The wealthy West is often accused by poorer nations
- and many of its own people - of decadence. Its root-and-branch decay
will one day bring about its downfall, it is said. Here Rick
and Mick debate whether or not there is any
justice in this accusation.
Rick: Fifty years ago my alma mater offered a semester course
in philosophy entitled, The Disintegrating Sensate Society.
Discussion developed around an analysis of a number of books including Darkness
at Noon by Arthur Koestler and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man by James Joyce. The thesis was developed that Western society was in
decline because of an obsession with materialism in all its manifestations.
About a year ago I chanced to meet the professor again who taught the
course. I asked him if his predictions had come true or were about to come
true. He said unequivocally, "Yes." Since he instigated the course
one might question his objectivity. Nonetheless, his ideas reflect a
widely-held view that the West, child of the Enlightenment, is indeed in a
state of decadence.
Empires, nations, tribes and societies decline for many reasons that are
often difficult to pinpoint. In other cases, from an historical perspective,
the seeds of decadence are apparent such as demographics, economic failure,
over-population, inadequate food supplies, invading hordes, pestilence,
incompetent governance, corruption and the like.
Often the reasons for decline are not apparent to the leaders of a
particular society or group and, therefore, no corrective measures are or
can be taken. Mick, my questions are: Do you agree that Western society is
decadent? If so, what are the chief factors responsible for the decline? Is
materialism one? What if anything can be done to ameliorate the decay?
Mick: I find myself hesitating in response to your questions.
I'll try to explain why. When I was a boy, Euro-Africans in Southern Africa
almost always employed servants. They had the comparative wealth to do so.
A man servant who once worked for my family came from Malawi. He had
migrated 600 kilometres south to earn a few dollars a day. This was better
than a few dollars a month at home. Like most of his race and time, he had
no shoes. As a result his feet were heavily calloused - but not enough to
resist the sharpest thorns. I recall one day watching him digging just such
a thorn out of his foot with considerable discomfort. The next payday he
appeared with new sandals, fashioned out of a discarded motor car tyre by a
The point I'm making is that the poor of the world today would give their
back teeth to become "decadent" and "materialistic" like
the West. What poverty-stricken nation or group would not, I wonder? Perhaps
we should acknowledge that our Western society is just plain successful.
Rick: Your point is well taken. Poverty must be an awful
thing. Since it was my good fortune to be born at a certain time and certain
place I have never known poverty and deprivation. Hence, I can understand it
only in the abstract. When a person is starving or has no shelter, he or she
is not interested in philosophic discussions. Materialism looks pretty good
to any in such situations.
How do societies or individuals extricate themselves from poverty? Can or
should they themselves be the main engines of their release? Or must aid
come from societies that have material wealth? These are age old questions
without pat answers. If the wealthy Western materialist societies are to be
of assistance, they must have strength and solvency. This brings us back to
the original question about a decadent West.
You are right in saying that Western society has been successful. I doubt
there have been any societies in history that have provided more people with
material well being. You may not agree that there is any evidence of
decadence at all.
I have made a list of what I believe may serve as criteria or tests for
decadence in civil society.
- Instability of the family.
- Rising crime
- Decline of the arts and cultural institutions
- Public moral apathy
- Public and private gluttony, over-consumption and depletion of natural
- Economic instability with unsustainable private and public debt
I am sure others could be listed. From my perspective I see evidence for
decadence in all of the categories. Maybe I am naÔve and should know better
that there have been cycles in human society when all of the above and more
were rampaging about. Yet humankind seems to have a resilience to survive
the worst calamities. Maybe the forces of entropy that periodically dissolve
societies are too strong to influence. What do you think?
Mick: "Things ain't what they used to be," is a
common refrain of ancient codgers like us. I remind myself that my parents
were brought up nearly a century ago, and I was formed in the 1940s and
1950s. So I mustn't be surprised if I find some aspects of life either
unfamiliar or downright unpleasant in this time of rapid change.
What I'm trying to say is that decadence may be a matter of perspective.
This is not to deny that decadence is possible, nor that Western cultures
are to a degree decadent. But isn't it possible that the instances you list
are symptoms and not the illness?
If I try to identify an underlying malady, it may be that Western
decadence is symptomatic of a failure to change. A society (or a Church)
which responds incorrectly to a changed environment tends to lose its
mettle. The Hebrew Bible is full of stories about God's people failing to
hear and heed God's messages. The prophets proclaimed this failure and
called for changed behaviours.
So rather than ask, "Are we decadent?" I prefer to wonder,
"What part of God's message are we refusing to respond to?"
Rick: Indeed, my six points represent symptoms. A physician
constructs what is called a differential diagnosis based on symptoms and
signs observed. Ultimately and hopefully, this will lead to a diagnosis of a
specific disease. This is very important so that a specific treatment can be
applied. I frequently gave non-specific or "symptomatic" treatment
to make a patient more comfortable. I never felt entirely comfortable doing
this until I made a specific diagnosis because I knew the underlying disease
was not being treated.
Perhaps the most important point in the diagnostic algorithm is
elucidation of the cause. Unfortunately, many diseases continue to be
"idiopathic" or of unknown cause making specific treatment
impossible. Most cancers fall into this category
Continuing with the medical metaphor and the case at hand, our patient is
civil society (humankind). The diagnosis is decadence. What is the
cause? You have suggested it may be due to a failure to respond
appropriately to a changed environment. In addition you have postulated a
failure of response to "Godís message," as a possible cause.
Can you elaborate on the failures of adapting to change? Moreover,
explain how can one who does not believe in a non-material reality, invoke
the precepts of God?
Mick: Again, response is not easy because it involves treading
a tightrope over an abyss. Below are the sharp rocks of Church prohibitions
about heresy, and around them boil fierce currents of censure.
First, you are right to talk of "precepts" - that is, of
commands or principles governing action. Second, a precept by definition
derives from an authority. But what authority gives us our precepts, and
I'm saying that we have two basic choices. We can suppose that our
universe is an "accident", the outcome of fortuitous
circumstances. Or we can suppose that it is purposeful and therefore derives
from someone (to use a metaphor).
I prefer the latter. It might be said that I have bet my life's shirt on
the universe as a purposeful creation rather than a happenstance.
But I think that the creation is itself the message. The cause of a
cancer may be unknown, but I have faith that a cause exists. That's the way
the world works. That's the creator's message. So the symptoms we call
"decay-dence" are God's wake-up call. "Change! Or you will
self-destruct. That's how my world works."
Rick: We are in agreement in that we choose to believe the
universe is creation rather than happenstance. We can't prove the proposition
but we intuit it. This belief provides a basis for understanding how the world
This discussion centers on morality. I would like to paraphrase a biblical
If we say we have no moral imperfections we deceive ourselves and the truth
is not in us.
Consciousness imposes morality on humankind. Animals create no offenses among
themselves because I doubt they are able to reflect on their actions.
If there is no awareness there is no offense. Decadence is meaningful only to
conscious humankind. There are those who are aware of their offenses but do not
care and are morally numb. Others perceive and accept the reality of their
shortcomings and make efforts to redress the wrong. Yet others never become
aware of their moral failure and though they cause offense no redress is
Thus, I see consciousness as the root of decadence. But, if there is any hope
of achieving a morally perfect world it will be consciousness that enables us to
find the way. It is a two-edged sword. Until the perfect world is realized there
will be ebbs and flows, successes and failures as is well documented in human
history. Due to our fundamental natures, success may never be reached. In the
meantime we must live in the world as it is and attempt to make the best
For some, Jesus of Nazareth provides the road map and heightens our moral
acuity. For others, Jesus the Christ is the guide. Do you think the distinction
between the Nazarene and the Christ is of any consequence?
Mick: I think you're correct about human capacity for
self-reflection being at the root of all morality. The existence of a
self-reflective being creates a moral imperative.
Working out "the best accommodation possible" at the social level
has proved to be a long process so far. Witness the many and varied attempts
over the ages. Witness also the struggles of each of us to work out our best
accommodation in daily life.
I take it you are wondering if I think that Jesus laid down imperatives for
us. There are two parts to my tentative response.
First, I think we now know more about the Jesus of history than anyone before
us except those who knew him personally.
Second, another response is to accept the Church's vision of Jesus as the
Messiah ("Christ" in Greek). But if I do that, I have to also buy into
a pre-modern world-view, upon which all traditional teachings depend.
I choose the first option. If I perceive Jesus as my forerunner in history,
then I can affirm in my life the paths he took. I do that by making my own
paths, in my own way, just as settlers create new cultures from the foundations
laid by their pioneers.
The history of Jesus contains the seeds of the good life. The world is much
more than just those seeds. But the whole fails to attain its potential without
I suppose my thesis is that decadence inevitably results if we don't carry
forward what Jesus gave us about the way God does things - which the gospels
term "the kingdom of God".