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The End of Decadence?

Musings inspired by Ross Douthat’s new book, read while in a 14-day quarantine.

"Romans during the Decadence" (1847) by Thomas Couture [Wikipedia]

As I approach the second week of my 14-day quarantine, due to possible COVID-19 infection upon detachment from my previous military command in Japan, I find myself like so many other quarantined individuals around the world (either by personal choice or government mandate) with an unprecedented amount of newfound leisure time.

My own quarantine has become a blessing in disguise, as with enough courage and untapped motivation, the laundry list of books I’ve set out to read was approached and conquered. The book that caught my attention, in large part due to the book’s unmistakable relevance to the surreal apocalyptic crisis the world faces today in all aspects of human affairs, was Ross Douthat’s latest book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

To begin, Douthat argues (and as the title lays forth), that ours is a society marked by decadence, or has perhaps reached the next level of “sustainable decadence.” In a world subsumed in this bleak, dismal vision, the global populace is to a great degree content with a sedated lifestyle: filling empty souls with radical political ideologies of the past (both on the left and right), relinquishing control of our minds to the latest (often made-in-China) smartphone and all its addictive elements, constraining the natural function of the female body in the name of autonomy and human rights at the cost a declining replacement fertility rate, and placing absolute trust of one’s future in an overburdened and unsustainable welfare system.

The author employs the late French-American historian Jacques Barzun to illustrate what such a society looks like:

The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable results. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Any observant, thoughtful person will agree, at least to some degree, that this depressing observation is the reality in which we live and breathe. Men and women of all ages, no longer wishing to bear the burdens of human suffering, opt for legalized self-assisted suicide; modern governments are so infected by the poison of bureaucracy that they cease to function; and millennials find such boredom in physical reality that they spend countless hours in virtual reality.

Toward the end of the book, Douthat suggests that catastrophes of significant proportions can end the streak of decadence, giving examples of a global famine unleashed by unchecked climate change or regional political turmoil caused by mass sub-saharan migration to the borders of southern Europe. The end of decadence, as we know of it, will not come from a cancerous cell within the body but without. The imperial Aztec and Incan civilizations are mentioned to disclaim the notion that their primitive practices of human sacrifice and corrupt governance were the sources of their ultimate demise. Rather, it was the foreign “antibodies” brought by the Spaniards that served as the external agent of civilizational death.

Will our own age of decadence collapse because of this novel coronavirus? Douthat foreshadows rather prophetically, not knowing at the time of its printing, that this possibility could arise. He writes:

Or, alternatively, our age could end with an apocalypse that’s contingent on our technological proficiency, but that still happens entirely accidentally or as an act of terrorism or sabotage that gets wildly out of hand. This is a danger that the Aztecs and Romans didn’t face, but we do: our achievements mean that even under conditions of stagnation, even without the leap toward the kind of world-destroying artificial intelligence feared by certain Silicon Valley worriers, we have many different civilizational murder weapon lying around waiting to be used or to go off by themselves…

He continues, “Our planes and trains and automobiles create endless vectors for deadly diseases to move more swiftly between societies than ever before. Our way of life depends on a technological infrastructure that various disasters could put to an existential threat…”

Now, I believe that this by-in-large “accidental” catastrophe, though research and proper journalism may prove otherwise, will leave our decadent lifestyle intact. Although the Italian healthcare system is near the brink of organizational and logistical collapse and the U.K.’s own National Health Service may soon meet the same fate, socialized medicine will continue to exist in most E.U. member states, albeit facing serious reforms. As the elderly population slowly passes away by this virus’ particular tendencies, few if any governments or citizens will invoke a clarion call for higher replacement fertility rates. The use of contraception and abortion will remain the status quo. And an overwhelming large number of the global population will pursue their preference of living in virtual “reality” over physical reality.

Regardless, as horrific as all of this is and continues to be, I do believe the effects of this novel virus may partially disrupt our decadent society for the good in certain ways. As millions of dollars are potentially drained from the coffers of prospective university budgets as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the once religiously held value of a campus “safe space” may wither away to non-existence. Having lost a quarter or an entire semester’s worth of inflated education, millennials may come to value serious, rigorous intellectual discussion that best exists in non-online classrooms. Due to updated health requirement, Catholic parishes following the Novus Ordo rubric may prudently end the peaceful shaking of the hands, communion on the hand, and the awkward holding of hands. And as thousands of small businesses are forced to shut down and tens of thousands (or many more) are laid off, people may perhaps reconsider the vital role small businesses play in bolstering a city’s employment and rethink its support of national retail corporations which come and go at the whims of its billionaire employers.

Only once the general chaos wreaked by the coronavirus screech to a halt, though it may last up for months to come, will its lasting fruit be revealed. Then we shall better know if the end of decadence has finally arrived.

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About Francis Lee 1 Article
Francis Lee is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He has served on two deployments in the South China Sea as part of Forward Deployed Naval Forces-Japan. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, and Providence Magazine. The views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (DoD).


  1. Ahhhhhhhhh No end to decadence until the end of the world. Check that out with Jesus the Christ. In the meantime ……….. hows about preaching the truth about SIN. Once again, if you REALLY understand what in hell is going on ………… begin preaching the truth about ………. SIN.

  2. Why would Catholic parishes end communion in the hand when receiving on the tongue is much more dangerous??? Ask any priest and/or Eucharistic minister; if they are honest and straightforward, they will say that inevitably their fingers get wet with the saliva of the communicant, only to be spread to the next one in line… I as a minister for years have had drops of saliva from a communicant fall on my hand just by the act of opening his or her mouth. One drop of saliva becomes a forest fire of contagion during the Coronavirus crisis or any other viral crisis. Much safer to receive communion in the hand. During a pandemic such as this, the insistence on receiving Holy Communion on the tongue is becoming an irrational, “sacred fetish”, jeopardizing the health of others. This is not about Jesus and me ONLY; it’s about Jesus and me, together with others, the community, the entire Body of Christ, and caring for the health of one another.

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