The Meaning of Decadence
When people speak of a society being “decadent,” they commonly understand decadence in terms of standards of personal behavior and the sense of morality, or want of it, that behavior expresses. For conservatives, personal morality begins with sexual morality grounded in revealed religion; for liberals, with what they call an “ethical” approach to human relations based on equal respect, tolerance, and a refusal to judge people according to a moral code they either do not accept or refuse to observe. So liberals and conservatives have never been able to agree on the meaning of social and institutional decadence, or on what a decadent society actually looks like. Decadence, it seems, is a neutral word implying neither good nor bad, while the thing itself is in the eye of the beholder. But there is another understanding of the word on which conservatives and liberals ought to be able to find some ground at least for agreement, and that is the extent to which society’s institutions are failing or succeeding, success or failure being to a certain extent a matter of observation. And the best way to evaluate both success and failure is to ask, Is this particular institution fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it was designed and to which it was intended? To judge by this criterion, every major institution—religion, government, the military, law, business, education, science, the arts, the family—in the Western world today is a dismal failure, and a scandal to boot. In every field of human endeavor, society has forgotten—if not consciously rejected—the ultimate purpose, the teleological end, of the most vital human activities.
I begin with the institution nearest me, intellectually and practically: the publishing industry, including the book, newspaper, and magazine businesses. In fact, there is probably no better example of institutional decadence than publishing. What is the final end of publishing, as the end of a frog’s laying eggs in a puddle is a puddle full of more frogs? For the genuine publisher, the answer is the promotion, by addition, of the body of world literature worthy of the name. Of course, the publisher needs money to live, and in order to have money he must sell a certain number of books at a certain price, but that does not contradict the idea that the ultimate purpose of the publishing industry is literature, and the same goes for authorship. The author, too, must have an income, but if he is a born author he has an undeniable impulse to write books and will somehow find the means to do it, as the publisher will to publish them, even if writing and publishing are necessarily more an avocation than a livelihood for both of them, as was the case with the young Joyce and his early publisher, Sylvia Beach. But publishing has changed over the past four or five decades as small houses merged into conglomerates, or were bought up by big corporations whose primary purpose was selling toothpaste or drilling for oil and gas and to which literature was incidental, an opportunity for the company executives to share wine and cheese with literary celebrities. Today, publishers refer to the titles on their lists as “the product” and compare an author planning a book to an entrepreneur starting up a business. For them, the maximum profit possible is their raison d’être, and publishing books merely the incidental means to profit. Modern publishers could just as well be manufacturing dog food or condoms, which are vastly easier to sell than books, and one wonders why they don’t do it, and get out of literature’s way. The answer is probably cheese, wine, and celebrities—primary ends for society ladies, whores, and gigolos.
No democratic government in the West today is liked or trusted by its citizens, a majority of whom would rid themselves of it if they could. That is because the end of modern government is not effective governance but to provide greedy and ambitious men and women with what 18th-century England called “place” to satisfy their desire for power, money, and celebrity; women and members of minority groups a means to historical redress, recognition, and “inclusion”; and liberal society at large a wall on which to display its political trophies and symbols. Government is no longer the machinery of the state but an exercise in smoke and mirrors, which explains why the machine is always out of order or down, save for the part of it that grinds endlessly away at public relations, which more and more amounts only to raw propaganda. It also explains why, as Henry Kissinger observes in World Order, Western “leaders” have no idea what they wish to do, and no notion of where they are leading.
The former secretary of state is obviously underwhelmed by the intellectual caliber of the people in American government at the beginning of the 21st century. Though Kissinger has pleasant things to say about George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States faithfully represents the intellect of his generation, as Number 42 does its morality. Bush is a graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School; Clinton of Georgetown and Yale Law. Neither man reflects well on his alma maters, but that is not to say the reflection is an unfair one.
The decision by the governors of the Ivy League schools and other distinguished colleges and universities in the early 1960’s to transform their institutions into cold-blooded meritocracies took them out of the hands of the more or less civilized minority and handed them over to the raging philistines. T.S. Eliot said that education substitutes for the aristocratic principle in democratic societies. He was right then, and he is right in spades today, when getting your name on the roster of the Harvard graduating class is the equivalent of winning inclusion in Burke’s Peerage two centuries ago. In one of last summer’s publishing sensations, a former professor of English at Yale describes with appalling verisimilitude how pushy status-minded parents of the upper-middle and upper classes raise their children into politely docile but ruthlessly competitive zombies, sacrificing their childhoods to the educational Great Game which, if successfully played, lands them in the college of their dreams with no idea of who they are or what they want further from life, except money. (Roughly one half of Harvard graduates take jobs in finance and “consulting.” Why waste a Harvard education on writing history, or archaeology?) Few students in the top secondary and preparatory schools, the most prestigious colleges, and the most exclusive universities value learning for its own sake, for the excitement and enjoyment of the thing, and they receive little encouragement from their professors to do so. Administrators and trustees are preoccupied with graduating alumni who can be expected to earn fabulous incomes from which they will make correspondingly lavish donations to the institutions to which they owe their social and professional standing. So long as these can expect ever-increasing endowments, their graduates can flash their prestigious sheepskins and relish their fancy jobs, and the distinguished faculty are not expected to face a classroom, then everyone is happy, except for rejected applicants and the untenured, underpaid lecturers and assistants who bear the teaching load. The STEM departments are naturally valued for the return they bring on their research projects and the large sums they attract from the federal government, but nobody gives a tasseled hat otherwise for intellectual accomplishment. The Great Game has nothing to do with learning, only money and status all round.
Businessmen have always been about business, but in the past business itself was substantially about producing a product, some tangible good that was beneficial to the purchaser and to society itself: a wagon, a car, a suit of clothes, a piano, a bridge, a ship. In the postindustrial age, business activity focuses increasingly on finance, while finance aims at making money from money, not from steel plants, railroads, and oil refineries. The Wall Street of today has come a long way from the Wall Street of the old WASP brokers and bankers, men like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon. It is, for one thing, a great deal less honest; also it is hugely less productive in terms of producing anything real, including working cash—cash, that is, that really works for a living. The business of America is no longer business, as it was in the 1920’s. It is simply profit-taking.
Religion, whose role in the past was to educate spiritually ignorant people in the things that are not of this world and encourage them to save their souls by leading moral lives and taking the sacraments, to feed the poor, and to heal the sick, has become an extension of the welfare state and an ideological vehicle for the left, a field for social workers to frolic in, and a diffuse, therapeutic self-help movement. Liberalism, Fr. Félix Sardà y Salvany explained in the late 19th century, is a sin, and to the extent that the churches have liberalized themselves they are guilty of propagating heretical ideas when they should be teaching Truth. The military, former defender of the nation and its people, has devolved into a peculiar combination of the Red Cross and the Peace Corps, content to leave combat duty to high-altitude bombers and mechanical flying insects while trying to demonstrate that women are interchangeable with men in war as in peace, and homosexuals with both. The public educational system, which until relatively recently performed the worthy task of helping children to grow into responsible adults and put away childish conceptions, has forgotten the nature and purpose of education and works to mold them to a condition of mental dependency to fit them for their roles as obedient industrial workers and unthinking and unquestioning subjects of the state. The law has laid aside immemorial concepts of justice and the search for it in preference for paltry exercises in bad philosophizing, creative reasoning, and sheer willfulness, the aim being to score points and win cases and fat fees. In much the same way and for the same reasons, science has abandoned free and disinterested inquiry and degenerated into scientism, whose object is not truth but the socially and politically desirable answer. Its motto is Quod erat demonstrandum, though not in the sense that it was originally intended. As for the arts, their criteria are no longer truth and beauty, skill and integrity, but simply ideology. The nature and aim of contemporary art is political, and in that sense practical in a proudly philistine way.
The certain fate of a society that has forgotten the nature and purpose of its institutions is finally to forget the nature and purpose of society itself. And that indeed is what has happened to this society of ours, which is presently incapable of saying what the nature and purpose of even its smallest and most basic institution (the family) actually are.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture OCTOBER 01, 2014