28 January 2021

Is Western culture decadent?

 Note: Luis has prepared an essay for us

Is Western Civilization decadent?





Is Western culture decadent?  

Topic by Luis

Essay by Lawrence



Houston: we have a problem….a language problem!


Decadent has two current meanings. In common parlance, decadent “is characterized by or appealing to self-indulgence.” (1). And in political philosophy we can easily adopt the definition by Friedrich Nietzsche (2): The notion " decadence ": Decay, decline, and waste, are, per se, in no way open to objection; they are the natural consequences of life and vital growth.


And that is the language problem. If we accept that decadent means self indulgence, and by definition wasteful, then surely when a society declines the scope for decadence would be limited and curtailed. Indeed, Nietzsche seems to disagree that “vice, illness, crime, prostitution, and poverty” can be halted and improved: he even argues that “a society is not at liberty to remain young.” Put differently, when society fully declines it ceases to be decadent.


Are we to understand, therefore, that this inevitable decline of society will lead us to somewhere between Dante’s Hell and The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch? This idea of the inevitable decline is not a strange idea as we all know. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics echoes this sentiment: for example the entry in the LibreTexts (3) says “….entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time.” Indeed the authors of this entry go on and ask “Why do we get older and never younger?” The same idea is also reflected in the Economics principle of diminishing returns.


But there is a flaw in Nietzsche’s argument about society (Western or not) specifically the idea of “a society is not at liberty to remain young.” If decadence is not a thing (Nietzsche), society (culture) is not a thing either. Society is an amalgam of people “more or less” being bound by common history, laws, in many cases a common language, collective wealth and so on. Is our idea of the meaning of society a categorical mistake? Something extracted to exist from something that does exist: Gilbert Ryle used this argument against Cartesian mind-body duality.


The idea of society being an amalgam of people does not qualify society to be a closed system within the meaning of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics for the basic reason that “people” in a society change. They change in the sense that some die, some are born, a few migrate, others from outside join society, some leave, and so. A society is a dynamic system even if we accept that all societies will disappear when the universe evolves into a big crunch.


The inevitability of a declining society happens because of many factors, for example war, enemy occupation, natural disasters, fraud, ignorance, and so on. People change, and therefore we might argue that yesterday’s society is not the same as today’s society.  But the circumstances or the binding factors mentioned above not only change, but have a direct causal effects on the people. Hence what is the meaning of the word/concept society? Is German society in 2021 (strictly 2019 to exclude the Covid factor) the same as in 1938?


The German society of 1938 was on an economic high at the time with military productivity but culturally drunk on the racism and aggression of National Socialism (NS). This society, however, led to a decadent decline much worse than a Bosch nightmare. In 2019 Germany was one of the top five economies in the world and the then Chancellor made it official policy to welcome political and economic refugees to the country. I use the German case as an example to argue that a society can come back into civilization after living in the depths of political hell: the irony is not lost that Nietzsche was German.


So if decadent decline of a society is not a necessary condition of a society why do we get the feeling of “wallowing in self- contempt and depression”? (Nietzsche) Abuse and injustice in a society are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of wonton self-indulgence and decline. Abuse and injustice do not affect society but they affect real people and real individuals.


If western decadence is making us depressed, this quote from the Oxfam 2021 report is not going to help: “The world’s ten richest men have seen their combined wealth increase by half a trillion dollars since the pandemic began —more than enough to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone and to ensure no one is pushed into poverty by the pandemic.”(4) And in 2020 the NGO reported (5), “In 2019, the world’s billionaires, only 2,153 people, had more wealth than 4.6 billion people.”


The decadence of western society (or societies) cannot just be attributed to the inevitable process of getting old. The German case demonstrates that the destruction of a society both as a group and as individuals can make a comeback from the worst nightmare. But the Germans could not have achieved this return without the cooperation of friends, allies and trade partners. Somehow, therefore, the idea that society is some enclosed system is not completely correct; it may be argues that a dynamic system can safely exist despite being a subset of a chaotic system. The only caveat is that there is so much we can do against natural disasters.


As I have argued abuse and injustice are not conditions of decadence; they are behaviours by a few people who are tolerated by those whose duty it is to prevent society degenerating into hell. What the Oxfam reports imply, especially the 2021 report, is that some of the money owned by billionaires is the result of excessive profiteering at the cost of society and the people who work for them.


We can safely argue that although Nietzsche was vindicated about inevitable decadence by concepts in science, 2nd Law of dynamics, and economics his idea of a society is not a closed system but rather a dynamic system. To think that society is an entity independent of the people is to commit a categorical mistake. What is clear is that neither Nietzsche nor his contemporary socialists could imagine that a society of 2,153 people had more wealth than 4.6 billion people: we cannot imagine it in the 21st century.


To conclude and until proven otherwise, change is not decadence; decadence is a handful of people that inflict decline on society. In other words, people cause decadence on people.



Best Lawrence



(1)  Merriam-Webster


(2) The Will to Power

by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Anthony M. Ludovici


(3) The LibreTexts

2nd Law of Thermodynamics

https://tinyurl.com/LibreTexts-2ndLaw (Link shortened because it is too long)

(4) Mega-rich recoup COVID-losses in record-time yet billions will live in poverty for at least a decade - Oxfam


(5) Time to care - Oxfam


(6) Ghost in the machine

Psychology Wiki





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