This image is a painting of the Delphic Sibyl from Greek mythology on the Sistine Chapel. She was the sister of Apollo who foretold the future to humanity. Chapter 10 of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society – How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (2020) foretells a second possible way decadence may end – not with our destruction but with a renewal, a revival of human morality, a reversal of the immoral aspects of our cultural, a better more true understanding of what it is to be human – a renaissance.
I’ve been a fan of The University of Notre Dame’s Patrick J. Deneen since I read his book Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontent (2016). We plunged into that here from 3/28/17 – 6/6/17 and his subsequent book Why Liberalism Failed (2018) from 2/13/18 – 4/24/18, dissecting the ideas in each chapter like I’m doing with Douthat’s book right now. You cannot have an intelligent conversation about the morality of our political economy without understanding Deneen’s work. Douthat quotes him at length in this chapter.
Something’s wrong with the world today and Deneen knows what it is. An immoral majority has embraced the wrong, corrupt concept of liberty (doing whatever you want) and rejected the correct, proper, ancient meaning of liberty (discipline, self-control, duty). Both political parties are wrong. Democrats want to constrain capital and labor markets and redistribute wealth but anything goes in your personal life. Republicans argue for family values and traditional mores but anything goes in business (caveat emptor! laissez faire!)
What’s wrong with the world today? Deneen writes: In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification… hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distractions, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society… no truly hard choices need be made. There are only different lifestyle options.
If enough people begin to understand this, it could lead to a renaissance, thus ending this decadent era of civilization.
Next week, we get to the final chapter on where decadence may lead – God.