Delivered to the H. L. Mencken Club, November 1, 2013
About two years ago, when I was still very young, I bumped into a copy of the abridged version of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, wherein he tried to establish a taxonomy of civilizations, a successful effort, it seemed to me, that allowed him to delineate the surprisingly few genuine civilizations — some 23 according to him — that have ever actually existed. Inspired by this effort, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been possible to construct a classification system for societies that have experienced decadence.
It’s clear I think that the decadence that accompanied the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire was not at all like that of Weimar Germany, for instance. Rome had been overwhelmed by alien occupation, whereas Germany seems to have experienced a sort of moral breakdown in the wake of its defeat in the First World War. Both societies were experiencing economic problems, but there have been very many societies that have been through economic disruption without however falling into decadence. The decadence of Rome and of Weimar Germany therefore seem to have had very different causes. We know that viral meningitis is quite unlike the bacterial variety.
The story of Rome is the story of huge success eventuating in an empire that reduced the individual to a grain of sand, relieved him of responsibility, and created a heterogeneous world in which people no longer recognized each other and no longer felt themselves part of an organic society. Alexander was no doubt a remarkable personality, but his empire, like those of Rome, or of Persia, or of the Soviet Union, ended in decadence, as indeed all empires seem to do, provided they endure long enough. Moreover his project of folding Greece into a world-wide empire marked the end of Greece’s cultural importance.
On balance, it may be that poor countries are less available to decadence than rich ones. The United States, for example, are very rich, even today, but that hasn’t thwarted the onset of our own particular form of decadence which is mostly the result, I think, of too much prosperity, and too much good luck extended over too long a period.
Prosperity dissolves self-discipline and makes it possible for people to engage in antinomian behaviors that are not in their own, or their nation’s, best interests. There is nothing especially immoral about plumbers and electricians believing they have the right to live in $500,000 houses, even though that belief may involve great danger to the over-all economy. Today we see millionaire parents demanding tax-supported scholarships for their offspring, the same millionaire parents who don’t hesitate to lay out thousands of dollars for corrective dental surgery for their pet poodles. These are the symptoms of a society that has become “unrealistically” rich, and unrealistically secure, and that has lost any understanding of the real world that lies in wait just on the other side of the hill.
We have become a nation that has made it unnecessary for prosperous people ever to serve in the military and is willing to defend itself with women serving in front-line combat. Whenever you think our country has become as decadent as it is possible for any society to be, just wait till tomorrow. We’re a rich country, and if we don’t wish to perform military service, we can always hire someone else to do the job for us. We are reminded of the time when Romans lost interest in defending themselves, and chose to sub-contract the job out to illegal immigrants. Not that ever we would behave like that.
Prosperity encourages parents to turn decision making over to their children. The ethos and culture of modern America is essentially an adolescent construct. If my grandfather’s children had attempted to preempt his authority, those children would have had to go through life with some very serious physical disabilities.
Prolonged prosperity is an abnormal condition, and tends to produce abnormal people. For most of history, simple survival has been the first concern. Without that challenge, most people have trouble deciding how to make use of their advantages, especially after the pleasures of consumerism, drugs, and women begin to pall, which usually happens rather quickly. Today we have a government that requires health insurance plans to cover the cost of contraceptives while with the other hand providing for fertility treatments.
Fertility is therefore seen as a disease and as a desideratum at the same time. Moving right along, government may soon, or perhaps already has agreed to subsidize the cost of abortion, a generous provision that cancels the onerous need for women to take a little pill in the morning. Conclusion? Abortions must be a lot of fun.
Yet another result of advanced decadence is the emergence of a class of fantastically wealthy people who find themselves in urgent need of psychotropic drugs and weekly visits to the neighborhood psychiatrist. Today the divorce rate is as high as it has ever been, a reflection of the self-indulgence that renders people incapable of the give and take of marriage.
It may be that decadence is inevitable for people who are not in danger. “Live dangerously,” Nietzsche recommends. The Greek city-states were always in danger, both from each other and from barbarian invasion. Elizabethan England was never so culturally productive as when she found herself under imminent attack from Spain.
Small countries, always in danger, seldom fall into decadence. The tiny states of Greece or Renaissance Italy or Colonial America, places where people actually knew each other and actually depended upon each other, lived much more vivid lives, I believe, than the unfortunate subjects of multinational empires who are looked upon as fungible parts of a complicated machine. Life in Republican Rome must have been far more pleasant than under the Empire, and never mind that the Empire was far wealthier than the Republic.
Hellenistic Greece was much richer than Hellenic Greece, and much worse. And so I think that prolonged prosperity is not only the chief cause of our sort of decadence, but also its chief historic characteristic.
Societies that are not prosperous bestow authority on males, as males are more necessary for survival. The male is better equipped to build a log cabin, or kill Indians, or chop down trees. But when a society becomes prosperous, women can play a larger part, and are able to discharge the necessary functions of a settled community. And when a society becomes very rich and stays that way for a long time, those activities in which women are equal or superior come more and more into prominence. Clearly a good society must include the female spirit, and a world without proportionate female participation would be a hell on earth. But in decadence, the tastes and preferences of women may actually come to dominate and to set up quite another kind of hell, the kind we see today in this country, where empathy and niceness and maternalism trump society’s more essential requirements. Nothing can be easier than sitting in a darkened room with a cocktail in one hand while generating compassionate thoughts, a cost-free sort of activity that contrasts poorly with the more masculine virtues of courage, creativity, and intellection. You can read a thousand advice columns today and consult a hundred therapists and never hear any of those words mentioned.
It’s as if you were house hunting, and you’re mostly concerned about the building’s structure while your wife is mostly concerned about the wallpaper. A political candidate who “feels your pain,” and has a sweeter smile than his opponent will sweep the female vote and almost certainly win. This is a symptom of a society that is overly-feminized, overly tenderized, with a condescending view of life in which everyone stands in need of help. Those not in need of help are assumed by liberal women to be almost assuredly evil. They enjoy granting compassion to all living things, but would be humiliated to have it applied to themselves. They harbor tender feelings for certain American Indian tribes that, oddly enough, used women as baggage carriers and articles of trade. Our denatured urban elites have never forgiven the country for refusing affirmative action benefits for the Iroquois. Attitudes are very different among the urban poor, who actually know something about life’s unpleasant features, and who are less susceptible to decadence than to barbarism. It was George Bernard Shaw who is credited with saying that America might be the first society to go from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through civilization. It didn’t seem to occur to him that America could do both decadence and barbarism at the same time.
Without insisting that cultural decline is common to all decadent societies, there’s no doubt that it’s common to ours. A high culture demands an educational platform, and education in America today, with rare exceptions, has become simply a form of egalitarian indoctrination. In the minds of today’s educators, it is far more important for multiracial students to join hands and sing folk songs together than to learn math, or history, or anything else. It wasn’t so terribly long ago that a big city like New York would have a dozen FM radio stations offering classical music around the clock. I’ve been told that no such stations, or very few certainly, still exist. It wasn’t too terribly long ago that publishers were at least partly interested in serious fiction and would try to promote it. Today those publishers have become parts of conglomerates and are interested solely in being able to report good profits to their ownerships. The word “literary” makes a modern publisher groan with exasperation. It sounds so snobbish, that word. I once asked an editor if William Faulkner could be published today, if he weren’t already famous. “Of course not,” she replied. It’s far more profitable to publish mid-brow pulp aimed at well-dressed semi-educated feminist career women domiciled in the big coastal cities. As for the big newspapers, they have just about unanimously fallen into the hands of professional Left-wing agitators, hippies in amber, militating on behalf of political correctness.
Perhaps it’s in common discourse and social behavior that our decadence most readily displays itself. Adults speak like children, and have the same enthusiasms. We have seen fifty-year-old men in short pants and sandals with their shirttails hanging out. Sixty-year olds attending rock concerts. The normalization of gutter speech, the scatological imperative, the coarsening of everything, the replacement of romance by acrobatic sex, the fashion among the young for the most unattractive clothing, tattoos, grotesque haircuts, the demonization, especially among the young, of accomplishment and pride — these are the symptoms of a society in which the young are having a more and more difficult time finding something to rebel against, the crisis of a fissiparous population trying to move in twenty different directions at once.
But these ills fade into complete inconsequentiality when compared to radical egalitarianism, a disastrous philosophy that might very well bring about the collapse of a civilization that, starting from the Greeks, has enhanced human life more than all other civilizations added up together.
In a perfectly egalitarian world, there can be no values of any kind. How could anyone be inspired to achieve anything if his achievement is viewed, perhaps even by himself, as of no more consequence than a cup of tea? Why do cancer research when it’s so much more profitable to be a pornographic actor? How could anyone be so unfair as to imagine that some work of art is superior to any other? Everyone knows that all societies are equal, save possibly for the one that arose in Germany in 1933. Who would wish to attend a football game if the players were all absolutely equal? Because in that case, victory would simply be an accident, granting glory to no one. It infuriates egalitarians that some people have more money than others, but doesn’t seem to trouble them, yet, that some people are more intelligent than others or more personable or better-looking.
To make judgments, according to post-modern thinking, is to be biased, and if a person genuinely wishes to prove how fair-minded he is, then really he ought to select his spouse by lottery. Indeed, it seems clear that a great many people have already resorted to that expedient.
Equality incurs tolerance, and tolerance has become but another word for nihilism. It’s easy to be tolerant, if you don’t believe in anything. A civilization practicing high standards must perforce be highly intolerant, becoming more and more intolerant as it becomes better and better.
Equality is possible only at low levels. A society in which everyone is very bad is entirely feasible, but the opposite is not. To promote equality is to promote a form of mediocrity always falling lower.
Today, the pursuit of wall-to-wall equality has not only very largely succeeded but has actually surpassed itself inasmuch as the worst people are now viewed as the best. If you wish to become a talk show host, it’s highly advisable to have practiced sexual deviancy, or to have a criminal record. For famous people, it’s preferable to have your children outside of marriage. Anyone who believes our leaders ought to have at least some allegiance to principles that are the result of thousands of years of trial and error will be seen as a comic figure, hopelessly obsolete. Truly, we have seen that “transvaluation of all values” that might have seemed so attractive to some of us when we were young. Today, those who believe in the possibility of supernal values are viewed as atavists, credulous people who like to imagine there’s more to life than the pursuit of pleasure. (Such people, by the way, are usually those who don’t know what real pleasure really is.) For them, life is but a hailstorm of molecules, and the only restraint on behavior is whether a person can make a profit out of it, or at least get away with it.
Can a civilization like ours continue for very long? We have seen that the western half of Rome fell in the 5th century, but we also know that the eastern half continued on for another thousand years. My view of America is that it probably will subsist for a long time as a rich and powerful country, but that its civilizational and, if I may used the word, its spiritual quotient will remain in subfreezing territory for as long as it continues on.