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11 January 2022

From the NS archive: The theory of decadence

7 August 1915: Such a theory of necessary decadence is sheer rubbish, based upon bad logic, contradicted by palpable facts, and a mere substitute for real thought.

By Lens

“Races grow old and die, like individuals,” writes the author, who signs as “Lens”, in this New Statesman article from 1915. This is the theory of “decadence” that Aristotle, Plato and former British prime minister Arthur Balfour propounded. The “races” they refer to are the people of great historic eras such as the Greeks and Romans. But “the theory of necessary decadence is sheer rubbish”, the writer argues. While the individual is mortal, the race is “naturally immortal”. Scientists have discovered million-year-old fossil remains of animals and plants still in existence today: many species are “undecadent”. The theory of decadence, which is “palpable nonsense” to this author, is a moral justification for attacks on other countries – and for the idea that the “new” must replace the “old”.


“History, with all her volumes vast, hath but one page,” says Byron, and thinkers from the Periclean age until our own have tried to interpret it. The decadence of nations has been discussed by poets and prophets, ecclesiastics and moralists, historians and economists, political and sociological writers.

Byron and Wordsworth, for example, deplore the consequences of luxury, the prophets look for subtler moral causes, the political writers look to the “decay of institutions”; but one and all, sooner or later, assert biological causes or consequences. The explanations, all together, seem inadequate unless some effect in the very substance of the race can be supposed. And, in the welter of theories, one bold, simple and attractive proposition asserts itself, which may here be called the theory of decadence.

It is that races grow old and die, like individuals. Thus “the decay of institutions,” the failure of courage and wisdom “when men change swords for ledgers and forsake the student’s bower for gold,” as Wordsworth says, and all the other phenomena, real or asserted, which accompany decadence, are regarded as not the causes but the consequence of something deeper, a racial senescence presaging racial death.

To the best of my very limited knowledge as a scholar, Aristotle, following Plato, was the first to propound this theory of decadence, and Mr AJ Balfour in his Sidgwick Lecture of 1908, entitled Decadence, is a representative contemporary thinker who takes the same view. Even for Aristotle, we note, there was this problem. As he looked back into vistas at which even recent archaeology can scarcely peer, he saw the rise and fall of many States, and pondered on the cause. The Father of what we now call the biological sciences inclined towards a biological explanation, and he chose the simplest and most easily supported.

From Plato to Spencer men have seen the parallel between the individual and what the English man taught us to call the “social organism.” Let us – much too readily – assume that such terms as race and nation are interchangeable, let us observe the numerous and profound resemblances between an individual and a nation, and thence, arguing by analogy, we may conclude that, as the individual must die, so must the race. I know no better instance, nor commoner, of the argument from analogy, which assumes that, because two things are alike in one or more respects, they are alike in all. The argument is peculiarly seductive in this case because the comparison between individual and nation is endlessly fertile, fascinating, profitable, new every morning, never-failing of further direction and warning; and because the explanation of decadence which it offers is so insinuatingly simple, general, and evasive of refutation.

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Elsewhere I have discussed Mr Balfour’s lecture, and here need only note that, like many before him, he accepts the theory of decadence because other propositions regarding the decline of nations fail to satisfy his critical faculty. Such criticism is very necessary and its results are valuable. Thus, when we are told that slavery was the cause of decadence in classical times, it is well to ask, as Mr Balfour does, why slavery, in its own decline, should destroy nations which flourished for ages when slavery was at its height. If, as is said, Babylon throve for four thousand years on slavery, this argument against slavery is indeed untenable. Similarly the critic may quote the pages of Gibbon and many another historian or moralist or poet, who alleges this or that cause of decadence, and show how poor and inadequate is the argument. Most serious of all, perhaps, in my judgment is the fact that nearly all the causes of decadence commonly cited tacitly assume what is loosely called the “inheritance of acquired characters.” The tendency to sloth, for instance, acquired by luxury and success in one generation, is supposed to register itself as inborn incapacity for effort in the next. Not that the non-biological writers make such an assertion in set terms, but their status is none the better in that they really make many such biological statements without so much as recognising their biological character or knowing that there may be any question about them.

Very well, then. Having easily demolished all the common theories of decadence as due to non-determined causes from without, let us assert that races and nations must die, as individuals must, and all our difficulties vanish. Every recorded phenomenon, accompaniment, asserted “concomitant” or cause of national decadence, in the moral, mental or bodily realm, may be regarded as a symptom of racial senility, and our difficulties are at an end. If, now, history should record an invasion of Rome from the north, or the replacement of any one civilisation by another, we have only to say that a “young and vigorous race” took the place of its moribund predecessor, and our sense of causation is satisfied.

Of one thing, in this most fascinating study, after many years of devotion to it am I most sure, and that is that the theory of necessary decadence is sheer rubbish, from beginning to end, based upon bad logic, contradicted by palpable facts, and a mere substitute for real thought. Of course it pleases the philosophic, the ironic, the envious, and the would-be heir. The laudator temporis acti will always castigate his age with it, a parvenu nation (“young and vigorous race”) will allege it as a moral justification for an attack upon, say, the British Empire, and another “young and vigorous race,” consisting, in fact, of emigrants from all the “oldest” nations on earth, may look on across the Atlantic, and reckon that the old fellow soon must die, and that his heir will be very lucky.

But the theory is palpable nonsense, nevertheless. The biologist knows that the one and everlasting contrast between the individual and the race is that the first is necessarily and naturally mortal, and the second naturally immortal. He knows races of animals and plants, now flourishing, undecadent, of which he can identify fossil remains millions of years old. The anthropologist simply shuts his ears when he hears poets and politicians talking about old and young races, or indeed talking about race and races at all. The eugenist applies modern logical ideas to the problem, and asks whether external causes may not alter, in a nation’s history, the type of those “fittest” who “survive.”

[From the NS archive: The contemplative Tory]

Nearly half a century ago, Galton suggested that herein might reside the real cause of decadence in historical cases – ecclesiastical persecution and celibacy in Spain – and though he omitted to discuss “military selection,” I showed here, last September, in an article which has been repeatedly quoted, in the Eugenics Review with acknowledgment and elsewhere without, that what I called “the longest price of war” may have been fatal to Rome, with her aggressive militarism, as it must now prove fatal to Germany. But for the moment I am concerned only to refute the theory of decadence as necessary racial senility, and must not be tempted to review or advance theories more tenable – as that the races do not necessarily die, they may be poisoned.

Finally, to clinch the argument, let us ask why one race has survived all its oppressors and, in fact, has not died, but is now so intensely and effectively alive as to infuriate most of its neighbours. The Jews directly destroy the theory of decadence. Mr Balfour does not mention them, but he will surely be the last responsible writer on the subject to make that omission. In the same year I tried to show why the Jew has survived even the medieval slum. That is another story, but the proposition is simple that the race renews its youth which guards its young.

In 1908, also came into effect what should be called Mr Benjamin Broadbent’s Notification of Births Act, now extended. Herein, as in “maternity benefit,” is something of the spirit and practice which has preserved the one eugenic race in history since the days of its great legislator. The motto of those who would emulate it, till they are even wiser, will still be “Back to Moses.”

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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