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Decadence as a Theory of History

Author(s): Neville Morley


Reviewed work(s):
Source: New Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 4, Forms and/of Decadence (Autumn, 2004), pp.
573-585
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20057861 .
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as a

Decadence

of History

Theory

Neville Morley

if one felt above


past was only tolerable
to stare stupidly at it aware
instead of having

The

one's
Thomas

The

of decadence,

concept
a culture

is closely

criticism,
on

It rests

change.

also

of

when

present
impotence.
436
Doctor Faustus,

Mann,

to a society or

applied
as a term

used

to ideas of temporality

related

sense

when

especially

cases

in many

but

difference

between

of

aesthetic

and historical

and

past

it,
of

and

present,

a sense of the meaning


of that difference.
The object of study, whether
a
or
is
located
narrative
of historical
within
past
present,
grander
to
its
its
relation
other
and
location,
development;
temporal
periods
historical
nature

that we

character.

are

modern

partly

culture

or

has

This

this

lateness,
features

developed

from

drawn

is the kind of account

is seen

narrative

to be

applied

Spengler's

its particular

that,

is

particular

partly

usually

explains

why

contrast

and

through

are identified
treated

as "decadent."
as a

narrative

grand

us

tells

present

by-product
of
history.

in the universal histories of Oswald


and the tradition can be traced back via
and Polybius.1 Historical
in this
change
civilizations
of

cycle
view

of
the

offered

cyclical:

repetitiveness?Vico's

barism,

to

this following-on,

"decadence"

discussions,

conclusion

Spengler and Arnold Toynbee,


Giambattista
Vico to Augustine
This

the explanation

when

analogy with earlier periods,

through
a

in itself

"Decadence"

late; and

In historical
of

becomes

phases,
and

that

"eras,

and

cultures

rise

and

fall.

are

ever

barbarism-heroicism-classicism-bar
epochs,

situations,

persons

true to type"?is not to be dismissed as merely


themselves
the
repeating
of
the
historian's
romantic
but
bare
the
inclinations,
product
lays
logic
of

historical

development.2

Societies

and

cultures

are

seen

as

natural

seasonal
objects following
rhythms of nature, or as
same life courses
to
as
entities
the
higher-order
biological
subject
individual animals;
inevitably, therefore,
they pass through
twilight as
as well as spring, and
well as dawn, autumn
of decline
and
periods
as well as periods of growth and maturity.
decadence
"Let the words
the diurnal

and

New Literary History, 2005, 35: 573-585

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574

NEW

youth,

growth,

maturity,

and

decay?hitherto,

to express subjective valuations


in sociology, ethics and aesthetics?be

used
tions

of

of

an

that

believing

organic

place,

as the inevitable
in

metaphor?or,

ever,

case

the

consequence

of

of

Spengler,

were
and "Modern Civilization"
literally
it is not quite this straightforward.
In the first

However,

sense

the

than

"the Classical"

entities.

organic

more

and entirely personal


preferences
taken at last as objective descrip

can thus appear

idea of decadence

adopting

today

HISTORY

states."3

organic

The

LITERARY

of

lateness

and

decline

comes

if not

that

such

pervades

narratives

at making
first,
always
inspires the attempt
we
to
confirm
that
be
this
More
way.
History
ought
feeling
importantly,
on a single theory of
the idea of decadence
is not dependent
history for
its intellectual underpinning,
and it is not necessarily
tied to the organic
often

it does

metaphor?though
and
the
"natural."

unvarying
organic
seen

as

alternative
writers

where

point

that.

the

conceivable?although
as to what
will,

or

so far

been

using

the

of

when

should,

and
terms

of
a

imply

its

nature
single,

if the logic of the


not

itself; itmay

or

begins

enough
is little

neces

instead be

endings,

the future

take

ideas

does

possible

weakens
present
course
of
there

I. Decadence
I have

even

"Decadence"

range

the moment

It marks
the

terminus,

not

does

a cycle repeats

before

stage

to

connection

concept

to demand

penultimate

reach,

among

all,

the last stage before

the

as a beginning.
within

the

towards a specified
seems

metaphor

a close

retain

Above

trajectory

sarily mark

and

even

to come

to make

an

agreement

place.

Decline

"decadence"

and

"decline"

almost

to be related but
the two terms are considered
Usually,
interchangeably.
on
one
in
the face of it, only
is generally
acceptable
quite distinct; and,
iden
An
survey
bibliographical
admittedly
unsystematic
historiography.
tified

twenty-three

entries

concerned

with

"decadence"

and

"history,"

all

or exclusively
as an aesthetic
decadence
primarily
above all on the late nineteenth
term, focusing
century. A search for
146 items: objects
"decline" and "history," on the other hand, produced
as
the
Roman
in
decline
include
Britain,
Empire, Roman
perceived
of which

dealt with

the Hapsburg
Sicily, medieval
Grimsby,
Empire, medieval
towns, the Liberal party (indeed, virtually every book on the
Liberal party seems to take "decline" as its organizing
theme), British
and
the
Bristol
music
hall.
To this list can
British
the
economy,
industry,
is not a historio
Decline inHistory, which
be added J. K.J. Thompson's
use of the concept but a synthetic work that takes
study of the
graphical
the idea of "decline" entirely for granted as a transhistorical
reality and

Roman

towns,

medieval

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AS A THEORY

DECADENCE

575

OF HISTORY

seeks to establish
its typology. We may
a term used by professional
historians
studies

the

adopt
an

almost

and

separate

quite

label

obsession.

usage.
acceptable
The
latter
point

themselves;

The

clear

easily

is

separable,

except where
"decline," on
is that

implication
and

that

two

the

are

concepts
is
simply

"decadence"

as a rhetorical

true?but

clearly

that "decadence"
is not
the objects of their
the other hand,
is

conclude

convention

not

rather

than a methodological
it is a word one does not use, rather
premise;
than a set of ideas that one does not employ. Moreover,
like many of the
of historical writing,
conventions
the rule is unwritten;
internalized
by
the historian
rather than imposed, absorbed
the
imitation of
through
rather than taught.4 Various works on histori
accepted historical models
cal theory include discussions
about the identification
of "progress" or
"decline" in history. For the most part they reject such
metaphysical
the notion
that what
"[s]uch sweeping surveys, embodying
speculation:
was
attract
to
bound
their
happened
happen,
by
simplicity but are
historians
undermined
the
habits
of caution and
among good
readily
by
are
in
which
E.
H.
trained."5
in
who
believed
Carr,
particular
study
they
the reality of historical progress, dismissed Toynbee's
as
cyclical history
"the characteristic
ideology of a society in decline," while A. L. Rowse
characterized
account as "utterly tendentious
and inspired by
Spengler's
the gloomy genius of German
Because
the
Germans were
Schadenfreude.
Western

defeated,

is to be

civilisation

as

regarded

those who do favor


however,
problematically,
"decline" in history do not discuss
their reasons for
their

"decadence";

historians'

"decadence"

Firstly,
professional

reality,

may

historiography
Its aim
is to

nonfigurative.7

courses?or,

be

only

clearly

too

be

obviously
is realism:

differentiated

rather,

to

a true,

produce

from
the

produce

of

the

The

appearance

other
of

of

the

rhetoric

nonliterary,
of past

dis

competing

such

of

basis

without

thought,

unadorned,
plain,
literal
representation

or

of

concept
the rejection

metaphorical.

fiction

end."6

the

on

imagined,

habitual
behavior
and patterns
of substantiating
these hypotheses.

possibility
of

can

motives

to an

coming

More

literal

true,

Historical
is not in fact transparent
or free
representation.
language
from figures and metaphors;
it is simply that they tend to be "dead,"
as such?birth,
figures of speech that are not immediately
recognized
evolution,

maturity,

decline.

development,

Perhaps

"decadence"

is insuf

in comparison,
still too obviously
ficiently moribund
literary, not least
because of its specific association with figures
like J.-K. Huysmans
and
Oscar Wilde. That does not of course make
"decline" a less figurative
term

of

Perhaps

analysis.
because

status of the concept,

of

their

anxieties,

historians

subconscious

of decline

expend

or

not,

considerable

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about

effort

the

in

576

NEW

trying

to establish

apparently,

authoritative
the

its historical

be measured,

most

reality. Decline

demonstrated,

language

science;
of

example

in

an

that can,
in

and

graphs

book

Thompson's

such

HISTORY

is something

expressed

of physical

comprehensive

LITERARY

the

is simply

Decadence

approach.

on a different model
and subjective; it depends
of
are
of
the
medical
surface
which
taken
symptoms
knowledge,
diagnosis
an underlying
condition.
It assumes that a society or
together to indicate
appears more

culture

is

elusive

an

interconnected

in which

whole

certain

parts?artistic

orientation,
(as in Spengler's
thought
of
and
and
quantum
theory
relativity)?reflect
idiosyncratic
reading
reveal its true state.8 But so, implicitly, does "decline," as historians move
a bewildering
attributes
range of more or less measurable
rapidly from
technique,

forms

spiritual

food

shortages,
literacy levels, territorial
levels of overseas
trade, and population

returns,
(declining marginal
and political
fragmentation,
to more

decline)

of

The

subjective?conclusions.

general?and

of

history

a decline
in the number
of
offers a good
late antiquity
example:
elite
benefac
recording urban building projects funded by
inscriptions
in urban building
tion is taken to indicate a decline
activity, which
in either the wealth or the civic pride, or both, of
indicates a decline
social malaise.9 Each of
in turn indicates a general
urban elites, which
steps can be disputed; but what matters here is the
interpretative
to that of decadence,
of the
exactly parallel
assumption,
underlying
those

"microcosm"

the

(and

reflecting

chance

The

the whole.

of
particular
on measurement

survival

emphasis

of

types
and

evidence)
is

"tangibility"

a rhetorical move and a psychological


defense.
as
of a stumbling-block
"decline" may be quite as much
Indeed,
the reality of
claims to be able to establish
for historians'
"decadence"

both

the
a

as

"Decadence"

past.

of

way

pejorative

the

describing

can

antonym

all-purpose
sort
any

of

change?but

seen

be

readily
so too

as

"decline."

"in
that, in R. G. Collingwood's
phrase,
long been recognized
are no mere phenomena
as
there
of
it
decay:
actually happens
history
failures
is also a rise, and it is only the historian's personal
every decline
or sympathy that prevent him from seeing this double
of knowledge
It has

character,

at

once

and

creative

of

destructive,

any

historical

process."10

the essential "perspectivism"


In other words, the use of the term highlights
the past in quite
of
of history, the ever-present
redescribing
possibility
or
a
to
moral
different
different
ways according
agenda.
political
Progress
terms,

and
a matter

decline
decay,
of
of choice

and

these

transition:
rather

presentation

are

than

loaded

equally

"objective

reality."

to a "grand narrative" of
is closely connected
like decline,
Decadence,
are objects of
like
and
historical
metaphors,
grand narratives,
change,
most
to
their
unavoidable
and
historians,
despite
anxiety
suspicion
dependence

on

them

as

a means

of

making

sense

of

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the

past.11

The

AS A THEORY

underlying

aim of history

coherence

in

not

but

events

too much

577

OF HISTORY

DECADENCE

than

rather
order

a certain

is to discern
and

level of order
contingency?
to
tend
emphasize

Historians

coherence.

and

and

randomness

pure

to prioritize detail and specificity; they


the particular over the general,
to
that pay insufficient
attention
therefore
tend to resist narratives
and events.12 They also generally
resist
individual pieces of evidence
it is probably relevant that, if one considers
the
notions of determinism;
decline
is
of
of
the
reversed
capable
being
metaphors,
implications
whereas
the process of decay may at best be slowed or halted. But of
course
of plotting
the past,
this is simply one way among many
a
from
the
it
is
the
that
narrative
available
materials;
story
constructing
we

to

wish

tell

or

are

to

conditioned

expect,

given

set

particular

of

about

free will and determinism.13 We may prefer


assumptions
of a story of decline over the inevitable
the apparent
"open-endedness"
trend of decay, but this is a choice?aesthetic,
downwards
political,
than something
inherent
in the reality of the
ethical, personal?rather
cultural

past.

This

leads us to the associations

finally
the

provide

on

grounds

historians

which

another.

"Decline" has for traditionally


tive precedent
of Edward Gibbon's
historians
of the later Roman
empire
in favor

concept

of

or

"transition,"

of the concepts,

which

one

rather

select

minded

story

historians

help
than

the authorita

the majority
work?though
have long since abandoned

"late

as a

antiquity"

its own

in

period

of
the

right?and
apparently has not been irrevocably tainted by the example
to choose between
it seems difficult
of Spengler. Otherwise
the two
terms:

equally

and political
baggage
even
when

of

value-laden,

purposes.
"decadence"

open

to be

that
replicating

precisely

tions of the history

equally

It seems

persuades
the

decadence

for

exploitation

simply

the

to

historians

employ
moves
and

interpretative

polemical

literary and

artistic

"decline"
assump

of decay.

II. Historicizing:
Both

to

and decline
its location

Past,

Present,

and

are historicizing
in relation to other

Future
concepts;

a society's
and societies

temporal context,
periods
and within a grander narrative of historical development,
is taken
a clear indication
and a sufficient
of
its
condition
explanation
prospects.14
"decadence"

The words
carries

refer backwards?as
certain

"previousness"?but

Richard

Gilman
to more

to be
and

suggested,
than

one

point in the past; moreover,


they also look forward to possible futures.15
Firstly, the terms look back to an earlier, higher stage, from which the
or fallen. They draw on an essential
sense of
has declined
present

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578

LITERARY

NEW

difference

between

morals,

and

past

or

sense,

religious

or

mentality,

Hesiod

"organic" whole. There


looked back to the Golden

present

age

of

iron,

violence,

characterized

in culture,

identified
lumped

an

in

together

and

from

estrangement

by

toil,
Rome

all

is a long tradition of such nostalgia.


to the
and Silver Ages
in contrast

interrelated

the necessity
of
and Augustan

whether

present,

HISTORY

the

gods,

the brevity
looked back

of human
life. Late
to the virtuous
early
pagans like Libanius
Fourth-century
Constantine.
Later historians
have
in antiquity
the
(classical Greece,

Republican
Republic: heroic, frugal, preimperial.
looked back to the period before
identified
still more Golden Ages,
of
the
Hellenistic
and later
cities, and the age of the Antonines)
apogee
the France of Louis XIV, and
(Golden Age Spain, Elizabethan
England,
the early American
is highly
The approach
among many).
Republic,
and any
flexible, since any period can be elevated as ideal or normative,
from

change

state

that

can

be

as decline?as

figured

can

the

absence

of

change. Of course it
back in time, to show
to the glories of the
sown by the second
Nietzsche,
themselves

to push the ideal moment


is always possible
further
was already inferior
how the Age of the Antonines
or the seeds of decline had been
early Principate,
to Friedrich
century BCE. The Greeks,
according
if
because
decadent,
always already
only
they showed

were

to be capable of declining.16
the terms look back to an analogous
stage. The past offers
Secondly,
not only the image of the ideal, but also an idea of what it is to be in
a set of
decline. The concept
of decadence
is based on a pathology,

drawn
from
earlier
symptoms,
examples:
Pierre
Chaunu
"la d?cadence,
it,
puts
but

Nero,

Belle
tend

also

and

Alexandria

above
c'est

all,

for

Byzantium;

Rome

imperial

Rome"),

especially

modern

(as
under

perspectives,

and Weimar.17 Theories


of decline
Epoque Paris, 1890s London,
to take the same approach,
a
of
up
building
analogous
typology

"declines";

again,

is (in a sense)
a

from

largely

the Roman

idealized;
selection

than a rounded

Empire

of

is the

literary

and

Here

archetype.

a set of symbols

it offers

artistic

too,

the

of degradation

past

drawn
rather

representations,

or realistic

of
picture of an epoch. Not all narratives
decline
look back in this way; ancient accounts find analogies
for the
state of society in their (equally caricatured)
present
images of foreign
or
like
Persia
Modern
studies
draw on a wider
contemporaries
Carthage.
to see
of
historical
and
almost
choose
range
examples
invariably
themselves
they

as

repeating

preexisting

pattern?or

at

least

to

fear

that

are.18

Thirdly,
destination;

such

accounts

decadence

look back

may
implies

trajectory

to the past
and

standing

diate

for a sense
as

an

of

interme

the lost ideal and?utter


the triumph of
darkness,
stage between
a
new
can
order?
The
fall
of
Rome
in any of these
be
read
barbarism,

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a necessary

as

ways:

579

OF HISTORY

AS A THEORY

DECADENCE

to

transition

(Christian

stage

higher

in

society,

as the end of
in Marx),
feudalism
and Toynbee;
both G. W. F Hegel
or as the beginning
of a new,
civilization for a millennium
(Max Weber),
more

Germanic
culture
twentieth-century
vigorous
(early
can
seen
therefore
be
Modern
decadence

German
in

evalists).19
as

the

preparation
an
appropriate

suggest

a new

for

or

stage,

simply

for

response,

as

an
the

example,

medi

same

the

terms,
even

end;

this may

"new

monasticism"

Berman
for the twilight of American
culture
by Morris
or
the
tactics
of
Isaac
Asimov's
Foundation,
not).
consciously
(imitating
The crucial question
for twentieth-century
historians
of decline was
to collapse,
since civilization had already shown its propensity
whether,
was
to
that
it
be
inevitable.
Toynbee
repetition
argued
might
possible
a
if
stave off collapse
the
West
introduced
world
govern
indefinitely,
once civilization
ment
to religion;
to collapse,
and returned
began
proposed

the

however,
Western

as

society

which

the Second
some

The

modern
a

hand

and
has

earlier
now
from

separation

The

combination

Now

the

and

plants;
traces

finds

tremendous

modern

science

as much

M.

self

I. Rostovtzeff,

confirmed

this

the

explained

tendency

in the eyes

theory which,

as

of

periods
become
and

on

perspective

sense

decadence

within
and

modern,
to

all

caricatured

to

seeks

past

and

past

and fulfillment

contain

superiority

is neatly

the

between

continuity

is the culmination

age

what

Even

reflected

dominant

modern
of

of

possibilities

return."21

of

culture.23

one

ments,

decay

new

never

and

Law of Thermodynamics?a

authors,

contemporary

the

ripen,

the masses?"22

penetrate

of

arise,

its own

has

presented
was
fate

whose

phenomenon

in the light of the Russian Revolution,


the fall of Rome
"is not every civilization bound to decay as soon as it begins to

pondering
wondered,
with

culture

in contrast,

Spengler,

unstoppable.20
limited
strictly

"each

predetermined;
expression

was

process

present,

familiar

the

hand

on
previous,

as

of all previous

themselves
other

nonmodern,

on

combine

the

develop
elements
a

sense

of

societies.

by Nietzsche:

of mankind

is only
the continuation
of the history
of animals
sea the universal
in the
of
the
still
historian
profoundest
depths
as
as at a miracle,
of himself
in
at
the
amazement,
slime;
living
gazing
course
at that even
mankind
has already
trembles
run, his gaze

history
even

more

man
modern
who
is capable
of
this
miracle,
himself,
astonishing
surveying
as he
He
and proud
stands high
the pyramid
of the world-process;
upon
seems
at the
of his
to call out to nature
top of it he
lays the keystone
knowledge
we
are
we
are nature
all around
him:
"We have
reached
the goal,
the goal,
course.

perfected."24

Decadence
past

offers
and present.

a very different
of the relation between
conception
It sees the past as fragmented
rather than unified;

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580

NEW

is

modernity
others.

It

in

placed

questions

some

to

opposition

choice

modernity's

seen

parts,
of

LITERARY

as

HISTORY

to

analogous
not
classical

comparisons:

or

or Rome.
but Alexandria
It undermines
the Renaissance
on
sense
of
and
its
fear that
modernity's
superiority,
plays
deep-seated
the past has not in fact been overcome,
that the triumph over supersti
Greece

tion

and

has

autocracy

societies,

previous
overcome

and

in

replaced

III. Nature,

present,
seen
to be

not

of history

and

simply

the Return

of an emerging

change,
as

that,

overcome

having

continue

will

and

it will

be

turn.

its

a demand

creates

or

incomplete,

Culture,

A sense of historical
and

been

the process

a narrative

for

and

random

of

contingent,

of

the Past

difference

between

development;
as
but

change
coherent
and

past
is

reason. Modernity
to human
has offered narra
intelligible
on the emerging
the
the
self-consciousness
of
human mind,
of an innate instinct to accumulate,
the evolution
of social
fulfillment
structures
of class struggle
and technology,
and the dynamic
and
All of these theories tend to emphasize
the overcoming
of
exploitation.
nature, both of the natural world and of human nature itself; thus Hegel

ultimately
tives based

all

for

capacity

like Adam

the

implications

it.

stable

on
for

change

and Thomas

Smith
state,"

same

the

Humanity,

the

the

reveals
pattern
other
has
hand,

better."25

Early

and

itself,
an

actual
econo

political

Malthus
had been doubtful
about
to revert
of an agrarian economy

the tendency

of escaping

"stationary

the capacities

and

and

change,

the possibility
to

to

reverts

change

mists

one

"in nature,

remarks,

but

later

far more

were

writers

confident

about

of their age, even if they also had concerns


about the
of this for social and cultural life and for human develop

ment.26

instead
often
Decadence
and decline
implicitly, presents
explicitly,
delu
the triumph of nature over civilization,
undercutting
modernity's
such constraints.
sion that it has somehow escaped
Civilization may be
construed

life-cycle.
Columella

as

a natural

"natural"

undergo

change

from

monarchy

addition?civilization

subject
unnatural.

an

hence

organism,

to

subject

a natural

writers
all; the agronomist
(but by no means
the idea as nefas [impious] ) it is considered
obvious
and
lose
its
old
while
grow
society is seen
strength,

regarded
that the world might
to

object,

In some ancient

to irresistible
Cicero

developments,
to
despotism.
and
society

natural

considered

forces,
the

as

can

account

Polybius's

Alternatively?or
seen
be

declining

Roman

the ravages of time if it is not properly

in

as

unnatural

precisely

state

preserved,

as

of

the
in

sometimes

because

painting,

while Gibbon

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objects

they are
subject

depicted

to

the Roman
gravity.
to a "natural"
fall

of

as a building

Empire
move

The

from

state:
a

Rome

countryside,

finally

and
a

to

reversion

other

"natural
a

sees

Rostovtzeff

is

as a return

presented
historians

economic

and

economy"
urban
fragile

of

by the force

down

brought

to barbarism

civilization

thus Weber

while

581

OF HISTORY

AS A THEORY

DECADENCE

see

in the

return

to

the

overcome

civilization

of the uncivilized
and unreconstructed
It is
peasantry.
far
Roman
civilization
is
located
how
(and
modern)
striking
imagina
to be the repository
of
tively in its cities, with the country assumed
tradition
the
thus
Morris
the
and
William
celebrates
natural;
changeless
return to a rural idyll of authentic
and real passions.27 The
feelings
are
seen to be ultimately
of
life
and
modern
artificiality
inauthenticity
the forces

by

unsustainable

before

impersonal
some

In

the

nature

human

and

the

itself.

is a

there

respects,

of

requirements

of nature

forces

resemblance

striking

the

between

perspec

tives of decadence
and those of more explicit and deliberate
critics of
as
or
such
Friedrich
Nietzsche.
These
writers
Schiller, Marx,
modernity,
too look to the past to highlight
the limitations
of modernity,
its
to
effects
and
its
with
human
and
incompatibility
alienating
happiness,
undermine

the
of

narratives
"otherness"

of

capitalists
on

is even

ary rhetoric

of

Nietzsche,

in

need

of

moribund

in need

are

also

modernity

of renewal

as

law of

be

overcome,

in

the

revolution

the

or

ideas of Marx
sense

the

that

or that
society

sense

that

is
is

modernity

and rebirth.

differences

striking
as
not

the

"eternal

deployed;

into

on
ancients

will

Sometimes,

explicitly

shades

reform,

there
sees

Marx

turn

its

its own contradictions,

through

and feeble,

However,
tives.

is

the

as an

to follow

professed

"decadence"

radical

in

alternative

offering
insistence

presented

capitalism

society
its dissolution.28

those who
term

that

modern

will collapse

capitalism

established

nearing

the

accounts

against

contrary,

now

"progress,"
Thus
Marx's

development.

thereby

the

of

mythology

antiquity,

and

nature";
and

self-serving
historical

between

decadent

but

as

these

having

perspec
of

elements

it has not yet proved capable of allowing human


decay, precisely
to
be
potential
fully realized; it is not at the end of its lifespan, but rather
immature and incomplete:
because

is one

There

dares

party
scientific

suspected.
horrors
everything
ful power
overworking
are turned

fact,

great
deny.

On

of

characteristic
the

one

hand,

no

this

there

our

have

19th
started

a fact which
century,
into life industrial

no
and

ever
human
had
history
of
far
the
symptoms
decay,
surpassing
of
recorded
the
latter
times
of
the Roman
In our
Empire.
days,
seems
with
its contrary.
the wonder
with
pregnant
Machinery,
gifted
we behold
of shortening
and fructifying
human
and
labour,
starving
forces,
On

which

the other

it. The
into

epoch
there
hand,

new-fangled
sources
of want.

of

sources
The

the

former

exist

of wealth,

victories

of

art

some
by
seem

strange
bought

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weird
by

the

spell,
loss of

582

NEW

character.

progress

Marx's

in

life

into

seems

to become
seems

light of science
All our invention

of

ignorance.
forces with

background
material
endowing
a material

man

nature,
the pure

HISTORY

intellectual

life,

and
and

in

force.29

however
against nature and procivilization;
like
classical
of
historic
Greece?"the
childhood
stages
as superior
its most beautiful unfolding"?may
be perceived
is progressive,

history
earlier

much

the dark

to result

human

stultifying

on

but

seem

masters
that mankind
pace
or to his own
Even
infamy.

men

to shine

unable

humanity,
and

same

the

At

to other

enslaved

LITERARY

is no

there

desirable,

or he

child

to

returning

"a man

them:

cannot

become

childish."30 His analysis of the seductive


again,
of
and
the
that itmay stultify humans'
the
power
past,
danger
capacity
can easily be turned against
for action and innovation,
the ideas of
and of the inevitability

decadence
The
of

of all

tradition
the

becomes

living.

And

the dead

in creating
things,
of revolutionary
periods
their service
and borrow
present
borrowed

it has

before

Nietzsche
past

narrative
"birth

of
of

further

inspired

in

by

but

revolutionising

yet

the extent

in exposing
own

modernity's
as
in Greece

to the

needs

and

charter

He

by
myth,
of decadence

the moment

begin

this

cannot

century
with

itself

past.31

to which

desires.

and

disguise

It cannot

the future.
in regard

superstition

our

the brains
themselves

in such
existed,
precisely
to
up the spirits of the past
conjure
to
in order
battle
cries and costumes

from

only

on

nightmare

in this time-honoured
history
revolution
social
of the nineteenth

progress,

reason"

engaged
has never

they anxiously
them names,

from

like

weighs

of world

the past,
off all

stripped

goes

are

crisis

. . .The

language
its poetry
from

draw

the

scene

generations
seem
they
that
something

when

just

and

the new

of repetition:

all accounts

reinterpreting
the
and

of
the

undercuts

the
loss

of

the Greeks as always already decadent


he
but by presenting
authenticity;
of
knowl
the
that narrative
undercuts
too, emphasizing
impossibility
edge

of

culture
its mark
mankind:

the

"real"

is indeed
from
to age,

past,

untainted

by

our

own

"Historical

desires.32

a kind of inborn grey-hairedness,


and those who bear
must
believe
in the old age of
childhood
instinctively
however,

there

pertains

an

appropriate

senile

occupa

of
up, of closing accounts,
looking back, of reckoning
what has been."33 At the
consolation
remembering
through
seeking
same time, however, Nietzsche
insists upon the necessity of such myths
and illusions for human existence.
"Decadence," which suggests that the
idea: "[I] s
future can only ever be a repetition of the past, is a dangerous
that humanity
is already
in this paralysing
there not concealed
belief
a
a
of
idea
inherited
Christian
misunderstanding
theological
declining
tion,

that of

that
from the Middle Ages, the idea that the end of the world is coming,
we are fearfully awaiting the Last Judgement?"34
It is in the end necessary

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to hold

his

overcame
their

that will sustain life, and so he


of history
a self-conscious
of how the Greeks
myth

to accounts

fast

concludes

essay with

their

583

OF HISTORY

AS A THEORY

DECADENCE

on

dependence

creations

of

a culture

to create

others

of

own.35

IV. Conclusion
Marx and Nietzsche
insist on the necessity of forgetfulness,
of letting
"the
the dead bury their dead, in order that the past may not become
of

gravedigger

the

"Decadence"

present."36

on

insists

are

unconvinced

to

meaning

and it always lurks


of modernity
but

of a new
form
of
vague
promises
a
can
chosen
myth
consciously
one
Max
of
Weber
offers
the most

Marx's

by
assurances

Nietzsche's

or

society
still

that

existence.

in

remembering,

the belief that the past contains all future possibilities;


in the background
for those who accept the critique

give

striking

"No one knows who will live in this cage in


examples of such pessimism:
at the end of this tremendous
the future, or whether
development
entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old
ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanised
embellished
p?trification,
with a sort of convulsive
For
of
the
last stage of this
self-importance.
it might
development,
spirit, sensualists without heart;

well

cultural
a

level

of

never

civilisation

to tell a different

wish

the

possible,

end, because
a

become
barbarians

be truly said:
this nullity imagines

before

of

modern

man

stepping-stone
the unknown
than

to a time when
a

casts

decay

would
for

However

achieved.'"37

story, to return

narrative

powerful

prefer

his

'Specialists without
that it has attained

to have

progress

spell;

failed

may

seemed
in

perhaps,

utterly

Better

replacements.38

we

much

the

the

than to
familiar

future.

University

of

Bristol

NOTES
1
R. G. Collingwood,
The Idea ofHistory
Press, 1946), 63-68
(Oxford: Oxford
University
on Vico,
159-65 on Toynbee,
181-83 on Spengler.
Decadence:
Richard
Gilman,
Generally,
The Strange Life of an Epithet
Seeker & Warburg,
(London:
1979).
trans. Charles Francis
The Decline of theWest, vol. 1, Form and Actuality,
Oswald
2
Spengler,
Atkinson
3
4

(New York: Alfred


Decline, 26.

Compare
111-27.

A. Knopf,

1947),

4.

Spengler,

Neville

Morley,

Writing

Ancient History

G. R. Elton, The Practice ofHistory


(Sydney: Sydney
E. H. Carr, What
isHistory?
(London: Macmillan,
& Stoughton,
(London: Hodder
1946), 79-80.
History
6

(London:

Duckworth,

1999),

Press, 1967),
University
1961), 43; A. L. Rowse,

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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

12-13,

47.
The Use of

NEW

584

LITERARY

7
(Baltimore:
University
Johns Hopkins
Tropics of Discourse
Hayden White,
as Text and Discourse
F. Berkhofer,
Robert
Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History
MA: Harvard
Press, 1995).
University

HISTORY

Press,

1978);

(Cambridge,

Decline, 377-428.
Spengler,
ed.
"The End of the Ancient
Liebeschuetz,
City," in The City in Late Antiquity,
Wolfgang
1-49.
Rich
MacMullen,
1992),
(London: Routledge,
Ramsay
"Quantifying
Compare
John
CT: Yale University
in Corruption and theDecline of Rome (New Haven,
Press, 1988),
Decline,"
9

1-15.
10

Collingwood,

11

Compare

164-65.

Idea ofHistory,
Berkhofer,

and Alex

Beyond,

and Narratives:

Theories

Callinicos,

Reflections

on

the Philosophy

Polity Press, 1995).


(Cambridge:
ofHistory
to the Economies
in Money, Labour and Land: Approaches
"Hard Surfaces,"
12 Ian Morris,
and Lin Foxhall
Edward E. Cohen,
Ancient Greece, ed. Paul Cartledge,
(London: Routledge,

of

8-43.
2002),
13 Berkhofer,

Beyond, 126-27.
Historicism
Paul Hamilton,
1996).
(London:
Routledge,
Generally,
5.
15 Gilman,
Decadence,
on "The Birth of Tragedy"
I. Porter, The Invention
16 James
of Dionysus: An Essay
102-6.
CA: Stanford University
Press, 2000),
especially
14

17
18

Histoire
Chaunu,
See, for example, Morris

Pierre

2000).
19 On

medievalists,

Lutterworth,
20 Arnold
21
22

1991),
J. Toynbee,

Decline,
Spengler,
M. I. Rostovtzeff,

et d?cadence
Berman,

see Norman

F. Cantor,

the Middle

Inventing

Ages

Duckworth,

(Cambridge:

on Trial

Civilization

(Oxford:

Oxford

University

Press,

1948).

21.
Social

and Economic

Press, 1957),
University
23
Decline,
420-22;
Spengler,
et d?cadence.
Histoire

History

of the Roman

Chaunu

takes

the

Law

Second

"On the Uses and Disadvantages


Nietzsche,
ed. David Breazeale
Cambridge
(Cambridge:
to the Philosophy
Introduction
F. Hegel,
ofHistory,

1988), 57.
"Political Economy
Morley,
no. 1 (1998): 95-114.

Empire,

2nd

ed.

(Oxford:

541.

Friedrich

Meditations,
25 G. W.

(London:

79-117.

Oxford

24

165.
1981),
(Paris: Perrin,
The Twilight ofAmerican Culture

(Stanford,

as his

starting

point

in

for Life," in Untimely


of History
107-8.
Press, 1997),
University
trans. Leo Rauch
(Indianapolis,

IN: Hackett,

26

and Classical

Antiquity,"

Journal

The Country and the City (London:


27 Raymond
Williams,
or an
William
Morris, News from Nowhere,
Epoch of Rest: Bang
Romance
1970).
(London:
Routledge,

of theHistory

Chatto

of Ideas 59,

8c Windus,

Some Chapters from

1973);
a Utopian

151-64.
Helios 26, no. 2 (1999):
"Marx and the Failure of Antiquity,"
and Frederick
in Karl Marx
of the People's Paper
at the anniversary
(1856),
Speech
655-56.
Lawrence
8cWishart,
14 (London:
vol.
Collected
1980),
Works,
Engels,
111.
trans. Martin Nicolaus
30 Marx, Grundrisse,
1973),
(London:
Penguin,
and Frederick
in Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
31 Marx,
Engels,
8cWishart,
Lawrence
Selected Works in One Volume (London:
1968), 93, 95.
CA: Stanford University
Press,
32 Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of theFuture (Stanford,
28

Morley,

29

225-88.
2000),
33 Nietzsche,
34

Nietzsche,

"Uses and Disadvantages,"


"Uses and Disadvantages,"

101.
101.

in Nietzsche
and the Uses of Antiquity,"
Greeks': Myth, History
"'Unhistorical
Morley,
UK: Camden
7-26.
ed. Paul Bishop
and Antiquity,
House,
2004),
(Woodbridge,

35

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DECADENCE

36
37

AS A THEORY

OF HISTORY

Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, 95; Nietzsche,


Max Weber,
The Protestant Ethic and

(London: Routledge,
Politics and Modernity

1992), 182. Compare


in the Thought ofMax

585

"Uses and Disadvantages,"


62.
trans. Talcott
of Capitalism,

the Spirit
Lawrence
Weber

Parsons

A. Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture,


and Los Angeles:
of
(Berkeley
University

California
38

Press, 1989).
David Weir,
Compare

Massachusetts
time when

Decadence
and theMaking
Press,
1995), 202: "What is progress
to go forward?"
it was possible

(Amherst: University
ofModernism
now hut a desire
to go backward

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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

of
to a