The Philosophy Café


"What Is Decadence and How Can It Be Recognized?"


October 19, 2011
7:30 PM ET


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7:30-9:30 pm, in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

Topic of Discussion for October:

Do societies, nations, and civilizations contain the seeds of their own decline? It is widely accepted that the fall of Rome was due more to internal degeneration of its institutions than to the martial proclivities of its surrounding enemies. Spengler, an early twentieth century writer sounding the alarm of what seemed to him as the West's inevitable  demise, likened societies to people having a definite lifespan with a birth, periods of growth and development, ultimately ending in senescence and death.

In our own time many believe that America has lost its vitality and is now starting on the process of decline. To many the rise of social inequality and fraying of the social safety net, the decline of American industry and economic dominance, coupled with the recent rapid ascendancy of newly-powerful competitors like China and India seem to confirm these assessments.

The Phoenix Effect

Others claim that decline is in the eyes of the beholder and that societies simply transform. While these transformations may not suit everyone, they are far from being disasters. Recent examples like the UK after the dissolution of the British Empire or Russia after its loss of Eastern Europe point to the possibility that life after a dreaded fall may even be better than it was before it.  I am reminded of the 70s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers inwhich the ultimate happens -- aliens totally replace humans. And yet the film ends to the strains of Amazing Grace playing over the credits saying, seemingly, that even the most dire calamity may just be another new beginning.

Signs of Decadence

So are there objective criteria by which decadence can be recognized? Here are some ideas to consider.

1.      Form becomes more important than function.
Wikipedia describes a 19th century dandy a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self.

2.      True goals are subverted by proxy goals. 
For example, are a dominant world position consumerism and more jobs what we really want?

3.      Unproductive behavior is better rewarded than productive behavior.
Graft, for instance, rewards graft-takers for making bad decisions.

4.      Parochial interests trump the general interest.
Oscar Wilde's definition: "Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts." The domination of NIMBY in public policy is an example.

5.      Normal feed back mechanisms and restraints cease functioning.
For example economic bubbles arise when prices are bid up to levels higher than intrinsic values on the expectation that there will always be someone willing to bid even higher.

6.      Gridlock.
Disagreement on goals can lead to paralysis. But what causes such profound disagreements?

7.      Ecological Factors:
To what extent is exhaustion of resources a factor?


1.      Wikipedia: Decadence.

2.      Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Philosophy of History.

3.      Wikipedia: Gibbons Decline and Fall of Rome.

4.      Summary of Spengler's theory on the development and fall of civilizations:

5.      Review of Thomas Friedman's and Michael Mandelbaum's That Used to Be Us:

6.      Review of Jared Diamond's Collapse:

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

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