Is there really such thing as "decadence"?

I mean as a nonnormative, purely technical, sociological-scientific designation of a condition of a culture.

Tonight I was watching a rerun of Bones, where the victim was identified as a nine-year-old kiddie-pageant star, and Bones makes a remark about obsession with beauty being a common feature of “cultures in decline.” Saying it as if it were a scientific fact, and as an anthropologist she should know.

It reminded me of an SF short story I read once, dating from the 1950s or ‘60s, in which the first ET visitors to Earth turn out to be giant snails with elaborate, flattersome, self-abasing manners. They sell the Earthlings (at a high price, I forget what, probably uranium) some wonderful devices which stop working shortly after they leave. One of the characters, an anthropologist, finally figures out: “Of course! They’re decadent! They have all the signs!” IOW, the ETs’ behavior shows their culture is in a period with no real creativity, so they get along by buying clapped-out machines from other species and sell them to interstellar rubes. This being the Silver Age of SF, the age of John Campbell, the humans soon prove themselves masters of the situation in a way I won’t spoil. But, the story seems to reflect an assumption of the time that “decadence” is an objectively observable condition of a civilization, and one that any anthropologist worth his salt can reliably recognize, from signs that transcend the context of culture and even species. For all I know, anthropologists and sociologists in the 1950s might actually have believed that; but there really anything to it?

Well, the first question would be whether there is such a thing as an objective decline in civilization. Once we’ve agreed on that then we can go about identifying common traits of such periods.

Note that Temperance Brennan is a Physical Anthropologist, not a Cultural Anthropologist. She got to avoid Cultural classes after sophomore year and, like everybody else who picked up a little bit of knowledge in school, is talking out of her ass. Though a fine ass it is.

I don’t think there’s an objective decadence. Decadence is what barbarian cultures call civilized cultures, whether or not those civilized cultures are in decline. So the term is useful in a way: to figure out who the barbarians are.


I’ll drag out the example I used last time this topic came up: look at the Amish and the Spartans. Both are descended from the same root European, indeed Greek, culture. The Spartans would consider the Amish hideously decadent because they are pacifists, farmers and merchants, place a very low value on beauty and so forth. Of course the Amish would doubtless consider the Spartans decadent for much the the obverse, and of course because they are a bunch of homos.

Ironically mainstream Americans consider both groups to be paragons of austerity and traditionalism and would describe either as living a Spartan lifestyle.

So what does decline even mean? Over time civilisations undergo cycles in terms of liberty, sexuality, aggression and so forth. And at every point on the cycle, but especially at the extremes, the people living there declare that they have it just right. Who decides at what point a civilisation is in decline? The Spartans would doubtless think that modern Germany was a decadent form of the Third Reich, most modern people think that it is much more advanced.

There was a model of society that I don’t think is popular anymore, that all societies pass through three stages, barbarism, which leads to civilization, which leads to decadence, at which point, they’re unable to resist the new barbarian culture which comes in and starts the cycle over.

I think the first person to really enunciate the theory was ibn Khaldun.

This is a question that has actually been on my mind lately. I’m starting to think “decadence” is really just a nebulous descriptor without much merit. Civilizations who are in opposition to another seem to call each other decadent, and it seems more like a codeword for “immoral.”

The only which “decadence” could possibly possible be a signal of twilight of a civilization, in my opinion, is if they are talking about extravagance and that is kind of a weak indicator. If it’s because the upper class is blowing all their wealth and the lower class is impoverished, then yes. On the other hand, if the whole culture is extravagant, then that just means they are really prosperous and have a lot of wealth - which sounds more like the civilization is in a sort of “golden age”, the height of their power.

I think the only real pattern in the decline of civilizations is that as they reach the end of their life, they tend to become more and more conservative.I think it’s not so much a sign of their decline as it is a cause. Once they start behaving that way, they can no longer adjust as well to and decline in power. Then again it might actually be the other way around, perhaps when they decline in power, they react by becoming more conservative? If you want an example, I’d say look at China. They fell into extreme conservatism and eventually became dominated by Europeans, while the Japanese were able to pull themselves out of it and adapt.

I don’t know how good my observations were, or if I was just rambling or what, but there you go.


“Decadence” is a moral judgement and thus has no place in a scientific study of culture, any more than it would in the study of subatomic particles. No reputable cultural anthropologist would ever describe a culture as being “decadent” and I seriously doubt a physical anthro would either, nor would a sociologist.

As for the stages of development leading from savagery (hunting and gathering) through barbarism (herding) to civilization (agriculture and cities), this theory actually comes from Montesquieu and is later further developed by EB Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan (the latter two being prominent early anthropologists). Nowadays this is seen as simplistic, not least of which for the fact that there are still hunter-gatherers living in industrialized societies today. For example, the Inuit still practice it though nowadays they use snowmobiles and hunting rifles. There is also evidence that early agriculture produced such a lower quality of life that many archaeologists believe humans only settled down to farms as a last resort to survive - in other words, it wasn’t really “progress” at all since that implies improvement.

Some subatomic particles decay.

Isn’t decadence often a codeword for tolerance, pluralism, and live-and-let-live? And as such, isn’t it used by conservatives to associate those qualities with weakness and impending ruin?

Well, its the blue jeans against the suits, isn’t it? The laid back and the tight-assed. Some people think if you cant crack walnuts with your self-disciplined, responsible sphincter, you’re morally depraved, weak, degenerate. Sane people disagree. OK, I may have some bias in this…

Aztecs: decadent or not? Somalia: decadent or not?

It’s more often, as in the example in the OP, a code word for capitalism and social freedom. And as such, is by liberals to associate those qualities with weakness and impending ruin. The most common, possibly only, use of the word decadence I’ve sen in the last 10 years has been from the liberal left, where everything from watering the lawn to air travel to owning an SUV has been branded as decadent.

I used to wonder what people meant when they clamoured that this board was biased left, but there have been a several of these sorts of comments posted in the past week, where it has been blithely asserted in GD that a particular evil is a product only of the right, when it is at least as, or even more widely, true of the left.

You’re absolutely right. The tight asses who think that us long hairs are all morally depraved, weak and degenerate because we won’t cycle 20 kilometres to work in the snow, or because we actually want the freedom to have20 square feet of lawn. Those people are crazy. I agree entirely.

Oh, sorry, you mean the authoritarian, judgemental tight asses on the right, and the laid back, long hairs on the left. Like I said in my previous post, I’m coming to see just how blind people here are to the failings of the left. Because it;s so clearly wrong to judge someone because they drive a combi van and have long hair and smoke grass. But perfectly OK if they drive an SUV and and grow long grass.

Haven’t heard that one all day. Been a pretty good day.

Decadence is the state where people start spending large sums of money on things they don’t necessarily need, where the pursuit of wealth for its own sake becomes the end all and be all and as such social cohesion breaks down because people lose sight of caring about the larger entity as something meaningful in their lives that is more important than whatever gratification it provides. Whether or not that tells you whether or not your civilization is in decline depends on your definition of civilization. If you’re a wealthy banker who has interests all over the world, your view of who ‘your people’ are, might be very different from your neighbors.

Captain Amazing Right, Khaldun called the force that held society together, ‘asabiya’, which I believe means something roughly like togetherness. When ‘asabiya’ breaks down societies stop seeing one another as having some sort of common bond and as such the ‘nation’ or whatever it was begins to fall apart as people begin to see themselves as part of something else.

Except that Germany is objectively in decline with a TFR of 1.41.

Can you give us a historical example of where this occurred? Or is this strictly an end times prophecy that proves how wicked the modern world is and how it needs to be destroyed with a rain of brimstone?

Terrain-following radar?
Total Fertility Rate?
Temporary Flight Restriction?
Time-frequency representation?
Temporary Flight Restrictions?
Thrift Financial Report?
Traffic Film Remover?