatal to two of their favorite things.

It takes chaos, poverty, and suffering to produce the great artists and  writers. The Industrial Revolution gave us Charles Dickens, while Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others came out of the blood and thunder of World War I. Moreover, the Napoleonic Wars gave rise to romanticism and much of what we call classical music.

Today’s art is tepid because our age is peaceful. We have few great novels in our world because we have few wars, revolutions, and depressions.

Decadence and Puritanism

Finally, those most prone to fret about decadence are puritans. Indeed, Douthat’s fear of decadence reminds me of H. L. Mencken’s classic denouncement of puritanism.

In a Book of Prefaces Mencken described puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Douthat’s fear seems to be that Americans are having too much fun playing video games, binge watching Netflix, and watching Avengers movies to be serious.

Douthat views today’s Americans as decadent and corrupt because they are happy. This happiness is in contrast to the Americans’ austere great-grandparents who practiced segregation, tolerated lynching, and believed racism as gospel truth.

A related problem for Douthat, a Catholic, is that today’s Americans are playing Fortnite instead of going to mass. Given the number of children molested by corrupt priests, I’m not sure boys playing Fortnite instead of going to mass is a bad thing.

Decadence and Progress

Douthat’s belief that modern civilization is decadent is partially correct. However, decadence does not mean civilization is decaying or shrinking.

Europe, for instance, expanded during the decadent 18th Century. For example, the decadent 18th Century British conquered India, launched the Industrial Revolution, and built the first global empire.

Nor is a decadent society incapable of progress. America underwent vast technological progress and economic expansion during the First Gilded Age (1870-1910). Remember, the First Gilded Age was the era of Edison and Telsa. First Gilded Age American inventions include the light bulb, the phonograph, the telephone, accelerated current, electric trains, and consumer culture.

Additionally, John D. Rockefeller Sr., and Andrew Carnegie built the first modern corporations during the First Gilded Age. While J.P. Morgan was inventing investment banking.

Notably, America is experiencing another bust of economic expansion and technological progress in the Second Gilded Age (1990-?). Likewise, decadent 1920s and 1930s Britain and Germany underwent tremendous technological progress.

During the 1920s and 30s, the British invented jet engines and pioneered television. Meanwhile, the decadent 1920s and 1930s Germans invented rocketry.

Therefore decadence is not always bad or the end of civilization. Instead, decadence is a phase civilizations pass through.