Earlier this week I posted a classic Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip having to do with perspective, particularly what happens Calvin tries to “engage” his dad in some kind of “minor debate.” It’s a visually brilliant strip that points to some bigger truths. Because perspective is difficult. And there are different ways of getting it and different ways of understanding it. And that requires a particular kind of humility.
Earlier this year, Ross Douthat (columnist at the New York Times) released The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. I got a few chapters into it before Covidtide came along. At that point, it seems like I gave up most books in order to follow Twitter and read longer pieces online. One thing my summer online class has done for me is it has forced me back into my books. So I’ve spent the last couple of days finishing the first section of Douthat’s work. He’s a great writer, I think, super-easy to read and often saying hard truths in interesting ways.
The premise of the book is that America has entered a period of decadence, which he defines as “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” From there, he introduces what he calls the “four horsemen” that signify this state of being:
It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development.
It is important for Douthat to help the reader to see “decadence as something more specific than just any social or moral trend that you dislike.” And then he wants the reader to see that decadence doesn’t necessarily bring things to a swift death and rebirth; instead, decadence can last for a long time.
All to say that I find Douthat’s argument substantive and sobering, particularly in light of the last three months. All of the facets of Our Current Moment have been apocalyptic in the sense that they are showing, really pointing out, how much of Douthat’s basic assertions hold weight. And those four horsemen (stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition) make an interesting and beneficial framework for understanding specific institutions and ideas as they ground a survey of things in the history of something and not just in a particular moment.
I mention all of this because this is both the stew and the pot for me. It’s both content and content holder. Any handle we can have to understand things more fully, to gain perspective, is a good thing.