One Of The Few Glories Of A Decadent Age

It ought not to be in dispute that we live in a decadent age.  To be sure, decadence is something that (understandably) is viewed as pejorative judgment.  Let us begin with a reasonable definition of what we mean by decadent, and one can be helpfully provided by an online dictionary definition I was able to quickly find:

dec·a·dent
/ˈdekəd(ə)nt/
Learn to pronounce
adjective
adjective: decadent
  1. 1.
    characterized by or reflecting a state of moral or cultural decline.
    synonyms: dissolutedissipateddegeneratecorruptdepravedloucherakishshamelesssinfulunprincipledimmorallicentiouswantonabandonedunrestrainedprofligateintemperate, fast-living; More

    antonyms: moral
    • luxuriously self-indulgent.
      “a decadent soak in a scented bath”
noun
noun: decadent; plural noun: decadents
  1. 1.
    a person who is luxuriously self-indulgent.
    • a member of a group of late-19th-century French and English poets associated with the Aesthetic Movement.
      noun: Decadent
Origin
mid 19th century: from French décadent, from medieval Latin decadentia (see decadence).
***

It is quite striking that decadence can be viewed either from the material or from the moral perspective, and that in both cases it involves self-indulgence that is inimical to fixed moral standards.  Indeed, the opposite of decadent is moral.  Few people could argue with a straight face that we live in an age of moral probity, and so it ought to be clear that given the hostility to standards of morality that we see everywhere around us, that we live in a decadent age, and that this lack of morality can be seen both in the ways that we refuse to restrain ourselves from evil and the way that we spend our resources on indulging ourselves rather than serving others.

Given that we live in such times, though, it remains for us to find such compensatory pleasures that we can.  One of those compensatory pleasures is that of satire, something that thrives in decadent ages like our own.  This ought to give us pause.  The cultivation of wit and satire, whether we see it in the witty ridicule of late ancien regime France, or in the epigrams of Juvenal in silver age Rome, is a sign that the moral fiber of society has been sufficiently eroded that it is not only possible but expected to mock at the failure and hypocrisy of cultural and political elites.  The bitter satirical laughter of an age like our own at such endeavors as the Onion or the Babylon Bee, both of which I find to be deeply amusing, is the sort of laughter that comes from someone who is forced to either laugh or cry and has decided to laugh instead of mourning at the folly and wickedness that is all around us.  To be sure, one may choose both options and to laugh as well as cry over the sins and abominations of our age, but to ridicule evil is a culturally acceptable attitude to it in an age that provides few such outlets to one’s disapproval of rank hypocrisy and idiocy.

If we are reflective, though, we can recognize the existence of such an attitude as a sign of the wickedness of the age in which one lives.  The decadents of the late Victorian and Edwardian period were morally dissolute figures whose lives were filled with casual immorality, justified by their own over-inflated opinion of their elite status gained through class origins and/or education.  Similarly, we find in the wit and humor of Elizabeth Bennet the attitude of an intelligent and morally refined woman in a corrupt time dealing with a large group of insensitive or immoral gentry.  We find these same tendencies in our own times.  To be sure, not every period of irony and wit like our own leads to immediate judgment.  While the decadence of the Edwardian and late Victorian period was punished with the horrors of the Great War and its lingering aftermath, which destroyed the European cultural superiority which provided the basis for the aesthete’s overly inflated self-regard, and the corruption of the ancien regime was swept away by the horrors of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, that of Regency England was subsumed by a revival of conventional morality to be found in the Victorian Era and that of silver age Rome was mitigated by the reign of the five good emperors that delayed Rome’s crises by about a century or so.

The proliferation of irony and satire that we find in our own age is like the dying of a canary in a coal mine, a warning that we are in dangerous times.  There are two responses that can occur to this.  Either society will face a period of great self-destruction in which the corrupt elements of that age will be burned up and many decadents turned into decedents in that violence and turmoil, or that society will have to submit to some sort of revival of the morality and self-restraint that it has so foolishly cast off through the example and imposition of wise government.  Either a society’s elites and rulers must cease to be errant fools or that errant folly will lead that society into ruin and destruction.  There are no other options available.  And yet those who bitterly laugh at the evils of a decadent age, who point out its follies and hypocrisies and who find themselves troubled by its painful ironies do not tend to have the power or strength to overcome the evils of the age.  Satire is one of the few glories of a decadent age, but it is not the cure of a decadent age, which is either reformation or destruction.  And sadly, we will not know which is our fate until it comes upon us in a time and manner not necessarily of our own choosing.

 

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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