Eeyore’s Cabinet: The Decadent Culture

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767: Detail

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

I’ve been reading the Satyricon again, which I taught for a number of years in early imperial Latin literature classes for advanced Latin students. The Latin, outside of the slang and neologisms, and the fragmented text, is pretty easy. The style flows. The Cena Trimalchionis is a brilliant damnation of the combination of wealth and leisure. 

What I was struck by again were Petronius’s symptoms of a “decadent” society: obsessions with showy materialism such as food, dress, and high-price luxuries; idleness or the notion that lots of young people are just wandering around without jobs but not starving either; polite mockery of those who work with their hands; childlessness and infertility; legacy hunting or the idea of easy money by flattering one’s way into an inheritance, cults, and not just promiscuity but also pan-sexuality, orgies, pederasty, pedophilia, transgenderism, transvestism, mockery of past marriage customs and traditions, general fear of impotence, and infidelity.

The novel satirizes widespread ignorance about Roman myths, traditions, and customs, and the general cynicism about traditional morality, of the Milesian Tales, Widow of Ephesus, and Pergamon Boy sort. Education is discussed but from the view that pedants like Eumolpus and Agaememnon are bankrupt souls, and it has bifurcated into meaningless rhetoric for the elite and dumbed down learning for the less wealthy others. 

The author Petronius Arbiter was likely the famous suicide Petronius of the Neroian Court. And he seems to think in the early days of the Principate that globalization (Mare Nostrum) has resulted in a leisured and corrupt Italy (the novel takes place, no surprise, in the Bay of Naples). His world is made possible by the huge influx of slaves, risk-taking non-Italian entrepreneurs, provincial money, and the rise of transcontinental commerce that has replaced the staid old Italian agrarianism, that Virgil recreated in his Eclogues and Georgics a generation after it had died.

 It is hard to know whether the author has more contempt for the played out old Italian stuffy establishment or the crass, uncouth, and richer imperial wheeler-dealers like Trimalchio—or both. Unspoken but implied is that the entire circus is predicated on slave labor, a still potent army on the border, the fumes of what was once Augustan court stability, and the riches of the east that are becoming Romanized and globalized—and that it won’t go on for much longer (in fact, the empire would endure for another 400 years in the West, and 1400 in the East).

When one collates the Satyricon with the poems of Catullus and works of Tacitus and Suetonius, the picture from say 60 BC to AD 100 is that leisure, over-refinement, money, rapid growth in urbanism, and cheap labor (chattel slavery), destroy the collective Roman character. They conspire to ensure cultural decadence and are twins to political corruption. 

No wonder the pessimistic determinist schools of Hegel, Spengler, and Toynbee concocted their evolutionary scales of Western struggle, maturity, and inevitable decline and self-loathing, as if stable government, and private property combined with freedom, both economic and political, eventually become passé, leading to consumption rather than investment and thus ultimately suicide—until the cycle repeats. Contempt for one’s ancestors and forefathers is a sure sign of societal pathology.

No comment on all this, other than to suggest that older people see third-generational decline, younger people first-generational ascendence. Where AOC sees a dynamic green new utopia and an energetic diverse more capable demography replacing the played out fading 1950s sort, others might see a generation that will not be able to return to the moon (at least in public fashion) or can’t ensure safety in the streets, or can’t build a railroad, or an affordable middle-class existence for its people, or do much of anything but obsesses about themselves in their selfies and tweets.

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