We’re living in an age of progress, right? This is a baseline assumption for many of us, but New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests that we’re actually living in an age of decadence.
He’s not talking about chocolate covered strawberries and sex; that’s just surface-level decadence. The deeper meaning of the word, Douthat says, has more to do with stagnation, decay, and exhaustion, all happening “at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” Decadence is always a result of previous success – and that explains a lot:
A society that generates a lot of bad movies need not be decadent; a society that makes the same movies over and over again might be. A society run by the cruel and arrogant might not be decadent; a society where even the wise and good can’t legislate might be. A crime-ridden society isn’t necessarily decadent; a peaceable, aging, childless society beset by flares of nihilistic violence looks closer to our definition.
Douthat’s new book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is full of clarifying insight. Pick it up for (among other things) the best explanation I've seen for why movies are so exhausting these days.
You can read the core argument over at the Times(with the Fyre Festival and Uber marshaled as prime illustrations of decadence) or listen to an engaging discussion between Douthat and Al Mohler over at Thinking in Public.