Between frustrated Wagnerians and unsatisfied Schopenhauerians – what does Nietzsche reveal about decadence?

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche', 1906. Portrait of the German 19th century philosopher. From the Stockholm Collection. Artist Edvard Munch. (Photo by Art Media/The Print Collector/Getty Images)
For Nietzsche, decadence is more than a propensity for sexual excess or luxurious indulgence: its existence reveals a fundamental level of human disunity.
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‘Nothing has occupied me more profoundly than the problem of decadence,’ Nietzsche writes in his preface to The Case of Wagner. The concept of decadence, as he here suggests, indeed has a central place in his work. His earliest book, The Birth of Tragedy, describes the downfall of Greek tragic culture at the hands of Socratism and diagnoses the cultural malaise in the Europe of his time. His later works lament, among other things, the manifold ills of Christianity and Judeo-Christian morality, and their various attendant phenomena, in contrast to the noble, life-affirming ethics of the pre-Socratic classical world. In its most general sense, decadence involves a kind of decline from a previous height. That is not to say that things in the past were idyllic, nor is it to deny that the present has certain advantages of its own. But Nietzsche is not optimistic that things are improving: ‘We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent, more Chinese, more Christian.’ ‘There is no doubt that man is getting ‘better’ all the time’, he adds sarcastically.

We also see a more specific sense of ‘decadence’ in Nietzsche’s writings. Especially in his works of 1888, the cognate term ‘décadence’ appears with great frequency. Although the precise contours of this concept of décadence are not all that clear, it is more than a general term of disapprobation or a synonym for decline of all sorts.

In the case of individuals, it is a specific psychic malady: décadence is an affliction characterized by a particular self-destructive pattern, bespeaking a failure of unity and of proper order in the self. It is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of this phenomenon that I will seek to illuminate in this essay. There remains an interesting question of how this individual decadence is related to broader cultural decadence; but this will need to be left for another time.

Let’s begin by discussing the terms ‘décadence’ and ‘decadence’ themselves. ‘Decadence’ comes from the Latin for ‘to fall away’ and thereby carries the suggestion that there is some historical decline from a past ethical, cultural, or aesthetic height. As already noted, this broader notion of decadence runs throughout Nietzsche’s work, even if he doesn’t often label it with that term or the German equivalents. Décadence, a term he does often use, is a more specific kind of failing – a manifestation of decadence in the broader sense, but not what it always consists in or is attributable to. In what follows, I will be focused on the narrower phenomenon of ‘décadence.’

Of late, the term ‘decadence’ has come to have more positive connotations than it has had in the past. Nietzsche, in keeping with the more critical and pejorative edge that the term often had in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, regards decadence not as a weekend extravagance, but as a serious and destructive flaw on the personal and social level. For many, this will conjure up ideas of a dissolute way of living – extreme luxuriousness and licentiousness in food, dress, and sexual practice – and images of fattened sybarites, swaddled in silk and gorging themselves to the point of gout, with many willing concubines at their feet. Yet in marked contrast to this caricature, the sort of décadence Nietzsche has in mind needn’t consist in a taste for the pleasures of the flesh; most often, in fact, it involves a fanatical ascetic repudiation of these sorts of sensuous delights.

Although for Nietzsche the primary bearers of decadence are individuals and cultures, he also uses the term in a more metonymic sense to describe world-views, as well as the cultural creations they animate (e.g., works of art, doctrinal religions, philosophies), which get produced by decadents and are attractive to decadents. It is important to bear this in mind, since we often tend to think of things the other way around: to use our colloquial concept of decadence for a moment, we often think in the first instance of things (e.g., foie gras) or world-views (e.g., sexual hedonism) as decadent, and the people who are drawn to them as decadent derivatively. But according to Nietzsche, we cannot infer a person’s decadence from characteristically decadent predilections, since what is decadent for one person may not be so for another. Being drawn to Wagner’s music, for example, is typically a manifestation of decadence, but not for someone such as Nietzsche himself, who is able to turn this ‘questionable and dangerous’ music to his advantage.

These spiritual, intellectual, and artistic expressions of decadence in turn prove irresistibly attractive to decadents. Like hypertensives drawn to salty snacks, decadents, as the result of their condition, come to crave what is bad for them. And going to Parsifal, or to church, only serves to make the basic problem worse.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche gives us an illustration of how this dynamic of decadence plays out in the person of Socrates. As an account of the historical Socrates or of Plato’s character of that name, it is tendentious, to say the least. My aim is not to vindicate Nietzsche’s understanding of Socrates on either score; but it will be helpful to dwell on this example, for it is Nietzsche’s most detailed account of the features characteristic of individual decadence.

One of the distinguishing marks of decadence is a kind of psychical disunity. According to Nietzsche, this means that Socrates experiences his drives (particularly his ‘lower’ appetitive drives) not as part of him, but as alien elements needing to be subdued by reason. As Socrates sees himself, he is his rational, eternal soul; the body, with its unruly appetites, is just a temporary residence. To combat this perceived chaos within, reason becomes predominant above all else and Socrates develops ‘a hypertrophy of the logical faculty’ [Superfötation des Logischen] that affects to deliver him from the sway of these disruptive forces – although as Nietzsche sees it, reason just acts as a tyrant, keeping the other ‘lower’ elements in an unhealthy kind of subjugation. Socrates doesn’t just stop with himself; he tries to convince others in Athens that being ‘absurdly rational’ is the only route to the good life. But as Nietzsche observes, ‘The fanaticism with which all Greek reflection throws itself upon rationality betrays a desperate situation’. Socrates becomes enamoured of reason and dialectics because he cannot cope with his own unruly impulses, and the philosophical life of zealous rationality is just his reactive countermeasure. The disunity attendant upon identifying himself solely with his rational faculty, not with the ‘lower’ aspects that are also part of him, constitutes a kind of decadence, as does the un-remedied disorder among his instinctual elements. His way of combatting decadence – allowing one part of himself (his rationality) to grow wildly out of proportion and to tyrannise the whole – drives him even further into this condition.

Continuing with Nietzsche’s political language of anarchy and tyranny, we might think of the way in which a self-aggrandising dictator, vowing to restore law and order, comes to power in situations of political turmoil. The dictator blames all the social ills on some minority group and proposes a xenophobic or genocidal plan for their internment or liquidation in the interests of the ‘true’ polis (the conception of which excludes these elements). The decadent individual comes to think along similar lines: the strategy is to scapegoat some aspect of the person and to blame that for his or her ‘fallen’ state. The ‘salvation’ is to root out the allegedly offending element. ‘If only I could eliminate all my ‘impure’, ‘evil’ sexual impulses, then I could be closer to God.’ ‘If only I could detach my soul from this copulating, urinating, and defecating animal body, I would attain perfect humanity.’ ‘If only I could get past the temptations of this fallen life, I would have the most extreme bliss with God in heaven.’ And so on.

Notice, though, what is already evident in this way of thinking. The decadent individual starts out with some rift in the self, indicative of the failure of integration that is characteristic of decadence: He is his soul, not his animal body. His real desires are exalted religious ones, not worldly sexual ones. His real life is the one that awaits him in heaven, not the one he is leading on earth. This failing only gets worse, for there turns out to be a vicious cycle within the decadent person. This domination of the organism by a particular part (the domineering element that comes to power) operates as the organism’s defense mechanism in response to its preexisting decadence (the disunity and disorder in the self). Yet in the very process of trying to correct for this decadence, it grows even more decadent. Whereas at first there was anarchy, now there is tyranny. One failing is just exchanged for another, one brand of decadence for a different and in some ways worse brand. In this respect, it is like the case of a moderate smoker, who in order to quit entirely never touches another cigarette, but covers his body in progressively more nicotine patches, so that he is getting more nicotine than he was before. The ‘cure’ perpetuates the problem in the very process of trying in vain to cure it. Nietzsche writes:

It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of the decadence itself. Socrates was a misunderstanding; the whole improvement-morality, including the Christian, was a misunderstanding. The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts – all this too was mere disease, another disease, and by no means a return to ‘virtue,’ to ‘health,’ to happiness. To have to fight the instincts – that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.

Nietzsche in this passage uses ‘instinct’ [Instinkt] in both its singular and its plural form, two times each. He is not always consistent with his terminology, and in this context, ‘instinct’ (singular) and ‘instincts’ (plural) make most sense when seen as referring to different things: ‘Instincts’ are animalistic drives (though shaped somewhat as well by one’s social context). ‘Instinct’ (as it is used in the singular here) is being able to act in a way that comes as second nature.

Acting with instinct (in this sense) is not a matter of just letting impulses (instincts in the former sense) take their course; it is an ability one develops or achieves through painstaking work. The non-decadent person is thus not someone just happily living out his impulses with wild abandon. He is someone who has made a careful effort to cultivate these impulses in a particular way:

He guesses what remedies avail against what is harmful; he exploits bad accidents to his advantage; what does not kill him makes him stronger. He collects instinctively [instinktiv] from everything he sees, hears, lives through, his sum: he is a principle of selection, he leaves much to fall through [lässt Viel durchfallen]. He is always in his own company, whether he associates with books, human beings, or landscapes: he honors by choosing, by admitting, by trusting.

When Nietzsche complains about tyranny in the self, his brief is not against any imposition of dominant order whatsoever. Tyranny is not just domination; its defining features are that the ruling element is an inappropriate ruler and that the domination achieved tends to be unstable. Because of the first feature, tyranny cannot be understood in wholly neutral, non-normative terms. To escape decadence it is not sufficient that one simply have a dominant ‘master drive’ in the self. It matters crucially what the dominant element is and whether it is a good one to be occupying the dominant role. Whereas Socrates wants reason (a particular form of it anyway) to rule, Nietzsche presumably wants a more creative, form-giving capacity to be at the helm of the soul – or at least whatever capacity he takes to be responsible, in place of reason, for the (perhaps largely unconscious) process of self-cultivation described above.

Nietzsche’s opposition to reason as the ruling element in the self might seem to lend support to the familiar charge that Nietzsche is an irrationalist. But we must bear in mind that what Nietzsche would seem to have in his critical sights is not rationality per se. It is instead an overzealous sort of rationality, the sort that seeks, in the relentless way that Socrates does, to keep the appetites and competitive drives in check and to justify dialectically virtually everything that he believes and holds dear. Nietzsche sees this as perverse and futile. But he is not advocating that one behave irrationally, ignoring all considerations in favour of doing or believing things, nor is he suggesting abandoning oneself wholly to blind impulse. He simply wants to challenge reason’s autocratic claim to power.

The second feature of tyranny is that the regimentation achieved is potentially unstable. Because the decadent’s characteristic emphasis is on extremes – extirpation, castration, repression – the suppressed elements, allowed no outlet at all, roil beneath the surface, growing in intensity, like a mob of outcasts demonised by the government and ready to riot on the slightest provocation in order to make their voices heard. In Socrates’s own case, this is less a threat, since there is more effort at sublimation. But in the case of the fanatical Christian, danger is always being courted. Contrasting his own position with that of the Christians, Nietzsche writes, ‘The church fights passion with excision in every sense: its practice, its ‘cure’, is castratism. It never asks: ‘How can one spiritualise, beautify, deify a craving?’ It has at all times laid the stress of discipline on extirpation (of sensuality, of pride, of the lust to rule, of avarice, of vengefulness)’. The alternative strategy of self-mastery that Nietzsche proposes involves finding a useful place within the self for certain central and inescapable elements, rather than trying to ‘purify’ the self of them entirely – a strategy likely doomed to failure anyway. In the Nietzschean ideal self, the emphasis is more on incorporation instead of elimination, channeling impulses to productive goals instead of trying to eliminate them completely.

I have so far focused mainly on the case of Socrates but we see a similar dynamic (although with some differences too) in the case of others Nietzsche brands as decadents: Christians, Schopehauerians, Wagnerians. I cannot explore these fully for reasons of space, but let me offer a brief potential characterisation of each, in line with the construal of decadence given here. Actual cases would be far more varied; this will be an attempt at an archetypal sketch.

The Schopenhauerian’s disunity comes in being unwilling to accept life as the package that it is. He valorizes as the highest form of life one that repudiates some of the most salient and inescapable aspects of life as such – desires and the suffering they bring in tow. As his ascetic goal, he fervently seeks not that his desires be moderated, but that they be extinguished, either temporarily – as happens during the activity of aesthetic contemplation – or more extremely through a form of saintly resignation in which he can (allegedly) cease to will. The irony is that even if one is not intentionally setting out to rid oneself of desires, as Schopenhauer thinks one cannot, this condemnation of the desires and praise for the ascetic ideal is ultimately premised on a tenacious background desire to be free from all suffering. This desire comes to play the tyrant, trying to get its way by having first-order desires extinguished. Matters would be all right, on the desire satisfaction calculus, for the person who could eliminate willing entirely, for then the background desire would ultimately be satisfied. But desiring creatures that we are, this ideal is unreachable. Those who set such an ideal end up even more dissatisfied, not just because of their first-order desires, but also because of their ascetic background desire that these first-order desires be rooted out. The Schopenhauerian is beset not just with unsatisfied sexual urges, for instance, but also with the intense unsatisfied desire that these urges be entirely eliminated.

With Wagnerians, Nietzsche leaves many of the details of their condition hazy; but his remarks about their ‘weary nerves’ and exhaustion with life, coupled with the insatiable taste for the ‘sublime, the profound, and [the] overwhelming’ that they develop, suggests one explanation. The Wagnerian is dissatisfied with life because he can’t accept that it is mostly prosaic – family dinners and walking the dog. ‘Real’ life for him is a life of grand Romantic Wagnernian passion, of the sort that he experiences in the theatre alone. The only moments he casts off exhaustion and believes he is really alive are those when he is immersed in Wagner’s music dramas and the exalted, heroic way of life they depict. Since the Wagnerian denies that most of life counts as genuine living at all, he comes to sustain himself more and more on the ultimately fraudulent illusions that Wagner presents as the locus of true life. These illusions, working like a drug bringing a high, stimulate the nerves of Wagnerian decadents who are unable to cope with life without the help of this addictive medicine. Like other addicts, the Wagnerian is tyrannised by his addiction, living for the next dose of Tristan.

The Christian combines various features of these other decadents described: the Socratic identification of the self with the soul, the Wagnerian’s aim to escape from this life and repair to another, and the Schopenhauerian’s project of rooting out the desires for sex, power, and other worldly goods. Many decadents will combine several of these features. Cases of decadence, I submit, can be understood as typically hewing to the following pattern:

  • One refuses to countenance some important aspect of the self or of life as properly part of the ideal form of that self or that life (the disunity this bespeaks is already a mark of decadence).
  • One perceives this aspect of the self or of life as a serious flaw to be remedied.
  • And one institutes an unhelpfully extremist plan for remedying this problem, or alleged problem, that leaves one in a more decadent position than that in which one began.

What, then, is healthy flipside of decadence? Outlining the details would take us too far afield. But suffice it to say that Nietzsche’s important (if not sole) ideal is one of achieved unity at the level of the whole. Nietzsche praises great individuals for their unity in multiplicity – they are something ‘capable of being as manifold as whole, as ample as full’. Unity is thus not uniformity, but is instead a successful weaving together of disparate elements within the self. In the Nietzschean great individual, ‘even weaknesses delight the eye’ insofar as they are integrated into a beneficial role in the ‘artistic plan’ of the self. Decadent individuals needn’t be categorically different from healthy ones; the healthy have just managed to better integrate various elements of themselves into a stable and unified totality.

This essay originally appeared as ‘Nietzsche on Décadence’ in Decadence and Decay, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in association with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.

Andrew Huddlestone

Andrew Huddlestone is a Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.

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