Decadence and Diamonds
Decadence, in normal language, means “deterioration” or “decay.” (The Latin root suggests falling down and the French derivative form suggests decaying.) For a long time in English, the word has been used only about human behavior and social conditions. If we say someone is decadent, we are saying his way of life is deteriorating or wasteful, such as one who lives for luxury or ephemeral pleasure. When we say a society or culture is decadent, we are saying that the general atmosphere or attitudes of that society are becoming, or have become, immoral, self-destructive, or self-indulgent, as in a society that is obsessed with idols, drunken parties, or crowd-pleasing comforts and entertainments, rather than good education, rational restraint, and the quest for beauty and truth.
In the late nineteenth century, thanks to Nietzsche, the word “decadence” (which he used in its French form, décadence) was deepened in meaning, beyond the ordinary sense of living for pleasure and luxury. Nietzsche defined any idea, behavior, or social condition as decadent if it limited the development or growth of the person or society. According to his expanded understanding of decadence, then, even a religion, political theory, or psychological view could be decadent, if adhering to that belief would limit human development, i.e., keep us from “making ourselves stronger.”
For example, Nietzsche thought Christianity a decadent moral view, in part because it celebrates pity and weakness, and is thus responsible for the egalitarian spirit — the spirit of leveling and universal diminution — that plagues modernity, and in part because it directs us away from those struggles with the challenges of a limited earthly life that are the source of greatness, as we dream instead about the promise of an unlimited, strife-free afterlife. He thought socialism a decadent political theory — a symptom of civilizational decay — because it is the politics of morally sick individuals who see themselves as weak and ineffectual, and therefore concoct ego-saving theories of “injustice” which they use to rationalize their desire to restrict the lives and steal the property of others, as their only means of overcoming their own sense of powerlessness. And he thought nihilism the ultimate psychological expression of decadence, because believing there is no inherent meaning or point in living serves as an excuse (like self-pity) that people use to avoid the challenge of taking responsibility for their lives and embracing their fates.
It is also important to understand that Nietzsche was not just criticizing other people when he used the word “décadence” this way. He was also examining his own soul, and trying to overcome weaknesses that he found within himself. His famously overused and misunderstood dictum, “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” was partly a response to his own inner compulsion toward spiritual decadence (toward pity and compassion, for example), or rather a way of encapsulating his fight to overcome it. In this attitude, one sees why Nietzsche was an enthusiastic admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose own dispute with the modern decadence impulse may be found in statements such as, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” from his essay, “Circles.”
Whatever one finally thinks of Nietzsche’s framing of it, the concept of decadence is important, and a useful key to understanding the self-destructive tendencies of both the individual human soul and modern civilization. Every thoughtful person has some tendencies toward decadence in Nietzsche’s sense: self-pity, nihilistic retreat into either self-loathing or repetitive amusement as a means of avoiding the painful necessity of beneficial hardships, “depression” as an excuse for giving up. Fighting against this impulse in all its forms is part of what maturity means for the serious soul and the philosophic life.
When Nietzsche wrote his prose poem “The Hammer Speaks,” which begins thus —
‘Why so hard?’ the charcoal once said to the diamond; ‘for are we not close relations?’
Why so soft? O my brothers, thus I ask you: for are you not – my brothers?*
— he was partly talking to himself, challenging himself to be less decadent, to be harder, to be a diamond.
* From the conclusion of Twilight of the Idols, R. J. Hollingdale translation.