Decadence and Renaissance
by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2008
1. Seven Theses
1. Organisms have life- and death-instincts.
2. Society is an organism.
3. Society has life- and death-instincts.
4. When the life-instinct is predominant in a society, the result is a renaissance-type society; when the death-instinct is predominant in a society, the result is a decadent society.
5. When the death-instinct in a society reaches an extreme, it turns into its opposite, the life-instinct.
6. Decadence, or the death-instinct, has now reached an extreme in most Western societies.
7. The death-instinct, having reached an extreme in most Western societies, will now turn into its opposite, the life-instinct. Thus, most Western societies are at the start of a renaissance.
I’d like to discuss each of these seven theses, beginning with Thesis Two (Thesis One was the subject of the previous chapter).
2. Thesis Two: Society is an organism That the best Italian painters were born within forty years of each other violates the laws of probability and demands explanation. And why were the best Greek dramatists and the best Roman poets and the best Russian novelists also born within forty years of each other? Why was the Renaissance so fruitful for various kinds of culture, in various countries? History includes a series of decadent eras, as well as a series of renaissance-type eras. What are the causes of decadence and renaissance?
The organic theory of society provides a clue to the causes of decadence and renaissance. According to the organic theory of society, a society is an organic whole; though it is not actually an organism, it behaves like an organism. A society is not composed of separate individuals, as a pile of rocks is, but rather of inter-connected individuals, individuals whose instincts are determined by the instincts of their society. One might borrow a phrase from physics and say that individuals in a society are like particles whose wave functions are correlated. No individual can escape his society; every individual is born with his society’s instincts, and will die with them. Every branch of culture — philosophy, literature, music, visual art — is under the sway of the same instinct. During the Periclean age in Greece, for example, all branches of culture flourished together. During the late Roman empire, on the other hand, all branches of culture declined together, and creativity dried up. Not only is every branch of culture under the sway of the same instinct, but political behavior, too, is influenced by that same instinct. In short, society is an organic whole, and everything in a society reflects that society’s predominant instinct.
3. Thesis Three: Society has life- and death-instincts What makes society an organic whole? What knits together the individuals in a society? The individuals in a society are connected by living together, by a common history, by a collective unconscious, and by a shared life- or death-instinct. Although societies resemble organisms, insofar as they have life- and death-instincts, societies don’t necessarily die, as real organisms do. Societies may die accidentally, but they don’t die necessarily.
4. Thesis Four: When the life-instinct is predominant in a society, the result is a renaissance-type society; when the death-instinct is predominant in a society, the result is a decadent society Just as all organic life contains both a life-instinct and a death-instinct, so too every society contains both a life-instinct and a death instinct. Most epochs are neither completely renaissance-type nor completely decadent; most epochs are moderately renaissance-type or moderately decadent, that is, most epochs are a combination of the life-instinct and the death-instinct, with one of these instincts slightly stronger than the other.
A few epochs, however, are completely renaissance-type or completely decadent. Epochs that are completely renaissance-type are more noticeable, more visible, more memorable, than those that are completely decadent. The Periclean age in Greece, and the Renaissance age in Italy are two examples of completely renaissance-type epochs. In epochs like these, the life-instinct is markedly stronger than the death-instinct.
The average man doesn’t express the instinct of an era; although the average man shares this instinct, it remains latent in him. Only the genius expresses the instinct of an era; as Hegel would say, only the great man expresses the Spirit of the Age. Genius sublimates its instincts, and only in sublimated form can instincts become visible to the eye of history.
5. Thesis Five: When the death-instinct in a society reaches an extreme, it turns into its opposite, the life-instinct Philosophers have long noted that many aspects of life have a dialectical nature — in other words, many aspects of life move toward an extreme and then turn into their opposites. An extreme of happiness, for example, often turns into sadness, and an extreme of liberty often turns into tyranny. In the West, the theory of the dialectic originated with Heraclitus, who believed that everything moved toward its opposite; Heraclitus spoke of enantiodromia, running toward the opposite. The dialectic played an important role in Hegel’s philosophy. The dialectic was not unknown to Chinese philosophers, and it can be found in the Chinese theory of yin and yang; “yang at its highest point changes into yin, and positive into negative.”1
The instincts of society oscillate back and forth. A decadent society will reach an extreme of decadence before turning into a renaissance-type society; the darkest hour is right before the dawn. The life-instinct, however, declines gradually before turning into the death-instinct, it doesn’t reach an extreme before turning into the death-instinct; day declines gradually into night. Thus, a renaissance-type society will decline gradually into a decadent society.
6. A Survey of the History of the West in the Light of the Theory of Decadence and Renaissance2
The renaissance-type era in Greek history was the era of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Thucydides. An era like this usually lasts about forty years. In this case, about fifty-four years elapsed between the birth of Aeschylus and the birth of Thucydides. Since instincts are innate, and a long life can’t change the instincts with which one was born, date of birth determines one’s instincts. That people in a given society are alive at the same time doesn’t mean that they have the same spirit or instinct. That people in a given society are born at the same time does mean that they have the same spirit or instinct. As Ortega said, “in history it is important to distinguish between that which is contemporary and that which is coeval,” in other words, between that which is alive at the same time and that which is born at the same time.3
Before we can understand the shift from renaissance to decadence in Greek culture, we need to consider the significance of a writer’s views on morality. A writer’s views on morality often reveal whether he is renaissance-type or decadent. A moral world view is a sign of decadence, while an amoral world view is a sign of a renaissance spirit.
Though the renaissance spirit is generally amoral, an amoral world view doesn’t always indicate a renaissance spirit. Decadence is sometimes amoral, especially in the modern era. Decadence is protean, and takes many different forms. Although decadence has often, in the past, taken the form of repressive ethics, it takes different forms in our time. Modern decadence no longer advocates repression of the unconscious. Thus, in our time, a philosopher’s views on morality aren’t as reliable an indication of his spirit as they were in earlier times.
Why do decadent writers, especially those from earlier times, often preach morality, and advocate the repression of the unconscious? There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that repression means turning against oneself, doing violence to one’s unconscious; repression is related to the death-instinct, and the death-instinct is the essence of decadence. The second is that the decadent person is less healthy than the renaissance person; the decadent person’s instincts are less harmonious and more in need of repression and control. Hence the decadent person needs morality and the rule of the super-ego, while the renaissance person can express his whole nature without restraint or repression.
Nietzsche was the first philosopher to see the importance of decadence, and to regard morality as decadent. Nietzsche viewed Socrates and Plato as moralists, decadent moralists. Socrates represents the decadent era that succeeded the renaissance-type era. Socrates is an excellent example of a moralist, of one who champions consciousness over the unconscious, reason over inclination. Knowledge is virtue, according to Socrates, and virtue is happiness.
Euripides, like Socrates, was a moralist. Euripides and Socrates had an affinity for each other. Socrates, it was said, helped Euripides to write his plays. Though Socrates refrained from seeing the plays of the older tragedians, he was willing to walk to the Piraeus in order to see Euripides’ latest play. Euripides and Socrates represent the Apollonian, the moral, the decadent and the death-instinct, in contrast to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Thucydides, who represent the Dionysian, the amoral, the renaissance-type and the life-instinct.
The renaissance-type artist, like the renaissance-type philosopher, is amoral, while the decadent artist is often a moralist. Though Euripides sometimes depicted characters who were swept away by passion, his world view was rational and moral; all his verses, said Cicero, were precepts. By contrast, the world view of Aeschylus and Sophocles was amoral. Euripides probably represents the first signs of the decadent era that succeeded the renaissance-type era, though he was born nine years before Thucydides.
After its brief renaissance era, Greek culture entered a decadent era from which it never emerged. But it didn’t become completely decadent immediately; decadence replaces the renaissance spirit gradually. Of the four leading Greek philosophers who came after the renaissance era, three — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — were moralists and one, Epicurus, was a hedonist. Hedonism, like morality, is decadent. Speaking of the major Greek philosophers, Nietzsche said, “These great philosophers represent one after the other the typical forms of decadence.”4
Although many of the most illustrious Greek writers were decadent, they were nonetheless great writers. Plato, for example, is among the greatest philosophers ever, despite his decadence. Decadence affects a writer’s views, but it doesn’t diminish his genius or dull his intellect.
The tragic spirit vanished from Greece after the renaissance-type era. The writers of comedy, especially the writers of the so-called New Comedy, represent the decline of Greek drama and the decline of the Greek spirit in general. Hence the New Comedians admired not the older tragedians from the renaissance era, but the later tragedian from the decadent era, Euripides. One of the New Comedians, Philemon, said that he would gladly hang himself immediately if he could converse with Euripides in the land of the dead. What one loves and admires is an indication of what one is.
Some have argued that Euripides caused the decline of Greek tragedy. Others have argued that the early tragedians — Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — exhausted all the best subjects for tragedies, and set such a high standard that later dramatists were afraid to write in the same genre. Similar arguments are made about the decline of English drama after Shakespeare. According to these arguments, writers are weighed down by the burden of the past, the burden of great predecessors. Such arguments are superficial, however; they don’t explain why Greek and English creativity declined not only in drama but also in other cultural fields. Only a general theory of renaissance and decadence can explain the decline of Greek tragedy, the decline of English drama, and other cultural phenomena.
Turning from Greek cultural history to Greek political history, we’re confronted by the conquests of Alexander the Great. Does the militarism of Alexander represent the Greek spirit or the Macedonian spirit? If the militarism of Alexander represents the Greek spirit, it occurs at the same point in the historical cycle as the militarism of Napoleon and the militarism of Hitler, and this suggests that such militarism takes place about one hundred and fifty years after renaissance-type eras.
When considering the history of Rome, we find an era of political and cultural decadence at the end of the Roman Republic. During this era, there was a general political disintegration — the invasion of enemies, the depredations of pirates, the revolt of allies, the rebellion of slaves.
The era of Julius Caesar and Augustus, which followed the decadent era, was a renaissance era. This renaissance era is represented by Lucretius, Virgil and Horace. The renaissance spirit is one cause of Rome’s expansionist tendency during this era. This expansionist tendency was expressed in the conquests of Caesar and Pompey. Nations tend to expand during renaissance eras, and contract during decadent eras.5
In the opinion of many people, war results in nothing but death and destruction, and is the product of the death-instinct. But the ultimate goal of the death-instinct is to bring the organism to which it belongs back to an inanimate condition, not to send other organisms back to an inanimate condition. War isn’t the product of the death-instinct.
War can improve mankind, just as evolution by natural selection can improve species. Civilized nations, because of their superior political and economic structure, have often conquered uncivilized nations, and thus spread their civilization. Roman conquests, for example, spread civilization in Europe. Conquest creates larger political units, within which society can enjoy political stability and economic progress. Without conquest, the world would be fragmented into countless miniature nations, which would be in a state of political instability, economic stagnation and cultural barbarism.
Konrad Lorenz, the expert on animal behavior, rejected Freud’s view that aggression is the product of the death-instinct. In his book On Aggression, Lorenz argued that aggression often benefits both individual and species:
Aggression, the effects of which are frequently equated with those of the death wish, is an instinct like any other and in natural conditions it helps just as much as any other to ensure the survival of the individual and the species.6
If aggression helps both individual and species, shouldn’t we associate it with the life-instinct rather than with the death-instinct? Many of the aggressive acts that are committed by individuals and nations are doubtless the product of evil, sadistic, destructive impulses. But Freud’s view that aggression and war are always the product of the death-instinct is one-sided, and overlooks the fact that aggression and war sometimes have positive effects — among human beings, and among other animals.
After the Augustan era, Rome gradually declined into decadence. Its chief philosophers during its decadent period — Seneca and Marcus Aurelius — were Stoics. Stoicism is a decadent philosophy since it advocates repression of the unconscious in the name of virtue and morality. Renaissance-type philosophy, unlike Stoicism, advocates the expression of one’s whole nature, not the repression of a part of one’s nature.
During Rome’s decadent period, many religious cults flourished. “The need for superstition,” wrote Burckhardt, “was grown the more desperate in the degree that the natural energy with which the individual confronts fate had disappeared.”7 Like Ortega, Burckhardt had a deep understanding of history. Burckhardt saw the importance of energy, and he saw that decadence is a shortage of energy. Burckhardt’s concept of “natural energy” is close to the concept of life-instinct.
Decadence — the death-instinct in society — was one cause of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. There were many other causes of Rome’s decline. To enumerate all of these causes, and to say how large a share each had in bringing about the final result, is impossible. The causes of historical events can never be completely understood. A theory of the life- and death-instincts of societies can’t explain all historical events, it can only contribute to our understanding of history. In this respect, the theory of the life- and death-instincts is similar to the economic interpretation of history. Both theories can contribute to our understanding of history, but neither can explain every historical event.
C. Modern Europe
Before the major Italian Renaissance, there was a minor Italian renaissance in the early 1300’s. Its key figures were Giotto, Dante and Petrarch. Giotto shows an interest in personality and psychology that is characteristic of the renaissance-type painter.
Three leading painters of the Italian Renaissance were Michelangelo, Leonardo and Titian. They were born within twenty-five years of each other. They share with Giotto an interest in personality and in psychology. Though known for its painters, the Italian Renaissance also included a renaissance-type writer, Machiavelli. Like Thucydides, who was also a renaissance-type writer, Machiavelli has an amoral view of the world.
Machiavelli accepts reality, and looks reality squarely in the face; this is characteristic of the renaissance-type spirit, just as fleeing from reality is characteristic of a decadent spirit. Nietzsche praised Machiavelli and Thucydides as renaissance-type spirits:
Thucydides, and perhaps the Principe of Machiavelli, are related to me closely by their unconditional will not to deceive themselves and to see reason in reality — not in “reason”, still less in “morality.”8
Nietzsche contrasted Thucydides with Plato, whom he regarded as decadent:
Courage in face of reality ultimately distinguishes such natures as Thucydides and Plato: Plato is a coward in face of reality — consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has himself under control — consequently he retains control over things.
If Italy had a renaissance in the early 1300’s, and another renaissance in the late 1400’s, the question arises, Why did the Italians have two renaissances in a relatively short space of time? A renaissance occurs when decadence, or the death-instinct, has reached an extreme. This seems to happen quickly when society is underdeveloped and barely maintains its organic nature, as was the case with Italian society during this era. Societies of this type need only a short time to complete a full cycle of renaissance-decadence-renaissance. A society that is completely undeveloped and hasn’t reached the organic level, such as European society during the Dark Ages, doesn’t seem to have either renaissance-type or decadent eras.
The Dutch renaissance occurred in the mid-1600’s and is exemplified by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Spinoza. Rembrandt is a perfect example of the psychological renaissance painter, and Spinoza is a perfect example of the amoral renaissance philosopher. Spinoza denied free will and defined right in terms of power. Because Spinoza was an amoral renaissance spirit, he was admired by other amoral renaissance spirits, such as Goethe and Hegel. Just as what one loves and admires is an indication of what one is, so too what sort of people love and admire one is an indication of what one is.
The French renaissance began in the early 1500’s, shortly after the Italian renaissance began. Its leading figures were Montaigne and Rabelais. Like other renaissance-type writers, Montaigne believed in natural ethics, in expressing one’s whole nature, rather than in repressive ethics.
I have... adopted for my own use [wrote Montaigne] the ancient rule that we cannot go wrong in following nature.... I have not, like Socrates, corrected my natural disposition by force of reason, nor used any art to interfere with my native inclinations.9
This passage illustrates the difference between decadent philosophers, who believe in repressive ethics, and renaissance-type philosophers, who believe in natural ethics.
Shakespeare and Bacon are the leading figures of the English renaissance, which occurred about forty years after the French renaissance. Shakespeare has the amoral world view that is characteristic of the renaissance mind. Samuel Johnson criticized Shakespeare for not being moral:
[Shakespeare] sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.
Bacon, like Shakespeare, has an amoral world view. One commentator said, “there is a touch of Machiavelli often in Bacon’s counsels of life.”10 Nietzsche praised Bacon for focusing on reality, just as he praised Thucydides and Machiavelli. During the eras of Shakespeare and Montaigne, the life-instinct reached its zenith. During the period from 1600 to 1800, the life-instinct was no longer at its zenith, but was still stronger than the death-instinct, hence the period from 1600 to 1800 may be called a relatively renaissance-type era, though it wasn’t an absolutely renaissance-type era.
France and the English-speaking nations should be grouped together since their historical cycles are synchronous; they had renaissance eras at about the same time, and they had decadent eras at about the same time. Germany and Russia, however, shouldn’t be grouped with France and the English-speaking nations, since they followed different historical cycles. Germany entered its renaissance era during the early 1800’s, when the other Western nations entered their decadent era. Thus, the historical cycle of Germany is the opposite of the historical cycle of the other Western nations. In today’s world, there’s more contact between societies, so perhaps all societies will eventually follow the same historical cycle.
The three leading figures in the German renaissance were Goethe, Beethoven and Hegel. Goethe is an example of the amoral renaissance artist. Like Montaigne, Goethe believed in natural ethics rather than repressive ethics. Goethe put the doctrine of natural ethics into the mouth of the “fair saint” in Wilhelm Meister: “I freely follow my emotions and know as little of constraint as of repentance.”
Hegel is an example of the amoral renaissance philosopher. Like Goethe, Hegel admired the amoral philosophy of Spinoza. Hegel didn’t view the world in moral terms. When Hegel discusses politics, he doesn’t ask, “What is just? What is legitimate?” Hegel accepts reality, and tries to understand reality. Hegel’s political thinking reminds one of the political thinking of Thucydides and of Machiavelli. Hegel sees nothing unjust in conquest: “The civilized nation is conscious that the rights of barbarians are unequal to its own and treats their autonomy as only a formality.”11
Kant was born just before the German renaissance and Schopenhauer just after it. Kant and Schopenhauer were therefore not renaissance-type philosophers, but decadent philosophers. That they had moral world views is an indication of their decadence. Kant is the antithesis of a natural moralist, since he believed that one’s natural inclinations could never be considered moral. Kant’s “categorical imperative” is a classic example of rational ethics, as opposed to natural ethics.
In Schopenhauer, the death-instinct may be said to have become conscious of itself; Schopenhauer preached denial of the will to live. Instead of advocating the expression of one’s whole nature, as a renaissance-type philosopher does, Schopenhauer advocated the repression of one’s unconscious, which he called the “will.”
The Russian renaissance occurred in the latter part of the 1800’s and is exemplified by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. This renaissance is probably one cause of Russia’s expansionist tendency in this era. As mentioned earlier, nations tend to expand during a renaissance-type era, and contract during a decadent era. Russia is now at the start, or near the start, of a decadent era. Thus, the historical cycle of Russia, like the historical cycle of Germany, is the opposite of the historical cycle of France and of the English-speaking countries.
Nietzsche noticed the discrepancy between Goethe, a renaissance spirit, and Goethe’s times, which were decadent. Likewise, van Gogh noticed the discrepancy between Tolstoy, a renaissance spirit, and Tolstoy’s times, which were decadent.12 Both these discrepancies can be explained by pointing out that the nineteenth century was decadent only in France and in the English-speaking countries, not in Goethe’s Germany or in Tolstoy’s Russia. Goethe’s Germany and Tolstoy’s Russia were renaissance-type societies.
7. Thesis Six: Decadence, or the death-instinct, has now reached an extreme in most western societies After their renaissance eras, France and England began to gradually decline into decadence. From about 1600 to about 1800, France and England were in relatively renaissance-type eras, even though they were gradually declining into decadence. From about 1800 to about 2000, France and England were in relatively decadent eras. The four-hundred-year cycle, lasting from 1600 to 2000, began with a renaissance-type era, the era of Montaigne and Shakespeare, an era that lasted about one generation. And the cycle ended with an era of absolute decadence, an era that lasted from about 1950 to 2000.
8. Thesis Seven: Most Western societies are at the start of a renaissance Since the death-instinct has reached an extreme in France and in the English-speaking countries, the life-instinct will now emerge in these countries for the first time in about four hundred years. This life-instinct will result in a renaissance, the representatives of which will be born between about 1960 and 2000. The renaissance itself will last from the time these representatives mature until they die. After they die, the era of pure renaissance will end, and won’t return for about four hundred years. But the era of pure renaissance won’t immediately give way to an era of pure decadence; the renaissance spirit will decline gradually.
Carlyle foresaw the renaissance of our time. In 1831, Carlyle intimated that the West would come back to life in about two hundred years, like the phoenix rising from its ashes. The renaissance that Carlyle foresaw is now at hand.13
Since the renaissance epochs of the past were culturally productive, despite the small populations of the countries in which they occurred, will the renaissance of our epoch be even more culturally productive, since our population is much larger than theirs? No, there seems to be little correlation between cultural productivity and population. In fact, the most creative renaissance epoch was the Periclean epoch in Greece, and the population responsible for that creativity was small.
If population size isn’t the cause of differences between renaissance epochs, then what is the cause of those differences? External conditions, as well as innate factors, determine the difference between renaissance epochs. In what sort of environment are writers and artists working? Within what cultural traditions are they working? The renaissance of our time may be held back by an unfavorable environment and by a lack of cultural traditions. It’s difficult nowadays to withdraw from the world, to think, to imagine, to dream. Modern man can scarcely appreciate the creations of earlier epochs, let alone create great works himself. Culture demands minimal external stimulation, quiet solitude, leisure. Modern life is over-stimulating, crowded and hurried. Modern man is absorbed by politics and business, and distracted by the mass media. Machinery and technology take him outside himself.
To find quiet solitude, it isn’t necessary to go to the wilds of Alaska. If one has high goals, high ideals and inspiring examples, and if one rejects society’s goals, society’s ideals and society’s examples, one will quickly find oneself cast out from society, and one will have to build a world for oneself. Isn’t this what the great artists and writers of the past have done? Haven’t they built worlds for themselves? Isn’t a literary work a little world?
Cultural achievement in our time will be inhibited not only by an environment that isn’t conducive to culture, but also by the absence of cultural traditions. Today’s young renaissance-type writers and artists will have difficulty finding suitable models to emulate in the society around them. To find such models, they will have to go back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then develop their own styles with the help of those models. The new styles that they create will not be understood or appreciated by their contemporaries. Today’s young renaissance-type writers and artists face a difficult task, a task that few will be able to accomplish. The renaissance of our time will probably be represented by a small number of outstanding figures.
1. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 15, ¶94. The dialectic plays an especially prominent role in the philosophy of Zhuang Zi.
2. My theory seems to fit the West best; I haven’t tried to carry it outside the West. Perhaps people with a deeper knowledge of China, India, Egypt, etc. will apply my theory to those civilizations.
3. Man and Crisis, 3
4. The Will to Power, §435. Cicero’s remark on Euripides is cited in Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare.”
5. “The history of a nation,” wrote Ortega, “is not solely that of its formative and ascendant period. It is also the history of its decadence. If the former consists in amalgamation, the latter may be described as an inverse process. The history of the decadence of a nation is the history of a vast disintegration.”(Invertebrate Spain, ch. 1)
6. On Aggression, Introduction
7. The Age of Constantine. Old people may also have a shortage of “natural energy,” and this may prompt old people to become superstitious. Examples of old people who had religious conversions are Newton, Liszt, Wagner, Gogol, Tolstoy, Strindberg and Huysmans.
8. Twilight of the Idols, “What I Owe To The Ancients”, #2. Perhaps we should speak of a “Spanish Renaissance” — Cervantes, Velazquez, etc.
9. “On Physiognomy.” Like Montaigne, Rabelais seems to have believed in natural ethics; the motto of the academy in Rabelais’ novel is “Do What You Will.” Nietzsche admired natural ethics: “All naturalism in morality, that is all healthy morality, is dominated by an instinct of life.... Anti-natural morality, that is virtually every morality that has hitherto been taught... turns on the contrary precisely against the instincts of life.”(Twilight of the Idols, “Morality as Anti-Nature” #4)
10. See Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” and Henry Morley’s Introduction to Bacon’s Essays, A. L. Burt, NY.
11. See Goethe, The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, VI, and Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, §351.
12. See Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions,” §50, and van Gogh, Dear Theo, p. 390.
13. See Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, “The Phoenix”
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