Decadence is a curious concept. The word derives from the French decadere, which means “to fall away.” In English, the word means the falling into an inferior condition, as in deterioration or decay, moral degeneration or unrestrained self-indulgence. When you think of decadence, you likely think of an aristocrat like Marie Antoinette who lived in luxury while the masses starved. In a broader context, however, there’s an unexpected connection between decadence and enlightenment, between immorality and existential authenticity or spiritual perfection.
The Freedom to Play
To see this, consider some ancient history. Tens of thousands of years before the invention of writing, humans were hunter-gatherers, living off of wild plants and animals and thus having to move constantly as the seasons changed or as the herds migrated. Then came the Neolithic, Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago, after which most people lived off of domesticated animals, which allowed the Neolithic people to form denser populations and to settle into sedentary communities. In mythical terms, that revolution marked our banishment from Eden. Early hunter-gatherers were one with nature; regardless of their cleverness or durability, they lacked the culture and the artificial environment to train them to think in stylized, abstract ways, to become what we think of as people as opposed to animals. Psychologically and socially, early foragers were protohumans, members merely of another species of predator hunting along with falcons, alligators, saber-toothed cats and the like. When they struck upon agriculture, our ancient ancestors became much more self-sustaining and thus resistant to many pressures of life in the wild. They produced surpluses of food, which gave them free time, which in turn allowed them to play without any pressing evolutionary motive. That is, in many species of mammal, both the young and the adults entertain themselves either to practice their survival skills or to form social bonds, but agriculture introduced true idleness, the luxury of freedom that comes with a sedentary lifestyle. That freedom was both a blessing and a curse.
You can think of freedom as independence, as the power to do what you want, or you can think of it as alienation, as being untethered from life-sustaining processes. In fact, our liberation from many of our animalistic burdens has both that advantage and that disadvantage. When our Neolithic ancestors learned how to master the land and pliable species, they acquired greater safety in numbers and the larger groups developed more elaborate cultures and fortifications which acted as artificial worlds, sealing off the newly-minted people from the wilderness and encouraging the myths that would develop, of our supernatural status as children of gods destined ourselves to be deified. In short, Neolithic people became very powerful and instead of having to direct all their energies to accomplishing the primitive tasks needed to survive in the wild, the sedentary folk could use their power in arbitrary, unrealistic pursuits that made sense only to cultural insiders. For example, they could spend decades constructing gigantic pyramids as tombs to transport spirits into the afterlife or they could build elaborate temples and sacrifice virgins on the altar to please deities in the sky. Animals know of no such follies, because they’re too busy working hard to withstand the pressures of the wilderness that buffet them from one moment to the next; animals lack the freedom to stop and think about what’s really happening around them. The Neolithic people thus became both outsiders and insiders. Eden was barred to them, as they used technology—language, myths, social infrastructure, architecture—to personify themselves, transforming themselves from animalistic protohumans into godlike humans. But they became insiders with respect to their newly-regulated societies and to the fantasy-worlds they imagined and saw all around them as meaningful overlays that were anchored to their art, jewelry, buildings, stories, and other such symbols.
With power and wealth inevitably comes corruption and here we see the origin of decadence. Once the Neolithic people liberated themselves from the daily grind, they had to choose how to use their spare time. When they were no longer prisoners of natural law, they found that merely prescriptive social law couldn’t bind them with the same effectiveness. Whereas natural betas and omegas have to follow their alpha leaders to survive in collectives that must cope with the pitiless elements, artificial, encultured ones become victims of a more arbitrary double standard. Natural (wild) alphas enjoy the lion’s share of the resources because they’re the strongest members of their group and their strength protects the weaker members. The natural imperative of survival for the genes’ sake governs all levels of the natural dominance hierarchy. But in an artificial society, literally walled off from that elementary concern, alphas are free to rewrite the laws to their advantage, to domesticate not just beasts of burden and the earth but lower classes of people. Thus, people enslave, torture, or otherwise abuse each other in countless ways, because they’re largely freed from nature and are effectively gods with the power to decide how to live, to write the laws that give meaning to their artificial worlds. No greater force corrects us and so we’ve experimented with one bizarre culture after another, rationalizing vices and dividing the most powerful elites from the weaker masses, thusly creating worlds within worlds. The greatest evil is therefore committed by the freest and most powerful of people, while the masses are typically forced to squabble more as animals, competing for the scraps that don’t go to pay taxes or rent to the oligarchs. Those squabbles thus simulate a return to the wretched wilderness within the civilizational oasis.
But there was another source of moral degeneration, besides the familiar corruption left by the concentration of power. The freedom brought by agriculture opened up two niches, as it were, both the moral sphere and the cognitive one. People were free to decide how to live and so they could choose to live in better or worse ways, according to rarified cultural standards. But they could also use their free time to ponder the nature of things, and so was born philosophy, the pursuit of knowledge that likewise serves no direct evolutionary purpose. Early philosophers quickly hit upon our existential predicament: the horror of death’s inevitability, the mysteries of why we’re here and of where we’re going, the absence of gods, and the liabilities of our self-divided nature. From shamanic religions to the Book of Job to esoteric nature religions and the Presocratics, Hinduism, and Buddhism, philosophical elites have felt alienated not just from nature but from the deluded masses; their wisdom threatens to subvert their social orders and so they hide the poisoned fruit of their intellectual efforts. They practice religions that allegedly unify them with the world, assuaging or disguising their suspicions that free people are terrifyingly alone and cursed to live in existential absurdity. The most hyperconscious of the spiritual elites speak of absolute liberation from the world through death, of the nothingness of reality (nirvana), and of the need for a secondary banishment not just from nature but from society. And so they become hermits who often destroy themselves so as not to spoil the childish illusions of the unenlightened. Having escaped animalistic servitude to natural forces, the masses aren’t about to burden themselves with sorrowful knowledge of the hollowness of our cultural endeavours, and so they flee to their petty corruptions to distract themselves from the philosophical truths of nature.
Here, then, we see the common source of decadence and enlightenment. Decadence is self-destructive corruption owing to our godlike freedom which we express with willful blindness to our existential situation. Enlightenment is the burden of knowing the truth which likewise tends to destroy our will to play social games or even to stand a moment longer living in the nightmare of this grotesque universe. Enlightenment should be symbolized not just by the opening of the third eye, but by a corresponding frown at what’s thereby beheld. The illuminated perceive everything as an instance of the problem of evil, of the necessary divergence between reality and our ideals. And so decadence and enlightenment are interdependent: the former can be a retreat from the prospect of the latter, while the latter rests on the freedom produced by the society of the deluded and corrupted masses. Arrogance and insatiable consumerism are often distractions from the knowledge which is within everyone’s reach who is cursed with the power of skepticism. Moreover, we turn on each other as we compete for worldly pleasures and successes which mean nothing when judged objectively, from the view from nowhere; we use the losers as scapegoats instead of uniting in common cause against the underlying threat to our happiness and sanity, which threat is the undeadness of our creator. Meanwhile, philosophy is intellectual play, the toying with ideas as opposed to bodies (as in the technological play which transforms animals into people). And philosophy too requires the liberation from nature and the social engine which keeps us all alive despite our alienation from the pre-existing world beyond our technologies, infrastructures, and conceptual schemes.
Hypocrisy of the Spiritual Elites
This common source accounts for the criticism of so-called enlightened elites, that they’re hypocrites because they’re in league with the degenerate masses. See, for example, South Park’s satirical take on the Goths that purport to be pessimists and nihilists, seeing through the charade of conventional society, to the dark reality of the godless world. The satirical twist is that the Goths form their own clique and are hostile to outsiders; Goths busy themselves with such superficial matters as their countercultural style, paying special attention to the symbols that mark their social status, including their haircuts, outsider uniforms, and taste in music. The Goths thus replicate the primitive social dynamics which they claim to transcend and so Enlightenment gives way to decadence.
The ultimate reason for this criticism is that since the Neolithic Revolution, most people have been both outsiders and insiders in that they’ve identified with some artificial world even as they’ve been banished from the natural (wild) one. Only those omegas that separate themselves from everyone else; that live as absolute outcasts in the forest or in a cave, as lonesome para-persons or gods; that thus disconnect from both the artificial worlds which sustain personhood and from the natural laws of the wilderness which determine animals’ life cycles, are outside of everything and inside nothing. These omegas are neither persons nor animals, but are withdrawn from all worlds that might impose some way of life; these hermits must speak a private pseudolanguage and be subject mainly to the whims of their imagination. In short, they would seem insane because of their alienness.
But those rebels, who by contrast oppose only some systems and not the very idea of living by the norms of some world, will associate with each other and regulate their behaviour according to their shared ideals; they’ll thus form a subculture which may even in time become a mass one. At any rate, though they may interpret their culture as superior to others, they’ll still be playing social games and that’s the root of the hypocrisy. If an enlightened person sees through only mass culture, but welcomes the comfort of like-minded individuals, she’ll still be a social creature and so her behaviour will conform to the evolutionary norms of dominance hierarchy and of corruption by the concentration of power. In addition, the enlightened outsider who is simultaneously an insider will depend on mass culture in the above sense. A subculture couldn’t survive the overthrow of popular delusions. Were the delusions somehow disposed of, civilization would crumble and anarchy would make all manner of organized revolt against society both impossible and superfluous.
Leo Strauss identified this problem when he spoke of the conflict between philosophers and the vulgar masses, and argued that the former must hide their subversive conclusions from the latter, because even the enlightened elites who see themselves as superior to the uninformed majority depend on mass society for their bodily needs. Besides hiding their knowledge in an esoteric form that’s decipherable only to the initiated, the enlightened may exploit people’s tendency to worship heroes and to form cults of personality. Thus, Buddhist monks who just want to be left alone to meditate and perfect their paradoxical consciousness of nothing will demonstrate their moral superiority just by presenting themselves and thus reminding the unenlightened masses that the monks lack all possessions and base cravings, that they occupy an elevated spiritual plane even though their bodies must be fed and protected. The masses respond by feeding and clothing the monks, so that the masses can hold themselves blameless according to their much lower spiritual standards.
The Great Tale
There are tantalizing hints here of an immense process that has us in its grip and is using us to bring about some alien finale. In evolutionary terms, we can look at the transition from animals to people as the opening of the moral and cognitive niches. Just as the sea-dwelling creatures which mutated and first colonized dry land, millions of years ago, might have felt existentially lost and free to develop a new way of life, with no one to guide them, the primates that mastered the use of tools to become members of Homo sapiens, the ever-flexible Lords of the Earth, earned for themselves the same bittersweet freedom. Instead of receiving guidance, mutants are faced with the threat of death from the indifferent environment, should they prove obtuse and unable to thrive. People are strangely mutated primates and our niches are invisible to the other species; even the unenlightened folks, whose eyes are only half open, as it were, don’t understand much of what occurs in our artificial worlds. Still, we thrive with imagination and technology, which we use to build those worlds to replace the wilderness we’ve largely left behind, and we excel also in the use of philosophical reason which lays bare the horrible facts of life.
It’s tempting to think of this turn of events teleologically, as the completion of some ordered pattern. Certainly, there’s no intelligent design in our evolution. Instead, there’s an accidental stumbling of hapless creatures that pass through a simulated search algorithm. The algorithm takes as input genetic and thus phenotypic variety and outputs the fitness between a type of creature and some environment, since the environment filters out the unfit types. And yet surely there’s some endpoint of this evolution of life, however unintended it might be. Here we confront the curious subject of naturalistic eschatology. Cosmologists, for example, speak of the absolute beginning and end of the universe. Depending on the strength of dark energy, the universe might tear itself apart or collapse on itself. Either way, the end looks disastrous for living things, in which case the story of the universe is a hauntingly alien one; in particular, we are not the protagonists.
My point, though, is that aesthetics doesn’t depend on theology. There are still atheistic stories to tell about patterns. Stories make sense as interpretations of sequences of events that have beginnings, middles, and endings. If the universe has an absolute beginning and an end, we will be attracted to fictions that make sense of that established order. And yet in biology, many species have no absolute end since they smoothly transition into mutated ones. In the Tree of Life, species branch out in a bush-like structure: some are dead ends, but others turn into further branches. By analogy, if you keep adding pebbles to form a heap, there’s no obvious point at which the heap is completed, so any story told about that tantalizingly incomplete process would be anticlimactic. This is to say there’s no real process there at all, no pattern but a constant deferral of the ending that would indicate the manifestation of some deeper order. It’s like a stage play that never ends, so that the curtains are never lowered and the critics never have the satisfaction of evaluating the work as a whole. When a famous author dies, critics get their knives out because the story of her body of work can then finally be told. But as long as the author keeps adding twists to the narrative of her life’s work, the whole can’t yet come fully into view.
We can assume that all life on Earth will perish in the distant future, which leaves us with the alienating narrative in which we’re extras rather than heroes. But what of the more specific story of animals that became people who cope with their freedom, succumbing to decadence or afflicting themselves with rational enlightenment? What’s really going on here in the big picture? What’s the best story to tell about this strange development? The evolutionary story is anticlimactic: there’s just another niche to explore, another sequence of genes to be expressed and submitted for the environment’s quasi-approval. Moreover, the all-encompassing evolutionary story is an oversimplification, because our freedom is unique. The animals that first crawled onto dry land had comparatively little self-control, since their original behaviour was just as genetically determined as the kind that enabled their ancestors to thrive underwater. Also, those animals lacked the cognitive capacity to explicitly mourn the loss of their ancestral way of life; likely, they felt no angst. As for the tale of our unique predicament, I’ve tried out several options. There’s the interpretation of humans as life’s executioners. There’s the scenario in which nature is re-enchanted thanks to our return to a mythopoeic mindset. There’s transhumanism and the technological singularity. And there’s the hope for a naturalistic postmodern religion which inspires us to rebel against nature as tragic heroes. Perhaps a combination of all of these and more would make for the most satisfying myth that tells our tale.