Work in Progress: The Quantification of Decadence

Friday 20 May 2022

Nick Nielsen
11 min readMay 22, 2022


One of the reasons that scholars in the twentieth century began abandoning the concept of civilization was the moral connotation of the term, which some felt had been put to nefarious use. It is the moralistic conception of civilization, dividing the good people from the barbarous bad people, that led John Armstrong to calling the concept of civilization “tarnished” in his In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Ideal. One could find new terms for old ideas, and formulate a whole new discipline that replaces an old discipline in order to distance oneself from something that has become intolerable. There is something dishonest about this strategy, but, perhaps as importantly, it is a losing move. We have seen that when new words are substituted for old words, because old words have taken on objectionable connotations, that the new words will eventually also take on the same objectionable connotations, and if one has pursued the strategy of renaming the concepts of one’s discipline, one is simply going to have to decamp again and again as the same problems present themselves time and again.

In the case of civilization, there was no discipline to rename, and few subsidiary concepts to reformulate: there was mostly the word “civilization” itself, and many found the trade-off of giving up on civilization worth it, as abandoning the word didn’t force one to carve out a big empty space in the middle of some other discipline. Also, I have come to see that this is very much a strategy of intellectual activity in the wake of the Enlightenment.

Some years ago (I can’t recall the context, though I have subsequently tried to find it), I read somewhere that the Enlightenment had no way to deal with violence. This stuck in my head, and, looking for further examples, I have found that anything that flies in the face of the Enlightenment paradigm — violence, rage, mysticism, asceticism, and so on — tends to fall into a studied silence. Rather than forming a theory of such things, mostly they are left in neglect and silence. Now, of course, in this late stage in the scientific revolution, there are attempted theories of all these things, but they never attract the attention that human experiences consonant with the Enlightenment paradigm attract. It is much easier to leave them aside and hope they will just go away if we don’t talk about them.

The Enlightenment had a place in its conceptual framework for war, but war during the height of the Enlightenment was supposed to be a limited affair fought between disciplined professional armies for limited aims. This is the kind of war that we encounter in the pages of Kant’s Perpetual Peace essay, and it is also the kind of war that was given an Enlightenment treatment by Clausewitz. Clausewitz knew more about war than Kant, so his picture of war is more realistic and less genteel than Kant’s picture of war, but it is still recognizably Enlightenment warfare.

Carl von Clausewitz

When the First World War erupted and dragged Europe and its masses of conscripted and mobilized soldiers into industrialized warfare, facilitated and accelerated by machines, which somehow managed to overflow the boundaries of limited war, it was a shock that rocked European civilization back on its heels. And then it happened again with the Second World War. We are still dealing with the consequences of all this. Indeed, it was this catastrophic experience of war in the twentieth century that made our culture cynical and skeptical, viewing all talk of ideals with a jaundiced eye. It was this experience that called civilization into question, and pushed scholars away from the idea of civilization, before they had even given the idea a precise expression.

The organized, mechanized violence of the twentieth century tore a hole in the Enlightenment paradigm; violence, and especially violence in the context of warfare fought on a civilizational scale, had to be talked about, and yet the Enlightenment had no conceptual framework within which such a discussion could be adequately conducted. And so the Enlightenment continued on in its ruptured and wounded state; we had nothing else with which to replace it, and this is the pickle we find ourselves in today.

Myself, I would never go for the silence strategy. It’s not my style. I would prefer to be the one who asks the awkward questions and who says the quiet parts out loud. I don’t want to shove aside some aspect of human experience because it doesn’t fit the program. On the contrary, the more others want to sweep something under the carpet, the more I want to pull the carpet aside and examine carefully whatever it was that the others were avoiding. (I don’t like the sight of blood, but intellectually I am the least squeamish of individuals.) Because of my attitude to these things, I treasure a passage from Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic (section 27), in which Kaufmann tells a story of speaking up when his silence was expected:

“Bultmann, asked about eternal torture in a conversation, said that on that subject he agreed with Lessing. He had every right to expect that a younger colleague, no less than a student, would proceed to the nearest library and begin reading through a set of Lessing’s works, in search of the crucial passage. After the first ten volumes, he could safely be expected to give up. Encouraged by my American training, however, I asked: ‘And what did Lessing say?’ The great theologian hesitated, then allowed that Lessing had once said somewhere that if even a single soul were in eternal torment he would certainly refuse to go to heaven. It would seem, then, that Bultmann disbelieves in any form of eternal torment, but he does not make a point of this. In his huge Theology of the New Testament, hell and eternal damnation are simply ignored.”

Not only would I prefer to keep traditional terms (in Kaufmann’s terms, acknowledging “that we should let our Yes be Yes, and our No, No”), however loaded the language may seem, but I find it amusing to take traditional loaded language and give it a new technical meaning in accord with some theoretical framework. This is what I would like to see done with “civilization” rather than avoiding it altogether, and I can go this one better. There are a battery of terms that are informally associated with the concept of civilization, and which are equally moralistic, but rather than refuse these in place of a new technical vocabulary, I would like to rehabilitate the traditional vocabulary with new technical meanings. This approach has some serious downsides to it. One risks being dismissed, or, worse (because a dismissal can always be posthumously reversed), one can be misunderstood. I would rather be dismissed than misunderstood, so that’s a problem, but it’s not a dealbreaker.

Les Romains de la décadence (1847) by Thomas Couture

Let me give a concrete example of this. One of the moralized terms associated with civilization is “decadence.” I actually have at least a couple of philosophical books about decadence, as I pick up offbeat titles like this whenever I can find them. In a sequence so familiar we cannot even name a locus classicus for the idea, we understand that once a civilization reaches its full maturity, it quickly falls off into decadence, decadence is followed by decline, decline by collapse, and collapse by extinction. This is implicit plan of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

We all understand, in addition to the above sequence, that “decadence” is almost irredeemably a moralistic concept that could scarcely be separated from a context of disapprobation. But what if we did? What if we kept the familiar sequence of decline and fall that begins with decadence, but we ignored the moralistic history of the idea and simply gave it a technical meaning within a theory of civilization? Is this possible? How might we go about this?

John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806–07 May 1873)

So let me back up a bit. I recently discovered that John Stuart Mill wrote an essay about civilization in 1836. In this essay, he singles out the ability of human beings to cooperate:

“It must at least be evident, that if, as civilization advances, property and intelligence become thus widely diffused among the millions, it must also be an effect of civilization, that the portion of either of these which can belong to an individual must have a tendency to become less and less influential, and all results must more and more be decided by the movements of masses; provided that the power of combination among the masses keeps pace with the progress of their resources. And that it does so, who can doubt? There is not a more accurate test of the progress of civilization than the progress of the power of co-operation.”

This idea of co-operation is developed throughout the essay. Later in his Principles of Political Economy (in Book IV), Mill included increasing powers over nature and increased security with along cooperation as being the social basis of growing wealth, which in turn can be measured by growth of population, capital, and productivity.

Suppose we grant Mill’s idea of the role of cooperation in civilization. Suppose further that we then laid out all the various forms of cooperation that occur within civil society (a taxonomy of forms of cooperation) and put some metric to the degree of cooperation in all categories of cooperation. This would give us a highly-articulated conception of cooperation that would be more adequate to a subtle and sophisticated conception of civilization. Civilizations could be differentiated by the kinds of cooperation that they particularly cultivate, or fail to cultivate (recent talk of “high trust” vs. “low trust” societies belongs here).

With this in place, we could then define decadence (the first stage at which civilization starts to fall apart) as the weakening of bonds of cooperation. And since we have distinguished a taxonomy of forms of cooperation, and we have a metric for degrees of cooperation of each kind, we could be definite and specific about the small failures of and disengagement from cooperation that would mark the beginning of the end of civil society. This meaning given to “decadence” is not entirely disjoint from the traditional moralistic meaning of the term, but it is more specific and more capable of precision and quantification. We could then go on talking about decadent civilizations, though in greater depth of detail, and with the ability to back up our claims with quantitative evidence.

I have in other contexts quoted Joseph Tainter’s definition of social collapse, which is a great example because “collapse” like “decadence” is a term overlaid with moralistic connotations, but Tainter gives the idea an essentially sociological definition:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.” (Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4)

Taking Tainter as our model, we could say that a society has entered a stage of decadence when it displays a measurable loss of an established level of cooperation, with both the established level of cooperation, and the new lower level of cooperation being sustained, as Tainter notes, over a couple of generations or more.

Joseph Anthony Tainter (born 08 December1949)

Embedded in Tainter’s concept of collapse are the concepts of weakness and decline, which are less rapid than collapse (and which would seem to correspond, or at least overlap with, decadence), so that we have a couple of historical presuppositions that have to be fulfilled in order to define collapse and differentiate it from decadence: the rate of historical change, and the period of time over which some social state-of-affairs is maintained. These could be quantified as well, even if only roughly — say, in Braudelian terms of event, conjuncture, and longue durée. A loss of cooperation at the time scale of the event would be a simple defection, such as is discussed in game theory; a loss of cooperation at the scale of the conjuncture would place society in a condition of decadence, but this state would potentially be recoverable; a loss of cooperation over the longue durée would be an established condition of society and not recoverable, since a recovery of cooperation after a longue durée of defection would be a new form of society — a renaissance, if you will.

Digging deeper into John Stuart Mill’s writings than I had previously gotten into them not only took me deeper into Mills thought, but also acquainted me with Mill’s nineteenth century intellectual rival, James Fitzjames Stephen, of whom I had not previously heard anything. It was actually with something like a sense of relief that I learned that others had pushed back against Mill in his own time. Stephen’s book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity quotes Mill at length and goes into detailed criticism of Mill’s presuppositions. I especially enjoyed Stephen’s critique of Mill’s rather mawkish conception of a generalized love of humanity, which critique was spot-on (cf. the beginning of Chapter VI, which is quite amusing). Allow me to conclude with some memorable Francophobia from Stephen: “…it appears to me that the French way of loving the human race is the one of their many sins which it is most difficult to forgive.”

Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1st Baronet, KCSI (03 March 1829–11 March 1894)



Nick Nielsen