AskDefine | Define decadence

Dictionary Definition

decadence n : the state of being degenerate in mental or moral qualities [syn: degeneracy, degeneration, decadency]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A state of moral or artistic decline or deterioration; decay


  • 1956 — Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars, p 35
    "Stability, however, is not enough. It leads too easily to stagnation, and thence to decadence."


A state of moral or artistic decline or deterioration

Extensive Definition

Decadence can refer to a personal trait, or to the state of a society (or segment of it). Used to describe a person's lifestyle, it describes a lack of moral and intellectual discipline, or in the COD : `a luxurious self-indulgence`. In a society, it describes corrosive decline due to a perceived erosion of necessary moral traditions. (A society that discards unnecessary and outmoded values would not be considered decadent, although perceptions of "unnecessary and outmoded" significantly vary.) Due to arguments over the nature of morality, whether a society is decadent or not is a matter of debate, though certain historical societies (such as ancient Rome near its end) are generally held to have been decadent, as decadence often leads to objective decline.
Decadent societies are often prosperous but usually have severe social and economic inequality, to such a degree that the upper class becomes either complacent or greedy, while the lower classes become hopeless and apathetic. The middle class may exhibit either or both patterns, or it may vanish entirely. Poor leadership is generally held to be both a cause and a symptom of decadence, as the lifestyle of a decadent individual is usually considered to be incompatible with responsibility. Applied to the arts, decadence implies an elevation of self-indulgence and pretension over effort and talent; when applied to science and the professions, it describes an erosion of professional ethics. Individual or collective greed is generally disliked in societies with strong moral beliefs, and for this reason, societies that nurture it are sometimes accused of decadence.
Societies that persist in a state of decadence may become unable or unwilling to commit to their own upkeep and fall into decline. One historical perspective on ancient Rome is that it became decadent due to a succession of unstable emperors like Nero and Commodus. While they ruled centuries before the fall of Rome, their leadership may have played a role in its decline. This point of view may also be biased by later interpretation; beyond his unpredictability Nero was also viewed as a generous ruler and was popular with the lower class during his reign. Caligula only reigned a few years. Machiavelli attributed Roman decadence to the rise of Christianity. See also: Roman decadence.
Contemporary post-industrial societies such as the United States and Western Europe are sometimes accused of decadence, the argument being that consumerism, materialism, and selfishness have eroded traditional moral values of community, democracy, and the work ethic. Some critics, like James Howard Kunstler, have alleged that American decadence has reached such a degree that the society is or will be unable to solve its own environmental and ecological problems. In "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It", writer Mark Steyn argues that decadent lifestyles in the developed world (with the sole exception of the United States) have led to demographic and social decay.
In literature, the Decadent movement—late nineteenth century fin de siècle writers who were associated with Symbolism or the Aesthetic movement—was first given its name by hostile critics, and then the name was triumphantly adopted by some writers themselves. These "decadents" relished artifice over the earlier Romantics' naive view of nature (see Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Some of these writers were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.
Oscar Wilde gave a curious definition: "Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts." By this definition, Charles Dickens would qualify as decadent, because his "minor" characters often obscure the "major" ones—or at least are more interesting than them. For example, consider Mrs Sarah Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewitt.

Leninist use

Vladimir Lenin continued and extended the use of the word "decadence" in his theory of imperialism to refer to economic matters underlying political manifestations. According to Lenin, capitalism had reached its highest stage and could no longer provide for the general development of society. He expected reduced vigor in economic activity and a growth in unhealthy economic phenomena, reflecting capitalism's gradually decreasing capacity to provide for social needs and preparing the ground for socialist revolution in the West. Politically, World War I proved the decadent nature of the advanced capitalist countries to Lenin, that capitalism had reached the stage where it would destroy its own prior achievements more than it would advance.
Followers of Trotsky have split over the extent to which to uphold Lenin as against Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. However, followers of Stalin have generally defended the "decadence" thesis of Lenin's theory of imperialism against Trotskyists. Trotskyists tend to stress that capitalism in the West is still progressive and marching forward technologically with the steady accumulation of capital. They thereby show their fundamentally anti-Leninist, anti-working class stance. Followers of Lenin such as Mao and Stalin have argued that there is nothing left for imperialism to do but die, because it has nothing progressive to contribute anymore.
One who directly opposed the idea of decadence as expressed by Lenin was José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930). He argued that the "mass man" had the notion of material progress and scientific advance deeply inculcated to the extent that it was an expectation. He also argued that contemporary progress was opposite the true decadence of the Roman Empire.

Modern culture and decadence

  • The novels Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh examine the decadence of the British aristocracy in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • The British pop group Pet Shop Boys wrote a song called and about "Decadence". Originally it was a B-side on their 1994 single "Liberation", but can now be found on the b-side collection Alternative and the 2001 2-disc release of their album Very.
  • Douglas Coupland, in his novel Microserfs makes a list of "Decadent breakfast cereals"
  • The American band Disturbed released a song called "Decadence" on their album "Ten Thousand Fists"
  • The Finnish band Children of Bodom released a song called "Children Of Decadence" on their album Follow The Reaper. They also mention it in a couple of their song lyrics, such as the song: Living Dead Beat (As long as the twilight veils, The decadence we embrace)
  • Japanese band Dir en grey released a song called "mazohyst of decadence" on their album GAUZE.
  • Japanese trance group Schwarz Stein released a song called "Queen of Decadence" on their New Vogue Children album.
  • Decadence was the title of the first album released by the Daryl Palumbo-fronted band Head Automatica.
  • Decadence was aptly used to name the 10th anniversary beer of Valley Brewing Company in Stockton, Ca. as well as a line of Belgian Style Belgian beers that are being brewed at Valley Brewing Company. The Decadence name has subsequently been used by several other brewers to commemorate their own 10th anniversary beers.
  • Decaydance Records, a play on the word, is the name of Pete Wentz's imprint label under Fueled by Ramen
  • "Drink up sweet decadance" is a lyric in the song "Good Enough" on the album 'The Open Door' by Evanescence.
  • "From the mouth of decadence" is a lyric in the Temple of Dog song entitled "Hunger Strike."
  • "Decadence" is a film starring Joan Collins.

Further reading

  • Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet. ISBN 0-374-13567-3
  • Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity. ISBN 0-8223-0767-7
  • Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (1930). ISBN 0-19-281061-8
  • Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (2000). ISBN 0-06-017586-9
  • A. E. Carter, The Idea of Decadence in French Literature (1978). ISBN 0-8020-7078-7
decadence in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Дэкаданс
decadence in Czech: Dekadence
decadence in German: Dekadenz
decadence in Esperanto: Dekadenco
decadence in French: Décadence
decadence in Hebrew: דקדנס
decadence in Japanese: デカダンス
decadence in Norwegian: Dekadanse
decadence in Polish: Dekadencja
decadence in Finnish: Dekadenssi
decadence in Swedish: Dekadens
decadence in Ukrainian: Декаденство

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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