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Decadence (state of decline)

Decadence on a general level refers to the supposed decline of a society because of moral weakness. The favourite example of this is ancient Rome, where, the story has it, a great empire was laid low by wicked emperors like Nero. For the fin de siècle art movement with the same name, see here. On a personal level decadence refers to behaviour marked by unrestrained gratification and self-indulgence. [Jul 2006]

Related: Decadents (cultural movement) - morals - ruin - degeneracy

Key texts: The Legend of the Decadents (1927) - GL Van Roosbroeck - Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) - Camille Paglia

Contrast: progress

Romans in the Decadence of the Empire (1847) - Thomas Couture

Castle Montearagon, Spain

This beautiful ruin illustrates the condition of decline, which is the general meaning of the term decadence.

Frontispiece for 'Les Diaboliques' by Barbey d'Aurevilly painted by Félicien Rops in 1886

In fin de siécle Europe, the Decadents were a group of artists who took pride in being called "decadent" and adopted the term as the name of their movement. Oscar Wilde was the most prominent of them. He paid a high price for his "decadence" by being sent to jail for allegations of homosexuality.

La Grande Bouffe/Blow Out (1973) - Marco Ferreri [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

An example of 20th century decadence is La Grande Bouffe, an Italian film which scandalized audiences when it was released in 1973. Audiences were shocked by its tale of four world-weary middle-aged men who decide to gorge themselves to death in one final orgiastic weekend full of gourmet food, call girls and a hefty, lusty schoolteacher.


-- American Heritage Dictionary

Decadence generally refers to the supposed decline of a society because of moral weakness. The favourite example of this is ancient Rome, where, the story has it, a great empire was laid low by wicked emperors like Nero. However, the more dissolute emperors (Caligula, Nero, etc) ruled hundreds of years before the end of the empire.

In modern use, decadence is often defined as a decline in or loss of excellence, obstructing the pursuit of ideals. It is typified by the elevation of cleverness, education, and intellectual pretension over experience and tradition, and is often considered materialistic. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decadent [Mar 2006]

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) - Edward Gibbon

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a major literary achievement of Eighteenth Century, was written by the British historian, Edward Gibbon. Volume I was published in 1776, which went through five printings. This was a remarkable feat for its time. The second Volume was printed in 1781, and the final one in 1788. The original Volumes were not published together, but as quartos, a common publishing practice.

Often referred to as “the first modern historian,” Gibbon was a precursor for the more advanced methodologies of 19th and 20th century historians regarding his objectivity and accuracy in the use of reference material. His pessimism and detached use of irony is a common genre of his age. While not his only published book, Gibbon devoted the greater part of his life to this one work. Even his Autobiography Memoirs of My Life and Writings is devoted for the most part to his reflections on how the writing of the book consumed his entire life. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_the_Decline_and_Fall_of_the_Roman_Empire [Jan 2005]

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life - Jacques Barzun

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life - Jacques Barzun [Amazon.com]
In the last half-millennium, as the noted cultural critic and historian Jacques Barzun observes, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change--for instance, the remaking of the commercial and social worlds wrought by the rise of Protestantism and by the decline of hereditary monarchies. And each, Barzun hints, is too little studied or appreciated today, in a time he does not hesitate to label as decadent. --Gregory McNamee [...]

The Idea of Decline in Western History - Arthur Herman

The Idea of Decline in Western History - Arthur Herman [Amazon.com]
In this ambitious and eminently relevant work of popular intellectual history, Arthur Herman, the coordinator of the Western civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, makes a broad survey of the literature of cultural decline and a scatter-shot retort to the purveyors of doom and gloom. Herman attempts to right the balance unset by panicky prognosticators who either decry the defeat of Western values or herald the bankruptcy of Enlightenment idealism, despite the unparalleled worldwide ascendance of market economics, universal human rights, and representational, constitutional government. Herman is at his best when making erudite replies to today's ill-informed peddlers of doom and gloom. But when he starts attempting to trace the history of "declinism," to philosophers from Frederick Neitzche to Martin Heidegger, and writers from Henry Adams to Robert Bly, his accusations often fall wide of the intended mark. His assaults on Jean Jacques Rousseau and W.E.B. DuBois will appear particularly unfair to those familiar with the works of these men, though readers who trust in Herman's abbreviated accounts of their thinking will be unknowingly misled. The "Great Ideas" framework Herman defends in the pages of this book ought to prize the close reading of important texts as much as it seeks to protect a sacrosanct canon or a static notion of prized ideals. Great ideas after all stand up to close attention. Herman's book conveys a confidence in the values of the Western tradition, but in making its argument, it inspires a casual disrespect from the works of other arguably great thinkers and artists based on Herman's swift survey--a dubious achievement and troublesome side effect of this challenging book. --amazon.com editorial

Arthur Herman is a conservative American historian of Anglo-American history. He often writes for the National Review. He is currently a professor at George Mason University. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Herman [May 2006]

The Decline of the West (1918-1923) - Oswald Spengler

The Decline of the West (1918-1923) - Oswald Spengler [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Book Description
Since its first publication in two volumes between 1918-1923, The Decline of the West has ranked as one of the most widely read and most talked about books of our time. In all its various editions, it has sold nearly 100,000 copies. A twentieth-century Cassandra, Oswald Spengler thoroughly probed the origin and "fate" of our civilization, and the result can be (and has been) read as a prophesy of the Nazi regime. His challenging views have led to harsh criticism over the years, but the knowledge and eloquence that went into his sweeping study of Western culture have kept The Decline of the West alive. As the face of Germany and Europe as a whole continues to change each day, The Decline of the West cannot be ignored.

The abridgment, prepared by the German scholar Helmut Werner, with the blessing of the Spengler estate, consists of selections from the original (translated into English by Charles Francis Atkinson) linked by explanatory passages which have been put into English by Arthur Helps. H. Stuart Hughes has written a new introduction for this edition.

In this engrossing and highly controversial philosophy of history, Spengler describes how we have entered into a centuries-long "world-historical" phase comparable to late antiquity. Guided by the philosophies of Goethe and Nietzsche, he rejects linear progression, and instead presents a world view based on the cyclical rise and decline of civilizations. He argues that a culture blossoms from the soil of a definable landscape and dies when it has exhausted all of its possibilities.

Despite Spengler's reputation today as an extreme pessimist, The Decline of the West remains essential reading for anyone interested in the history of civilization. --via Amazon.com

The Decline of the West (German: Der Untergang des Abendlandes) is a two-volume work by Oswald Spengler, the first volume of which was published in the summer of 1918. Spengler revised this volume in 1922 and published the second volume, subtitled Perspectives of World History, in 1923.

The book includes the idea of the Islamics being Magian, Greeks being Apollinian, and the Westerners being Faustian, and according to its theories we are now living in the winter time of the Faustian civilization. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Decline_of_the_West [Jun 2005]

In 1950, Theodor W. Adorno published an essay entitled "Spengler after the Downfall" (in German: Spengler nach dem Untergang) to commemorate what would have been Oswald Spengler's 70th birthday. Adorno reassessed Spengler's thesis three decades after it had been put forth, in light of the catastrophic collapse of Nazi Germany (although Spengler had not meant "Untergang" in a cataclysmic sense, this was how most authors after WWII interpreted it). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Decline_of_the_West#Criticisms [Jun 2005]

see also: civilization - culture - decline - West - pessimism

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