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From Dawn to Decadence

The symptoms of decadence result from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, and individualism

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“History is the product of individual initiative aided or stymied by chance,” says noted historian, scholar and author Jacque Barzun in his classic book, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. “Above all it is concrete and particular, not general and abstract.”

Here are my notes and excerpts from this monumental work:

History is not, as one wag put it, simply “one damn thing after another.” There are patterns to be observed and docketed even if they can never be entirely plumbed. Movements in art or thought, Barzun observes, gain influence at the cost of variety.

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Cultural Nonsense, Moral Confusion

“Age of…” is a favorite shorthand of historians: the Age of Reason, the Age of Faith, the Age of Science, the Age of Anxiety. Such phrases are probably indispensable; they are also, Mr. Barzun observes, “always a misnomer, except perhaps, “An Age of Troubles” which fits every age in varying degrees.”

Barzun is convinced that our age, despite its vast technological capabilities, is a time of cultural nonsense, depleted energies, and moral confusion. Amen.

Barzun use “man” to refer to all of humanity, primarily, he tells us, for four reasons: “etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of ‘man and woman,’ and literary tradition.”

“Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable.”

The Test of the West

The picture of the West promulgated by its enemies, as “a solid block having but one meaning” cannot survive scrutiny. It is central to Mr. Barzun’s task to show that the West has in fact been “an endless series of opposites — in religion, politics, art, morals, manners.”

The West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had becomes exhausted by the end of the twentieth century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda but an expandable list of desires, particular forms of which can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era.

The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that Emancipation is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the women’s suffrage movement.

“Victory brings on imitation and ultimately boredom,” a most underrated catalyst of historical change. It is part of an historian’s task to discern continuities in what had appeared to be random; it is also part of his task to recognize the limits of those continuities.

Decadence and Revolution

Decadence “is not a slur; it is a technical label.” The sources of decadence are many and varied. Decadence has triumphed in various facets of modern life.

Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal. In keeping with the rest of the excitement, buildings are defaced, images destroyed, shops looted.

Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, priests marrying, and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once — all of these are postulated as contributing to a new and blissful life on earth…

Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families.

Angst and Anguish

Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea.

Even the terrorist who drives a car filled with dynamite toward a building in some hated nation is part of what he would destroy: his weapon is the work of Alfred Nobel and the inventors of the internal combustion engine. His very cause has been argued for him by such proponents of national self-determination.

“How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event-tidal wave from a ripple, is cause for endless astonishment.”

This evocation describes many revolutionary periods. The term “decadent” can properly be used where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means.

Labyrinthine in Nature

Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people seek to create small accommodations within a larger unsatisfactory context.

Decadence is not a neutral historical fact, it is a cultural, moral, and political disaster of the first order. The symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on.

What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Ridicule, denial, anti-art sensory simplicity mean that culture and society are in the decadent phase.

Art and Excellence

Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the public cry for excellence. At the same time, society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism.

The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interest of “the free market of ideas.”

The confusion generated by such contradictions attends every aspect of cultural endeavor. In the arts, it leads to the rise of anti-art. The transformation of art into anti-art could not have succeeded on it own. It required the collusion of institutions that certify artistic achievement as well as audience whose interest ultimately sustains it.

If a new work or style was not easy to like, if it was painful to behold, revolting, even it was nonetheless ‘interesting.’ “Art is what you can get away with” …Andy Warhol, 1987.

How Decadence Comes To Be

“When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” Futility and absurdity only seem normal to a damaged sensibility. That damage has been wrought by a progressive loss of resistance to humbug. One then becomes susceptible to all manner of cultural viruses.

This lowered resistance has affected connoisseurs, critics, and teachers. It has also affected the public at large, whose healthy rejection of absurdity one used to be able to count on. No more.

The questions with which intellectual history confronts us can be parsed as elements of that large, perennial question, “How should I live my life?”

The stolid bourgeois used to aid culture by resisting it; by the late twentieth century, he had been transformed into a “docile consumer” for whom the avant-garde achieves “the status of a holy synod.”

The Great Switchover

The realms of social relations and politics are equally beset by confusion. One result is the “Great Switch,” “the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.”

If Liberalism originally “triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least,” today “for all the western nations political wisdom has recast the ideal of liberty into liberality.”

The universalization and extension of the welfare state has nurtured a culture of entitlement. What began in an access of largess ends in an explosion of regulation and hectoring scrutiny.

Motives that had once encouraged unity and social comity such as emancipation and  self-consciousness, now act as centrifugal forces: forces of decadence.

Decadence vs Progress

As Oswald Spengler said in 1918, “One day, the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be, though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes may remain, because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message” will be gone.

Sooner or later, some few intrepid souls will turn with new curiosity to the neglected past and use it “to create a new present,” discovering along the way “what a joy it is to be alive.”

The forces of decadence are formidably potent. But decadence is no more inevitable than progress. Myopia is perennial, despair a temptation to be resisted. One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies.

Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, we hope, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what joy it is to be alive.

A Cheerful Explanation

The one thing that I think you can say about From Dawn to Decadence is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to encounter as to why Western culture is ending.

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Jeff Davidson is the world's only holder of the title "The Work-Life Balance Expert®" as awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is the premier thought leader on work-life balance, integration, and harmony. Jeff speaks to organizations that seek to enhance their overall productivity by improving the effectiveness of their people. He is the author of Breathing Space, Simpler Living, Dial it Down, and Everyday Project Management. Visit www.BreathingSpace.com for more information on Jeff's keynote speeches and seminars, including: Managing the Pace with Grace® * Achieving Work-Life Balance™ * Managing Information and Communication Overload®



 
 
 

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Family

Contemporary America: A Nation of Bottom Feeders

Have we reached the low point of Western culture and crass commercialism? Regrettably, no.

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Heading into 2023, could one say that society is becoming more genteel? Events of at least the last 20 years, up to the present, indicate otherwise.

In 2004, Janet Jackson’s pre-meditated breast-baring act during the Superbowl half-time show became part of a long line of publicity stunts at the cost of broadcast decency. Her music videos had already bordered on pornography: diverse crowds of young men and women on a dance floor contorting in orgasmic fashion, making gestures that seemingly worship each other’s genitals.

Always on the lewd side, with an audience in the hundreds of millions, on that Superbowl Sunday, she couldn’t resist doing what she does best! However, she was not alone: Two to three decades ago programming standards fell off a cliff.

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The rapper Eminem won three Grammys for his CD the Marshal Mathers LP, which was laced with misogynistic and gay-bashing language. He narrowly missed out on the coveted “best album of the year award.” It gets worst from there.

The television show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? was quickly scrapped by television executives when it turned out that the first “millionaire” offered to a throng of willing females was not a millionaire at all, had been hit with restraining orders by previous girlfriends and had fudged other aspects of his background.

A photograph depicting Jesus Christ as a nude black woman surrounded by 12 black apostles was put on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001. The museum received an annual subsidy of $7.2 million from New York City. This incident followed the museum’s 1999 “sensation” show that depicted the Virgin Mary smothered in elephant dung.

A Shameful Commentary on Our Society

Enter the hit TV show Survivor. Reduced to its most base elements, contestants win prize money for their success at manipulation and backstabbing. If the human race had developed along these lines, the world population would be less than 1,000, war would be eminent every time people encountered each other, and virtually none of us would be here today.

“Reality-based” television programming could have taken a different turn. People could have been rewarded for being cooperative: The composition of participants could have mirrored that of early bands of human, with a mix of ages and capabilities, seeking to make their way in the wilderness.

Prizes could have been awarded for having everyone in the tribe successfully complete some mission together — people could have been rewarded for being cooperative. Tribe members could have been praised for cross-training one another, for ensuring that no one slips through the cracks, and certainly for not voting people off of an island. Oh, well…

Exploitation for Profit, Pure and Simple

In 2001, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died of massive head injuries on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Days after the race, his widow, who shunned publicity was forced to make a statement. Volusia County, Florida was about the release the medical examiner’s autopsy photos of Earnhardt, presumably to fulfill the public’s “right” to view “gore.” The gesture came following an Orlando Sentinel reporter’s public request for the photos.

“This is the first time I have spoken in public since we have lost Dale,” said Teresa Earnhardt reading from a prepared statement. “I am not comfortable being here, but this issue is of vital importance — not just to my family — but to anyone ever faced with being exploited after losing a loved one.”

Along with her son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., she pleaded for those who feel as “strongly as we do, to let your voices be heard.” In response, the Orlando Sentinel said that they had “no real intention” of publishing the photos. They merely wanted them so that a head trauma expert could make an “independent determination.” Yeah, and fat chance the photos wouldn’t end up spreading like wildfire on the early internet.

Not Yet at the Bottom

In 20+ years, have we reached the low point of Western culture and crass commercialism? Regrettably, no. We’re about to sink lower. The notion that “everything is art,” or that drag queens should indoctrinate school children is ludicrous. Still, we have yet to witness how low American society can go in terms of displaying vulgarity, crudeness, disrespect, and abandonment of reasonable standards, while, in many quarters, having the temerity to call garbage “art,” “newsworthy,” “the public’s right to know,” and “appropriate entertainment.”

With the Left calling the shots, no area of culture is likely to be spared, including politics, religion, science, education, health care, and media. How far are the exploiters of popular culture willing to go in the name of profit or for a warped political agenda? Further than you can imagine.

What more will they do to garner attention, notoriety, and, in this day and age, celebrity? Filmed visits to nudist colonies? Judging the best nude body on the beach? Pornographic sculpture in public display? Rock music videos with staged copulation sequences? Live, televised death in the heat of some extreme sports contest? Some network executives are drooling for it.

A live shooting massacre captured on video as the mayhem unfolds? Reality TV hosts bitterly accosting show participants before banishing them to “off air” land? Coveting interviews with serial killers, unabombers, and masters of mayhem? Child molesters, spouse beaters, and incest perpetrators offering real-time, live Webcasts?

Elsewhere is often no better. An Israeli state television news program broadcasted a home video of a man beating a woman. The attacker, who also allegedly raped the woman, filmed the assault himself. Israel’s Channel One news department defended its decision to air the rape tape. They did so to “help inform viewers about violence against women.” Station management also noted that faces were blocked out for the broadcast. How thoughtful.

Lowbrow Escalated with FCC Deregulation

Deregulation is not a random act of a handful of devious people, it is a major movement. Indeed, deregulation in and of itself is a fine principle in theory. Milton Friedman, in his landmark book Freedom to Choose, eloquently argued that by keeping markets unrestricted, competition would flourish and the ultimate benefit would be the consumer or end-user.

His theory works well for a variety of consumer goods. However, all of American society and, by relation, societies around the world have suffered. When it comes to entertainment, movies, television, the web, CDs, and video games in particular, the lack of effective government controls wreaks havoc on society.

Cornell West, Ph.D. and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in their classic book The War Against Parents, pointed out that in the early 1980’s the FCC relaxed its standards related to the use of violence, profanity, and adult situations on television. This was all done in the name of opening up broadcast competition. Unfortunately, we got what you see today: wave after wave of communications whose main purpose is to increasingly push the sordid, content envelope.

Powerful media and entertainment moguls use deregulation to exploit the public in many ways, all in the name of profit or a political agenda, and often for both.

Unintended Consequences

A reduction of restrictions on programming and on entertainment content does not result in greater competition, more variety in choices, or, for that matter, higher quality output. The harsh reality has been the opposite. Deregulation, in terms of content, has paved the way for less appealing parts of society to be showcased in the arts and entertainment arena.

Movies are a highly visible example of entertainment that perpetually is strewn with product placements — even to this day regarding cigarettes and alcohol. Often these products are endorsed in movies whose target audience is too young to discern their appropriateness. As such, the movie rating system, while relatively noble in spirit, does nothing to assure a parent of what his or her child will or will not see.

When my daughter was young, I selected movies for her produced before 1970, and certainly before 1960. Considering sex, violence, and language, I knew that I could allow her to watch such films with little supervision and not have to worry. For movies produced after 1980, I felt compelled to sit with her the entire time, to monitor and explain the variety of sights and sounds she was likely to encounter. Movies produced after 1990, and certainly after 2000? Forget about it.

I would sit with my finger on the fast-forward button, ready to shield her relatively innocent eyes and ears from what Hollywood has foisted upon society:

* Violent treatment of one person from another.
* Language that allegedly “spices up” but simply isn’t necessary in a movie.
* Gross distortions of everyday life.
* Glorification of the absurd, the illicit, the illegal, the deviant, or the macabre.

No Way Out

Movies which ostensibly produced for the children’s market border on the lewd. The “penis breath” dialogue in the widely-circulated, original version of ET, under the careful direction of no less than Steven Spielberg, remains, to this day inexcusable. In “R” rated movies, for example, which young teenagers see eventually, the ultra graphic slashing and beheading in Braveheart, (1995 Oscar winner for Best Picture) and the rape and hanging of a mother and child in Gladiator, (2000 Oscar winner for Best Picture) were supposedly high-minded movies.

And today? Television and movies in the 2020s are designed to shock, titillate, and arouse the viewing audience. The writers, directors, and producers of such movies seemingly lack the wit, creativity, and passion to convey horrendous events with anything other than up-close, in-your-face, overly graphic camera sequences that would do the 6 o’clock news camera crew proud.

Shame on them. Shame on us all.

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Faith

The Reason for the Season

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Every Christmas, it’s easy to complain about how commercialized the season has become. Santa seems to reign supreme with fewer and fewer nativity scenes gracing the lawns of neighbors. The news gives us all the bad news we need to feed our discontent. But we don’t always hear of the blessings of the season and the thousands of stories of people finding ways bless others in their midst.

Pastor Andy Stanley, of Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta, has a ministry that extends far beyond the churches that stream his weekly sermons. Many thousands look forward to his messages online. This year, in his first of three Christmas messages on “The Reasons for the Season,” he shared an observation that hit home.

He reminded listeners of a bumper sticker from the past that tried to bring Christ back into Christmas–“Jesus is the reason for the season.” Every saying captures a time but tends to run its course. You don’t see many of those bumper stickers today, but the sentiment remains.

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In his sermon, Andy questioned the validity of the statement. Jesus isn’t the reason for the season. Jesus didn’t come to be honored or adored at Christmas. The real reason for the season, the reason God sent his Son, is for YOU and ME. He came to be a blessing that by believing in Him we might have a personal relationship with God. But it came with mission—through faith we are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a blessing to others.

Isn’t that what Christmas is really supposed to be about for believers? We take time to remember the greatest Christmas gift of all—God sent his Son to be in our midst and call us to a life of faith and service.

Whenever I get discouraged watching the news, I remind myself that every day the media must search to find new material to grab our attention. Some days, it’s easy to find the catchy headlines to stir our anger and despair. Some days it is thankfully harder. For in reality there’s a lot more goodness and love out there than there is hatred and crime. But the good too often goes under reported.

In this Christmas season, maybe it is time for us to put more focus on some of the blessings that we so easily take for granted. For twenty-one Christmas seasons from 1994 to 2015, I sent out a Christmas ezine “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Starting 12 days before Christmas, I would send an email every day helping to keep Christ in Christmas. I would include a thought-provoking quotation, a mirthful moment of Christmas humor, and a story that captured a Christmas blessing. People not only treasured and shared the email messages, they sent their own stories and content for me to include.

Looking back at the hundreds of past messages, I was touched again by the stories of people blessing others during the Christmas season. I’ve decided that for the next two weeks we could do with a daily story to remind us to do the same.

I have already started posting on Facebook a Christmas story designed to remind us how we too, with our words and actions, can help transform this Christmas season into memories to be treasured. You can follow me on Facebook and like or share my posts. You may even want to take time to share your own favorite memories of people who lived out the Christmas spirit in reply. Let’s let our blessings be a bit more contagious by spreading them around.

To give you an example of the postings you can enjoy let me share a family tradition that you may want to consider using in your family. With inflation hitting our pocket books and our minds struggling to find that perfect gift, here is a gift that finds a way capture the love that often goes unsaid.

Years ago, Angela shared a treasured Christmas family tradition you may want to try: “I am the fourth oldest of nineteen children. We grew up on a farm and didn’t have much money to celebrate a traditional Christmas. Each year we wrapped old shoe boxes in holiday paper and put them under our tree. Each box had a child’s name on it and a slit in the top of the box. During the entire month of December we would take time out each night to write letters to the other siblings. Sometimes we would write poems or funny stories about that person and then place them in their box. On Christmas morning the family would gather. We would read out of the Bible, sing carols, and then open our boxes and read our letters. Now that we are no longer children, and we have lives of our own, it is still the highlight of the season to wake up Christmas morning to find the ‘box from home’ with all of the letters inside. It’s not the material gifts that we look for, it is the gifts from the heart.”

What are the gifts from the heart that you treasure this year? What personal stories from Christmases past could you share to remind others what Christmas truly is about. This Christmas, remember that you are blessed, but even more important, find ways to be a blessing every day.

For now, enjoy your daily dose of Christmas cheer at https://www.facebook.com/terry.paulson and repost it to those you love.

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