Decadence: a falling away; a decay; a deterioration; a failing of heart; a focus of self, on the here and now; the emergence of “What’s in it for me?” as a national philosophy; the lack of a goal; the disappearance of a shared sense of purpose.
Russell Kirk was fond of quoting from C.E.M. Joad’s Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1948). Here is Kirk in The Politics of Prudence:
Professor Joad wrote that a society or an individual that has become decadent has “dropped the object”; or, in terms less abstract, in a decadent state people have lost any aim, end, or object in life; to decadent folk, life has no significance except as mere process or experience; they live as dogs do, from day to day…
Joad sets down certain characteristics of a decadent society: luxury; skepticism; weariness; superstition; preoccupation with the self and its experiences; a society “promoted by and promoting a subjectivist analysis of moral, aesthetic, metaphysical and theological judgments.”
Reads like a checklist of modern life, no? Incidentally, philosophy, especially epistemology (and its sub-branch probability), has been fighting a losing battle against an invasion of barbarians who insist all knowledge is a figment; that the stories we tell to ourselves is all there is. These anarchists would have each of us proclaim, “I am a king of infinite space! For I create what is by mere thought.” And they don’t mean dreams. But more on that on another date.
Now, even before the founding of any state, there will come some prophet who is already proclaiming its doom. These prophets increase in number as the state ages; they eventually become so commonplace that their warnings form part of the background noise. Citizens reason that because so many have always said that the end is nigh, that those saying so must be wrong.
However, the citizens reason badly, because the prophets were not wrong. There does not exist now a state that has always existed. History is one long story of failed states; further, states have never been long-lived. Certain cultural elements do pass from failed to new states, but this is because of inertia created by geography, climate, technology, language, and so forth. These elements have never been enough to save a state from extinction.
Since all historic states have failed, it is rational to believe that all extant states will fail, too. That is, the prophets are right. The only real questions are timing and cause. One cause of failure, acknowledged by all, is decadence.
In the same passage, Kirk quotes from C. Northcote Parkinson’s The Law of Longer Life (1978), wherein Parkinson describes six stages “through which civilizations pass on their way to dissolution.” Let’s look at these and see where our civilization stands:
- “[P]olitical over-centralization as in Babylon, Persepolis, Rome…” It is now almost a matter of religious conviction that there shall be one capitol to rule them all. Municipalities regularly surrender their authority to regional governments, the members of which eagerly cede responsibility to central control. Doubtless those offering up the citizens in their charge seek to be promoted to central command.
- “[I]nordinate growth in taxation, which becomes ‘the means of government interference in commercial, industrial, and social life…'” Any comment needed here?
- “‘[T]he growth of a top-heavy system of administration.’ A great characterless political machine develops.” Parties come and go, but the bureaucracy grows steadily. It has become so large that any party in power wishing to check the bureaucracy can only fight a small portion of it. Anyway, most don’t fight it, they feed it.
- “‘[P]romotion of the wrong people…This situation is probably inevitable and eternal…The whole society, as well as the whole organization, become lethargic and cumbersome, routine-ridden and tame.'” Forget the meritocracy; we see before us the Rise of the Mediocrity. All shall win a gold star.
- “‘[T]he urge to overspend…Lacking the courage to reduce its expenditure…the government incurs a vast debt and loads it on to the shoulders of some future generation.'” Entitlement calls to entitlement, ordinary folk ask not what they can do but what can be done for them.
- “‘[L]iberal opinion’—that is, a feeble sentimentality which weakens the mind and the wills of a great part of a nation’s population…'[Do-gooders] are moved by sentiment rather than by reason…their interest is solely in the present and for them, too, the future is merely the end.'” Having the right attitude is everything; the consequences of do-gooder actions are utterly beside the point.
We shall hear of taxes and rumors of regulations, but we are not troubled; for we believe these things must come to pass. But is the end not yet or it is nigh?