Is Decadence Irreversible?
“Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest—disdain for beauty, execration of literature. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” —Gustave Flaubert (1821-80)
“The left is irredeemable.” —Sam Harris (1967- )
Some historians, philosophers, and other academic types, two of the more famous being the historians Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, have theorized that great civilizations have a natural life cycle of birth, vigorous growth, glorious maturity, degenerate senescence, and death, much as individual organisms do, and that this is the natural way of things, and nothing much can be done to stop it. Furthermore, most of these thinkers have been of the opinion that our own great civilization, namely modern western civilization, is well into the stage of degenerate decline, with collapse and extinction being our inevitable destiny, and that in the not too distant future. Sir John Glubb, in his famous essay “The Fate of Empires,” gave the natural lifespan of a great civilization at between 200 and 250 years, beginning with its rise to greatness.
Oswald Spengler, although prophesying our impending doom, nevertheless was optimistic to the extent that he considered 20th-century European culture to be in late middle age, still somewhat vigorous, though losing the vitality, inspiration, and suppleness of youth. He thought we still have a few hundred good years left in us, potentially, even though they would be years of decline. He considered the zenith of our culture to have been the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries, with its magnificent achievements in science, music, architecture, and the kind of Enlightenment political thought that inspired the birth of the USA, and with the turning point towards decline being marked by the French Revolution and the advent of socialistic ideologies. Spengler considered his own time, the early 20th century, to be analogous to ancient Rome’s transition stage from decadent Republic to fascistic Empire—which is a major reason why the Fascists and German National Socialists liked reading his books and endorsed his philosophy. It now appears that Spengler was premature in his predictions: Mussolini, Hitler, et al. may have come closer to Marius and Sulla than to Caesar himself: that is, forerunners of the death throes of liberal democracy, not the deliverers of the fatal thrust.
That western civilization is in decline should be fairly obvious to people well-read in history, despite our continued advances in technology and the flashiness of our entertainments. Although on the outside our culture may still appear vigorous, sort of, on the inside it is rotting. Much of what passes for “progress” is indicative of this rot. Feminism has become mainstream and has degenerated into a hysterical and rather vindictive movement for culturally castrating the most productive men in the society. Sexual aberrations have become glorified to the point of becoming downright fashionable, while male/female relationships, the bearing of children, and the traditional family (once the fundamental social unit of the civilization) are degraded and discouraged. Taxes, one of the great historical demoralizers of populations, gradually rise to higher and higher levels, or else the nation goes deeper into debt, to support a bloated bureaucratic welfare state that rewards weakness and parasitism of the system. The money is debased beyond the lead coins of degenerate Rome to the point of being little more than computer data and figures on a screen, manipulated to the advantage of an economic elite. Hatred of the civilization itself, often amounting to radical nihilism, is taught throughout the educational systems, especially in the elite universities. And the fine arts have declined to being almost nonexistent, with what passes for art serving not to inspire but to externalize inner pathology in a kind of cult of ugliness, or to provide circus-like escapism to the jaded and decadent masses. The greatest cultural giants of our past, like Shakespeare for example, are ignored or denounced for being too white; and reading lists in universities include mediocre pulp written by autistic black lesbians for the sake of celebrating not classic excellence, but “diversity.”
Thorstein Veblen pointed out in his Theory of the Leisure Class that decadence in the sense of moral decline and sensuality tends to be a one-way street, because people are very resistant to surrendering luxuries and comforts that they already possess. Saul Alinsky seemed to have had a similar idea when he asserted in his Rules for Radicals that nationalized healthcare is the foot in the door for socialism, because it is very unlikely to be reversed once people become dependent upon it (this appears to be borne out by the left’s howling over Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare in the USA).
I personally have watched Burmese monastic decadence, especially in America, assume a one-way toboggan ride down the course of almost thirty years. Back in the early 1990s Burmese lay supporters were scandalized by the fact that a few Burmese monks in southern California had begun driving their own cars—whereas now it is commonplace, even expected, with no criticism or complaint. Another commonplace now that I had seen only in the sloppiest monks just a few years ago is the habit of not wearing one’s upper robe, but rather a sweatshirt above and the sarong-like lower robe below. Practically all Burmese monks have at least one cell phone now, with the numbers approaching ubiquity even in fourth-world Burma; recently, after cell phones became common in the country, there was a sudden mass exodus of monks out of the monasteries as approximately 20% of the monastic population dropped out within about two years—this was attributed to the fact that young monks suddenly had Internet access, and thus access to pornography and social media useful in meeting young women. Certainly, it is much easier to go downhill than up, morally as well as physically. Resurgences of moral spirit tend to assume the form of fiercely resisted reform movements, usually accompanied by nasty social upheavals.
BUT—even so—there have been many examples throughout history of decadence being reversed, if only temporarily. Classical Rome survived progressive degeneracy even to the brink of collapse a number of times. The rise of Augustus was accompanied by a return to more traditional, conservative social norms…which however had mostly evaporated by the time of Nero, and then were regained after Vespasian restored some semblance of peace and order. In later centuries emperors like Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine sustained Rome in ways that Spengler would acknowledge as means of patching up and maintaining a dying civilization, but which nevertheless did result in temporary revivals of Roman tradition and national pride. The Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire survived for a thousand years after the Latin half of the Empire collapsed, with its own societal ups and downs (mostly downs). Similarly, the very long history of China displays many cultural rises and falls. Although there are few nowadays outside of China itself who would call its present regime anything near to utopian, the country is still in a better position than it was in the early 20th century, before Mao, with rival warlords attempting to maintain order amidst the collapse of Empire and social chaos. The long history of Britain also demonstrates the cultural, moral, and political ups and downs a society of vigorous people may endure. With regard to morals in particular, the Renaissance was apparently a case of medieval restraints, including moral ones, cast to the winds, followed shortly thereafter by Cromwell’s Puritan revolution, followed immediately thereafter by the Restoration of Charles II and notorious Restoration decadence of taste and morals, followed eventually by a Victorian era representing the peak of the British Empire’s glory, accompanied by some extraordinarily stuffy Victorian prudishness.
|a few national leaders who at least temporarily reversed the moral decline|
of their national cultures: Augustus, Diocletian, Justinian I, Charlemagne,
Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Hitler, Thatcher
A relatively mild example of such a moral resurgence in recent history could be the years of the Reagan administration in the USA, paralleled in the UK by the government of Margaret Thatcher. Then, as now, the moral dissipation of a youth counterculture had worked its way into the mainstream, which, along with weak liberal political policies, resulted in a kind of social malaise and atrophy. America, and Britain too, were sliding into a defeatist acceptance of national decline, and a loss of patriotism and national spirit. Ronald Reagan, despite his limitations and the hatred of leftists directed at him, restored America’s dignity in the eyes of the world, and, more importantly, in the eyes of the Americans themselves. Rather than accepting inevitable decline and a stalemate with the Soviet Union, America turned itself around and took a new lease on life, so to speak, which among other things contributed to our winning the Cold War.
We find ourselves in a similar situation now. Just as Obama could be considered a sort of Jimmy Carter 2.0, so Trump is the sequel to Reagan, attempting to defeat the national malaise brought about by the side effects of various liberal policies, and in the face of seething hatred directed at him from the left. But how all Trump’s efforts are destined to work out remains to be seen. The fact remains, though, that the west is increasingly struggling against civilizational decay—or at least the conservatives are, whereas the ultraliberal “progressives” are cheering it on.
Decline and subsequent renewal, then, are not only possible but do not necessarily involve the total crash of a culture or civilization. There may be total collapse and replacement, as happened when a much weakened Romanized Celtic Britain was conquered by Saxons in the 5th century, or when degenerate Persia was invaded by Arab followers of a new, fanatical religion in the 7th. There may be partial collapse and replacement, as happened, say, with the fall of the degenerate Weimar Republic of Germany and transition to Hitlerism mainly by peaceful, constitutional means. Or it may be that the whole system can be revitalized without much serious upheaval at all, as happened with Victorian England. Mainly what is required, regardless of the specific scenario, is fresh inspiration, a new way of looking at life (even if it seems like a return to an older way) that restores a population’s optimism and faith that the people stand for something worthy and right. Mere nihilism and/or complaining won’t do it, nor will glorification of weakness and dysfunction.
I mentioned that Oswald Spengler considered the next stage for modern western civilization to be a shift away from democracy and towards greater authoritarianism, probably of a fascistic sort, much in the fashion of Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. John Glubb, in contrast, considered the Roman Republic and Empire to count as two different civilizations—this is how Rome managed to live much longer than the natural civilizational lifespan of 250 years. According to Glubb, the advent of Caesarism was a reset, with a new inspiration and a new world view, presumably a more “conservative” one. With regard to us, it does seem that democracy is running its course in a decidedly downhill direction, degenerating into a kind of hysterical (politically correct) mob rule, not caring that the civilization is in decline, or else positively celebrating the suicide attempt. Consequently I consider it likely that only a more or less seismic, violent reaction against liberal principles run amuck is likely to give the west a new lease on life. I certainly don’t favor fascism as a political strategy, and much prefer the Constitutional system set up by America’s founding fathers; but from a dispassionate historical point of view it may be that social “progress” has overshot the mark and is moving in such a wrong direction that violent upheaval may be required to straighten out what has become grotesquely crooked. At any rate, violence is a common companion to the collapse of empires. Whatever happens, it is pretty much inevitable that the next major stage for the west will involve a resurgence of stereotypically conservative values, probably with a strong religious element. If it’s not something ethnically western, then the Islam of ultraconservative barbarian invaders, especially in western Europe, will probably prevail over the degenerate senescence of once-glorious liberalism.
The moral degeneracy of the cultural Marxist left and its globalist allies is simply too morally decadent to be sustainable. Seriously, a civilization that can no longer tell the difference between girls and boys is too decadent to have s snowball’s chance in hell of survival, let alone utopian prosperity. So with the status quo rotting to death and the probable choice being that between Islamism and a new fascistic nationalism, then I would have to say, “Hail Caesar!” and watch the barbarian invader driven out of the homeland, and so be it.
The Devil pulls the strings which make us dance;
We find delight in the most loathsome things;
Some furtherance of Hell each new day brings,
And yet we feel no horror in that rank advance.