Douthat’s Decadence

A book review.

A sign of our society’s decadence — one that, ironically, the author fails to mention — are non-fiction books that should be a third as long as they end up, but are inflated to hundreds of pages, so they can be published in the first place. Though Russ Douthat’s new book is an easy and engaging read, it nevertheless suffers from this malaise. But of that later. First the good.

The author starts out well, with a compelling definition, and a strong argument for why we should not be indifferent. Indeed, he is good at capturing the usual and unusual suspects for western society’s malaise, and giving background and context. 

For the reader more acquainted with the subject matter, however, red flags will soon crop up. The first point of foreboding is that Doudath cites very little, going mostly with his own intuitions. This would be forgivable were the concept of decadence not with us since the Roman empire. For this subject matter, however, not exploring the thoughts of previous luminaries can and should be interpreted as either a sign of the author’s lack of modesty, or the lack of really deep, scholarly exploration of the subject matter. But OK, this is just a symptom, after all, Nietzsche also didn’t quote much. So what about the thoughts themselves?

My main criticism of the work is that as Douthat explores causes of our decadence, he mixes two very different types of drivers: those that would indeed be avoidable, and those that he himself see as unavoidable consequences of a peaceful and affluent society. In my opinion, these two aspects should be strictly separated. Most would argue that being peaceful, affluent, and advanced to a degree where technological progress is no longer exponential is not a bad thing; there seems little practical use in agonizing, or even moralizing about things that, like gravity, are essentially unavoidable (things would be a bit different if Douthat would claim that decadence caused the technological slowdown, but he never does). 

This delving and picking apart, however, never happens in the book, which makes it more a descriptive pile-on than a surgical exploration; one gets a potpourri of various symptoms, but no taxonomy or ranking of causes.

A second problem is that though the author is a religious man, like many of his contemporaries, he is surprisingly materialistic.  Telling is how he sees the moon landing as the last achievement of a non-decandent society. This point of view can definitely be challenged. Was landing on a dusty, infertile celestial body not instead the pinnacle of decadence, because it was ultimately nihilistic? Indeed, the topic of space exploration is touched on a second time, in the final, rambling chapters (which add those 100+ unnecessary pages, replete with unconvincing forecasts and — in my opinion — a terrible final sentence), where intergalactic space travel is held up as a possible exit from decadence. But to put it succinctly, if we are decadent on Earth, why on earth would we not be decadent on Mars? (To be fair to the author, he notes this quandary, but leaves it unexplored).

Finally, the book leaves unexplored the most exciting question: any leader who is to lead us out of decadence will have to espouse non-decadent values. But what are these, especially on the personal level? The author provides no clear, workable answers. Even on societal level, he neither explores some obvious leads (i.e. the role of capitalism in shaping his symptoms of decadence), nor does he provide any convincing idea of how a post-modern, non-decadent, non-totalitarian society would look like.

Overall, then, your assessment of this book will depend on what you are looking for: if you want a well written summary of the various ills plaguing our society — not necessarily the causes of decadence, but the symptoms — then this book gets 5 stars (and do not underestimate the value of such a summary). If you want a deep, creative exploration of the root causes, and an exploration of convincing avenues of escape, be it personal or societal — then you will not be satiated.