Volume 4 Number 11
At a Time of Decadence
01 December 1991

Decadence means `falling away' from previously accepted norms and standards. But if the falling away takes place only in some areas, while there are new, creative developments in others, can we blanket the whole epoch as decadent?

We can assert with some confidence that ours is a period of decline,' wrote TS Eliot in 1948, `that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.' And his was by no means the first voice to say that decadence in Europe had begun.

When I began writing about decadence a few years ago my approach came as a result of going through some family papers. Among them I found a lecture, printed in 1882, by Bernard Bosanquet entitled Some thoughts on the Transition from Paganism to Christianity. Bosanquet and my grandfather Charles Loch had been undergraduates together at Balliol College, Oxford, in the 1870s. They became lifelong friends, and Bosanquet had evidently given him his paper.

Bosanquet was eventually acclaimed, in the words of The Times, London, as `the most representative English philosopher of his generation'. In his paper he presented the Greco-Roman world in decay, yet producing new philosophies and religions and new forms of art, architecture and literature, which blossomed in the civilizations of Byzantium and the Medieval West. Now, he opined, we are at a stage when similar processes are at work.

Decadence means `falling away' from previously accepted norms and standards. But if the falling away takes place only in some areas, while there are new, creative developments in others, can we blanket the whole epoch as decadent? In any case, decadence denotes one aspect of transition - because new developments are always taking place which may blossom into another `great age' of the particular society, or into one or more new civilizations.

But the decadence in which we now find ourselves may herald something more than the birth of a new civilization - assuming we do not blow ourselves up or totally degrade our habitat before that can happen. It may be more like the turning of a page of history such as occurred when the first civilizations appeared.

The new factors of industrial and technological development make possible as never before an age of either abundance or destruction, together with the `one world' of speedy travel and instant communication. This suggests that any successor to civilization `as we know it' would have to be in many ways unlike all those that have gone before.

More than a renaissance, it would be a revolution in human living, comparable to that which came about some 7,000 years ago when homo sapiens began to plant seeds and settle down, abandoning his hitherto largely nomadic life of hunting, food-gathering and fishing.

Civilization is now global in extent, involving close and sensitive relationships among a large variety of races and ethnic groups worldwide. But human nature has not obviously changed. There are still the aggressive, self-regarding instincts inherited from our remote ancestors, as well as the gregarious, caring and cooperative impulses.

To expect human nature to change in face of the threat to human existence may be visionary but, without change in the motivations and character of those in a position to influence events, the future looks gloomy indeed.

How to bring about this change? Laurens van der Post speaks of `the main thrust towards the creation of a new kind of individual' - listening to an inner voice and absolute obedience to this, he says, sometimes brings `a feeling of happiness almost too keen to endure'.

The inner voice? Conscience? God? With absolute standards as the touchstones, truth is revealed in silence: the answer to the lies and unreality on which so much that is warped in human society is based. `The inhuman power of the lie', as Pasternak calls it, is not confined to the Russia which he depicts.

A great French spiritual leader of the last century, Alphonse Gratry, advised that the early morning was the best time to set aside for quiet, then - vanquishing `the inner talkativeness of empty thoughts, of restless desires and entrenched prejudices' - to take pen and `write for God and yourself.... When the soul meditates quietly and hears something from God, peace and joy flood in.'

If we do this we begin to find that we are taking part in a strategy for our lives that can bring the same experience to others. But there is also a strategy which transcends the scale on which individuals live. Events unexpectedly occur which can only be seen as part of a vast movement in history - like those which, at the deepest crisis of the Greco-Roman decadence, renewed life and hope, as saviours, both spiritual and political, appeared.

Today the reinforcement of the spiritual upsurge is coming from Russia and Central Europe, where the blood of the martyrs and the sufferings of the churches have produced a new generation of militant, self-sacrificing Christians. One of the unexpected events of history has been the election of a Polish Pope - a Pope who may be the forerunner of leaders from the East, ready to join with all those from every land who have stood out against egotism, lustfulness and the competitive pursuit of power and money.

A superficial view over the shifting landmarks of our day will not reward the observer. Only those of fine perception could see in Roman times the growth of a new spirit which could revolutionize the world. In ancient days the issues were not so clear, but we have the lessons of history before us: we have eyes to see and an urgent choice to make.

RC Mowat is an Oxford historian. His latest book, `Decline and Renewal: Europe Ancient and Modern', was published in November by New Cherwell Press.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0