Editors’ Note: This essay is the first in a four-part series on decadence and modern society. This series examines the cultural roots of our economic, demographic, intellectual, institutional, and moral decadence. In this first essay, Carlo Lancellotti explores the root cause of our modern moral decline.

Decadence, in the sense of sustained, apparently irreversible decline, is a notoriously slippery concept. When considering an entire culture or society, so many metrics can be used, so many different aspects can be assessed, that one should be wary of making overly general claims. 

Nonetheless, it seems hard to dispute that in recent years our society has been plagued by what could be described as multiple institutional failures across completely different fields. Political institutions, like Congress and the two major parties, are broadly viewed as seriously dysfunctional. Public education is in a deep crisis in many parts of the country. Public health institutions did not fare well during the pandemic. The mainstream media are widely distrusted. The military has lost much of its prestige. The leaders of large corporations like Disney and Boeing have proven to be corrupt or incompetent. Many professional societies seem to have become hostage to political interest groups. Even Scientific American is no longer “scientific.” The list goes on and on. 

One can certainly argue that these failures are counterbalanced by some success stories, but it is hard to avoid the impression that there is a pattern of widespread institutional decline. Time will tell whether it amounts to long-term decline, but for now, we can ask whether any common factor unites these disparate phenomena.

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Explanations for Institutional Decline

Both the political Left and Right have their favorite explanations. The Left tends to blame “neoliberalism”; allegedly, the shift toward market-based solutions and privatization, which started with Ronald Reagan, weakened America’s public institutions, both by depriving them of funding and by fostering a selfish and individualistic mindset. The Right typically counters that the weakening of traditionally liberal institutions like academia and the media is self-inflicted and due to extreme politicization, which alienates them from the public they ought to serve and makes them the playground of a new, highly ideological elite. 

In my opinion, the two explanations simply illuminate two different aspects of the same phenomenon. On one hand, today’s great private economic powers are perfectly comfortable with progressive political ideology. On the other hand, the progressive professional and managerial classes are perfectly comfortable with, and benefit from, advanced capitalism, and liberal intellectuals give it ideological cover. Political polarization is deep, but as far as the elites are concerned, right-wing “market” ideology and left-wing “woke” ideology are not in serious conflict. As many surveys have shown, the Western ruling class is “socially liberal and economically conservative.” 

I would say, then, that the root cause of social decline today is the prevalence among our social elites of what could be called “bourgeois individualism,” be it in the traditional economic-libertarian form or the more recent progressive-politicized version. In this view, people pursue only their private interests along different tracks (either raw accumulation of financial resources, or accumulation of cultural, bureaucratic, and managerial power) and society suffers. As Blessed Antonio Rosmini once wrote in The Philosophy of Politics

when society has reached a stage when the immediate object of the masses is no longer social, but privatea period when the only stimulus to action is selfishness . . . society exists only accidentally, that is, it does not exist as a result of any force it receives from the spirit of its members, but solely as a result of the material solidity of its constitutionin other words, through its inertia. It stands like a stiffened corpse ready to fall at the first blow. 

A Return to Ideals: A Solution to Institutional Decay

This answer, however, is not completely satisfactory. At the very least, one needs to ask a further question: how did we get to this point? Is it a matter of a purely moral decay, in the sense that people have simply become worse, more selfish? 

I doubt there is any reason to think that somehow we are worse people than our ancestors, at least in terms of our natural inclinations. In my opinion, we are “constitutionally” weaker than previous generations in the scope of our desire. After all, great institutions get built and endure because many individuals choose to direct their time and energies to the service of something larger than themselves. No “invisible hand” will build a great university or a hospital or a newspaper out of the mere private interests of the individuals involved. As recent news stories about the decline of famous American manufacturers illustrate, “shareholder value” alone cannot even sustain large industrial corporations. 

In the long run, an institution can only be sustained by people who desire something beautiful, something lasting, something worth giving one’s life for. It seems to me that decadence today stems from a general shrinking of human desire, so to speak. This reduction of desire manifests itself in many aspects of people’s lives, not least in the sphere of love, sexuality, and childbearing. Many people have observed that there is a timidity in today’s young people, a failure to aspire to great things. But a young person today can legitimately ask us adults: what have we proposed to them to desire? One can easily receive a complete education in our society and never be proposed any greater goal than “success,” which in practice means just material well-being and perhaps some degree of peer recognition.

This death of all ideals seems to me to be the ultimate root cause of our decadence.


This brings me to my main point about today’s decadence, which is that human desire is awakened and sustained by ideals. “Ideal” is an interesting word because it expresses both an object of desire (an aspiration) and the “model” that inspires it. Unlike a “dream,” which is a purely subjective concept, an ideal involves a prototype. Yes, one can speak of “justice” as an ideal, but it remains entirely vague and abstract until it is embodied, say, in the biblical image of “the just.” Different historical epochs had all sorts of ideals: Greek heroes, Arthurian knights, the Renaissance man, the modern gentleman, the Victorian lady, the American self-made man. Each represented a different set of values and inspired different desires, some good and some bad, able to motivate men and women. It is not for nothing that the Church in every age proposed saints as ideal figures for the Christian people to emulate. 

In comparison, our time is very poor. We seem to have become unable to formulate strong ideals. This is probably why many of our contemporaries are so keen on following the lives of “celebrities,” who are, in a sense, surrogate ideal figures, but who generally fall short of embodying genuine universal values. In my view, this lack of ideals is the (unexpected) end result of the movement of Western secular culture farther and farther away from its historical roots. In his book The Age of Secularization, Augusto Del Noce wrote that the fate of Enlightenment progressivism is to criticize and destroy all the ideals of the past without being able to propose new ones, a phenomenon he dubbed “negative millennialism.” By “millennialism” he meant the belief that we have gone through a great historical crisis that unmasked the hypocrisy of the old ideals and annihilated them forever. By “negative” he meant the inability to formulate new ones because of our radical break with the pastbecause, as Simone Weil observed, the past is the storeroom of all our spiritual treasures. This death of all idealsas André Malraux said, “of each one of them we know the lie”seems to me to be the ultimate root cause of our decadence.

These last observations also point to the cure for our cultural decadence. Even from a purely secular perspective, our culture needs to reconcile with its past, to come to a more balanced historical awareness. People in the past were not just defined by their moral failures, and we are not morally superior beings who would not have behaved just as badly in the same circumstances. Recognizing that some of the ideals of the past had a permanent and universal value is a necessary condition for developing new ones. Moreover, this recollection cannot be purely individual, but needs to be “collective,” because, as Simone Weil again pointed out in The Need for Roots, “a collectivity . . . constitutes the sole agency for preserving the spiritual treasures accumulated by the dead.”

This is particularly important in the realm of education. Too often today history and literature are taught according to what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur dubbed the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as if the goal of liberal education were primarily to “unmask” the biases and flaws of those who came before us, with the tacit assumption that this will ensure a better future. 

I do not think it will. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. If young people are taught to look at history only through the lenses of power and oppression, they will conclude that power and oppression are everything. Conversely, let them be introduced first to the genuinely great historical deeds, philosophical ideas, literary creations, and works of art of which humans have been capable. Then they will discover the ideals that moved our predecessors. Those ideals will  also enable them to be critical of past and future injustices, but in a healthy, non-moralistic way. But first of all, genuine ideals from the past will rekindle their desire to live for great things and will thereby reopen for them a door to the future. Ultimately, there is no hope without memory.

Image by BOOCYS and licensed via Adobe Stock.