On Two Types of Cultural Decadence

Some of what I have to tell you here has no doubt already been said, but there is such an epidemic of decadence today, of one kind or the other, that I feel the urge to record certain thoughts on the matter which have been harassing me of late, and to bring some of them together in a more reviewable manner so that they may perhaps, unlikely though this seems even to me, serve some good.  This is, if you will, a type of postmortem of postmodernism.  One might think none further would be necessary, but the matters of decadence with which I intend to deal here are so pressing both upon my mind and upon our society, upon all the people I see around me, that yet another dissection may be necessary of that ugly creature which by all accounts should already be stone dead.

So let me raise the knife:  the decadence that I should mainly like to describe is a key feature of the postmodern.  One type of decadence – the postmodern type, though it is so worthy of invective that I shall soon have even more names for it – has relativism as its absolute truth.  And the word “truth” itself illustrates the result of this decadence in the victory of language over reality: “Truth” is a favorite word with which one bludgeons oneself and others, a word so important that it crushes the actual thing behind it.  This type of thinking, as is commonly known, does not believe that there is a higher truth, but that the word may be beautifully applied to any depravity that any corner of the world chooses to inflict upon itself, as long as those inflictors consider their behavior to be true.  The word itself thereby wins against everything tangible.  It is in a way the extreme opposite of the old Greek (and also erroneous) belief that language is always a natural reflection of reality.  To the Greeks, language could not possibly triumph over reality because reality was so strictly bound to it.  Something true could but be considered true, and something false false.

This decadence, then, may not only be called the postmodern one.  It may be called the “relativist” one, or also the “weak” one, for people who are decadent in this way believe that their own worlds and backgrounds are inferior to the rest, or equal at best.  They prostrate themselves to all the world except for that part of it which lies just behind them, in their own backyard.  This brings us immediately to the other type of decadence which is certainly not postmodern.  It may, however, in contrast to the first, which is relative and weak, be called an “absolutist” or a “strong” one.  Let me be clear that these names only describe the sorts of decadence we are dealing with and do not suggest that one is better than the other.  They are both to be avoided.  There are very few people in our western society today who are not decadent in one way or the other, though most people I personally know are of the weak type, a particular scourge of the educated or at least (and perhaps especially) of the half-educated.  So if I say that it is the weak decadence that is particularly worthy of invective, that is mainly because I myself on a daily basis have to deal with this type of decadence more often than with the other.  But both are bad, and to avoid them, one must be Greek – and I shall talk of that later.

But first let me describe more closely the two types of decadence, and why they belong to the concept of “decadence” at all.  I begin with the strong type, because it is easier to describe.  “Strong” or “absolutist” decadence is associated with an inordinate amount of self-promotion or self-obsession.  Its bearer insists, as it were, on his own strength, which is why I label this decadence the “strong” type.  It is true that this insistence may often be built on a general insecurity with the self, but this is essentially true of all types of exaggerated human behavior, which receives its nourishment from a fear of being perceived as its opposite.  People of this type believe that they and above all their cultures and communities are vastly superior to others, but often without the knowledge of that culture – not to mention the culture of the others – to either support or refute the claim.  They simply believe it.  This is connected to why people of this type of decadence tend to be less educated than those of weak decadence, but are not always so.  Among educated people, those of the strong decadence tend to be artists or otherwise mentally active people who impose their own selves by the putative right of their talent.  It may thus be worth pointing out here, as an aside, that artists are not necessarily of the weak, that is overly self-critical, decadence, as is generally assumed today.  We essentially owe our modern portrait of the quintessential artist – of what it means to be an artist – to France and the Belle Époque, to that angry and avascular tubercular figure who hates his own civilization and acts like a swine in the name of his art.  Anyone who knows the gentlemen artists of Ancient Greece, the civilization that per capita produced more great artists than any other, knows how trivial and obnoxious this view of the artist is, though one certainly need not go so far back in time to debunk our current myth of the artist (one may also turn, to use another favorite example of mine, to most nineteenth-century German lyricists to see how gentle and manly an artist can be).  So the artist can also be of the strongly decadent type, one who demands thoughtless fealty to his own side and culture.  On a more personal level, this is in some sense the opposite of the nausea of Sartre, in which the actual person seems to exist nowhere at all and is in a way unreal by virtue of being in constant flux, always changing.  Only external objects are real to him.  (I also think of the main character in Rilke’s Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, who does not write letters home since every day he is a new person and sees no reason to write letters to people who consequently do not know him.)  But the strongly decadent is too dominant to himself and his surroundings to hold such a fleeting view of himself.  He will always insist.  But outside of such elite cliques, the strongly decadent tend to be simple people, uneducated peasants who simply assume that their way of life is the best.

The man suffering from weak decadence, by contrast, is too full of self-deprecation.  He holds his own community and his own culture for worse than, or at best equal to, other cultures and communities.  An American decadent of this type will generally consider Europe better, a western decadent the east, a white decadent the blacks, a Jewish or Christian decadent Islam.  Of course, as opposed to the self-promotion of the strongly decadent, which is ignorant and naive, the self-deprecation of the weakly decadent is often misleading or even dishonest to the extent that he will believe his supposedly correct disparagement of his own culture makes him individually better.  That is the one point at which his decadence may sometimes intersect that of the strongly decadent.  He is similar to the holder of what the philosopher Roger Scruton has called oikophobia (though the term itself is not originally his), as well as its correlate, xenophilia.  Oikophobia is the antipathy to one’s own Oikos – one’s home, house, and hearth – that is, to one’s own kind.  The weakly decadent, as an oikophobe, insists that his own community or civilization is worse than others.  Scruton places the rise of oikophobia after World War II, and there is some truth to this – oikophobia has been stimulated by the depravities to which the west has in fact subjected itself and others, to the point that the oikophobe forgets the redeeming features of the west (and is usually not aware to begin with of the often even worse depravities of the non-west: the pre-colonial history of the developing world is unfamiliar to him) – but the weakly decadent, as I describe it, occurs and recurs throughout history, as I will explain.

I should perhaps also point out that the interrelation between these two types, the weakly and strongly decadent, bears only faint resemblance (see further below) to the dichotomy that Nietzsche set up between master and slave moralities – lest one think I am making some such allusion.  In that system, both the slave and the master insist upon himself and his own right, each promotes himself, albeit in quite a different way and for different reasons, so that, in the pattern I am discussing here, both of them would belong to the decadence of the strong type.

As for the appropriateness of the concept of “decadence” itself in this context, the word, which of course means a falling off or away from a higher state of being (Latin “decadere”), is perfectly apt, since each type, the strongly and the weakly decadent, represents a gross exaggeration of what would otherwise be a healthy mental state:  A combination of wholesome self-promotion and sound self-critique in relation to one’s own larger community and culture.  I run the risk of sounding Aristotelian here.  One will hopefully remember that Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics posits each virtue as the middle between two extremes, the extremes being vices that constitute a lack and an excess, respectively, so that courage, for example, is the middle between cowardliness, the lack of courage, and foolhardiness, the excess of courage.  And indeed, the strong decadence is an excess of self-promotion and a lack of self-critique, and vice versa with weak decadence.  The wholesome starting point constituted by moderate quantities of each side is in fact part of what it means to be Greek, as Aristotle very much was – but, as mentioned, I shall return to this topic later.  Self-awareness and then survival, which includes self-correction, is the starting point for any individual and community, and it is the later awareness of the other that pushes most human beings into the direction of excessive self-promotion or excessive self-critique, whereas in only a few people can the original disposition coexist with the new awareness of the other.  (Nietzsche’s “master” also only has a hazy conception of the other, but he is not self-corrective, since he assumes that he himself is the highest possible expression of the human type.  He has already fallen into strong decadence.)

But one will be better able to understand these two types, and why they are properly states of “falling off”, once I have explained the historical circumstances under which each tends to arise, though they often overlap in time.  Once again, the strong type is the easiest to identify over the waves of history, since there is less hypocrisy and dishonesty in the strongly decadent man than in the weakly one.  By insisting so strongly on himself and his own side of things, he makes himself obvious.  As a general rule, in the development of a culture or nation the strong type will develop earlier than the weak.  The strong type tends to arise at the point where the influence and power of his culture are at their peak, or at least on the rise.  This is understandable, for his realization that his culture has overcome outside resistance will make him overconfident.  He will then insist upon the inferiority of all who provided said resistance, as a sort of ingrained fait accompli, and believe that his own membership of the culture makes him better, even as an individual.  The rise of this type is therefore often tied, though it need not be, to military events – the greater the victory, the better (some examples: Athens after the Persian Wars, Rome after the Second Punic War, Germany after the Franco-Prussian War, Israel after the Six-Day War – though in this last case the decadence was quickly hemmed by the hard-fought victory six years later, which, precisely by being hard-fought, did the culture of the nation of Israel some good).  But the type can also arise as a reaction to what is perceived as a threat to the hegemony of the culture.  A particularly pertinent example of this case is the present-day United States (though strong decadence in this country of course also derives from American victories).  Indeed the peak of our political and military power is not far behind us, and culturally our influence is still completely unrivalled in the world, but with the slow slip of our nation from power, which no one today can deny, a counter-reaction occurs which insists that America is even greater than it actually is.  This instance of strong decadence is the one that will generally overlap with weak decadence, which on the whole sets in later in the development of a culture.

The weakly decadent man, then, will generally arise when the peak of his culture has already come and gone, though it remains influential.  He will regret the exploits of his culture and the perpetrated injustices and silent sufferings that will always be part of any rise and fall of a people.  He thereby becomes filled with self-disgust – not toward himself as an individual, mind you (except in the extreme mental case of a Sartrean nauseatic – meaning the protagonist of the book, not the writer of it, who held an extraordinarily high opinion of himself); he is much too proud for that, and therefore more dishonest and occasionally more difficult to spot than the strong type, and he rejects all that belongs to his culture, the good with the bad.  Again, it is an exaggeration and an overreaction.  The first clear historical case of this type, though it is a comparatively mild one, is Socrates.  Socrates considered himself cosmopolitan and, though he did not thereby think other cultures better, brought the Greek down to the level of the others, where it in no meaningful sense belonged.  But one point is worth emphasizing in the context of this example:  Socrates was indeed a mild case.  Even he, whom no one could have convinced of the justice of anything, considered it a matter of course that he would fight for his country – and did so with distinction at the battles of Potidaia and Delion.  This is worth pointing out since it comes to show how much more decadent than he are the weak types of today, who consider the idea of fighting for one’s country morally reprehensible at worst and stupid at best.  But the timeframe is clear.  Athens had already seen its peak come and go, and was slowly being supplanted by others, and its past depredations were well known.  The Socratic dialogues take place during a war that Athens will lose, a loss from which it will never recover.  This weak decadence could not have arisen in any significant measure at the time when Athens (with the Greeks) was fresh from its victories at Marathon, Salamis, Plataia, and Mykale.  A perfect example, in this context, of a man who did not divulge in strong decadence but for whom no weak decadence had set in, was Aeschylus and his Persians, thus in every sense a classical Greek.  Sophocles is later but not yet weakly decadent at all, and Euripides, though he is often coupled with Socrates, remains pro-Athenian, though his patriotism knows certain bounds, as any patriotism should.

Other historical examples of weak decadence are Alexander the so-called Great, Seneca, and, of course, millions of instances in the United States and in the west as a whole today.  Perhaps my mentioning Alexander here causes you to raise an eyebrow, or something else, but I can assure you that, though he was ahead of his time by thinking of a united world empire of different peoples and cultures rather than of a small Macedonian clique that should rule all, this advancement led him to deemphasize the accomplishments of Greece and exaggerate those of the oriental world (and it was after all Alexander and his father – as an aside – who by uniting the city-states ruined the competition which made them thrive, a bit like the unification of Germany in 1871 spelled out the slow decline of the astonishing concentration of cultural genius in the German-speaking states of the nineteenth century).  So Alexander was weakly decadent, though for obvious reasons not immediately recognizable as such.  In the decadence of the late Roman Empire, of which so much is talked all the time, there is an overlap of weak and strong decadence:  Seneca, though his time is not yet that of the late Empire, anticipates this regret regarding the depravities of Rome, and there is that foreboding in his work of a grand equalizer – that all is equal, no group better than any other, that, by implicit extension, Rome has no right to call herself the better of others.  One thinks of such statements of his that people love their own country simply because it is their own, which is true of the strongly decadent, but not true of the many thoughtful people who may clearly recognize their own country’s superior contributions to the world.  Strong Roman decadence is found, for example, in the pompous drivel of a Cato the Elder, who magnifies the greatness of Roman culture as a counter-reaction to the encroachment of the Greek culture that so fascinated the young Roman gentlemen of his day.  A similar but later counter-reaction to Rome’s decline is the strong decadence too strongly glorifying her virtues and considering Romans above all approach, the brutal and self-centered chauvinism of her late emperors and generals.  It is very similar in the United States today (though by that I do by no means mean to endorse most of the ridiculous parallels between the United States and Rome that are so popular among weakly decadent pseudo-thinkers wishing to discredit the U.S., though they know little either of this country or of Rome and do not realize that a comparison with Rome is as often a compliment as an insult).  I shall see the fall of my own country from the top within my lifetime, for history indeed moves faster in modern times than it did in antiquity.

This sketch of the historical situations in which the two decadences tend to arise, along with a few examples, should now have made their respective natures reasonably clear.  The examples from the ancient world serve to underscore that history is cyclical, not, as the weak decadents tend to believe, linear.  But let me focus for the rest of this essay on the modern west, for that is the pressing matter.  Twelve years ago, in 1999, in my very first book, Statements, I wrote the following (Part 2, section 1):  “It is not until this century that the human consciousness has started to regret all previous cultural wars and, as compensation, sought to give peace and privilege to all cultures, and in doing so defeating their own noble intentions.”  This, in a nutshell, is the weakly decadent (though at that time I had not yet pondered too much the various types of decadence, and the fact that they recur throughout history).  Their noble intentions are defeated because, as I explain there, giving peace and privilege to all cultures will sap them of energy and destroy them, since cultures are by nature mutually exclusive.

Let us look together, then, at our own culture for a moment.  The weakly decadent, in a certain way, tends to reject patriarchality and particularity in favor of universality.  But two kinds of universality must be distinguished, for both the weak and the strong decadent type lay claim to it.  The two kinds of universality are so different that each seems, to the other, anti-universal.  The universality to which the strongly decadent lays claim is that his own culture should transcend its natural borders and that its truths should be accepted everywhere.  The weakly decadent, on the other hand, is also relativist, as is well known and as I have discussed, and thus bases his universality on the equality of all cultures and truths, and the claim that none of these can be transcendent.  It should be evident how each of these types is able to consider the putative universality of the other to be anti-universal.  (To be truly universal is to be Greek.  Soon I shall delve into this.)  In the U.S. today there are plenty of both types side by side, though it should be clear that the weakly decadent tends to be found more in left-wing areas and the strongly decadent more in right-wing ones.  On the timeline of the rise and fall of a culture, this juxtaposition of the two makes perfect sense in the American context, as I have explained, since we have slipped away from our peak and are slowly descending on the other side.  Today in the United States, as in the west as a whole, it is the weak type of decadence that has asserted itself in educated circles and that insists upon the west’s inferiority or at least its lack of superiority in comparison with the rest.  It is really as simple as that.  And that is of course the postmodern in a nutshell, which in the beginning I said was part and parcel of weak decadence:  The leveling of anything that may be called “better”.  Thus we go the way of the British.

And now to my oft-mentioned dear old Greeks:  To be undecadent is to be Greek – that may sound like a buffoon’s or old professor’s statement (I know I am not the latter, and think I am not the former), but is perfectly plain.  The Greek is the highest human achievement so far, so anything less than that is a decadence in the truest sense of the word, a fall.  I have said that to be universal is to be Greek, and that to avoid both types of decadence one must be Greek, and, finally, that part of this is a combination of wholesome self-confidence and sound self-critique in relation to one’s own larger community and culture.  If we want what is best for mankind, then it is natural that we should devote ourselves to its highest expression and attempt to perpetuate this as far as possible.  It is thus that Greekdom lays claim to immortality and universality.  In a sense, this type of universality is closer to that of the strongly decadent, who believes his own culture to be superior to all else, and certainly it is far removed from the relativist universality, a concept alien to the typical Greek.  But it is the best universality there is, and the only one toward which ought to be grasped if we want to make any claim at all to a common human bond – and I think we do.  And there are limits to the similarity between this universality and that of the strongly decadent.  If our Greeks were the Greeks of Nietzsche’s world, the difference would be harder to discern, for his Greeks were the Archaic and, at the latest, early Classical Greeks, that is, Greeks who were more secluded from the other and, as Nietzsche sees it, thought themselves the best simply because they entertained no other possibility and who were naively closed to any other way of thinking, Greeks who believed in their own myths – in short, Greeks as Homer seems to portray them.  To be sure, there is much we might learn from these Greeks and from their naiveté, if we would but open our minds away from modern prejudices, but Greekdom does not stop there.  One among many ways in which the Greeks were unique is that, if one is ready to follow them to later Classical times, as Nietzsche was not, they were the first of all ancient peoples to look themselves in the mirror, who knew that they knew (homines sapientes sapientes, knowingly knowing), who wrote about what they did, and about what others did.  It was this unique posture that enabled them to be the first self-critical people, and that is a remarkable achievement, one which is completely absent from Nietzsche’s view of the Greeks, or which he rejects as un-Greek – and his understanding of them is the poorer for it (and of a piece with his insistence that the “master” has such a distance from others that he, practically unaware of them and hence of other possibilities, legislates his morals without the self-consciousness that awareness of others entails – but he is in fact strongly decadent, as I have described).  Thus the Greek view is one that falls just between the strongly and weakly decadent.  In Hellenistic times, one might say that the weakly decadent takes over, but here such a paradigm of the decadence of cultures is no longer very appropriate to the Greeks, since they have at this point in history, through the murderous pluralistic crusades of Alexander, become supra-national and in that sense strictly speaking no longer “Greek”.

And so, to return to my earlier phrase of a postmortem of postmodernism, the body of the postmodern should be labeled for what it is: a manifestation of weak decadence.  Clearly the typical feature of the postmodern, that none may sport himself better, that all is equal, or that even distinctions between entities, which are necessary for any comparison, should be done away with, is a point of pride for the weakly decadent.  Not until we realize this can we bring ourselves to acknowledge that this postmodern body should remain dead, and that dissecting it everywhere is thus critical.  Anyone clinging on to it is dragged into the spiritual grave, where most people I know are already confined.  We must not allow ourselves, though we always remain self-critical, to become victims of the arrogant self-loathing – one would think it an oxymoron, but it is not – that afflicts the lovely young people who might otherwise have so much to give to the world.

And this, almost as briefly as I could state it, is the nature of cultural decadence.