Decay and Renewal Are the Same Movement

Featured Image is Sir John Soane’s Rotunda of the Bank of England in Ruins, by Joseph Gandy.

All human projects are akin to a plane that begins to fall apart the moment it takes off.

As time marches on, the people responsible for the plane must decide whether to repair it, replace old parts, or decommission it and replace the entire plane.

Or they can put off such decisions until it is too late. Until, at best, the plane does not make it to the runway one day. And at worst, a catastrophe occurs in the air.

Everything from family to community and nation, to the human body itself, has this trajectory from the start. No system—biological, social, or political—manages to avoid this basic reality.

We focus on Rome for its greatness, but also for its spectacular collapse. But Rome stood for a thousand years. Every step of the way it was falling apart. Many times it seemed on the brink of dissolving in the air like our neglected airplane, and very nearly did. What is remarkable about Rome is not that it fell, because all civilizations fall. What is remarkable is that it lasted, that it staved off complete disintegration for so long.

Chinese history is another interesting case of decay and renewal. Certainly, China blew apart and fell into civil war many times over its astonishingly long history. But the old empire also displayed a remarkable ability to absorb its conquerors into the existing system. The ones who were conquered were nearly always the ruling class, not China as an entity, which had such a character that it could assert itself even when a foreign military took the mantle of government.

From the ground view, I wonder if those moments that broke out into civil war appeared so very different from those which did not.

We’re always in the process of coming apart. Sometimes we get our act together and stave off the end a little longer. Sometimes something entirely new is born. Sometimes the garden must lay fallow for a season before a proper renewal. And sometimes it is simply the end.

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The Language of Decadence

Nassim Taleb tweeted yesterday, “It is easy to be stoic, in failure.” Easy? In failure is where the passions flare, where the maxim was born: out of the frying pan into the fire. In the depths of failure is found quite the peak of human existence; to climb to its heights to be stoic is a monumental achievement. “This, too, shall pass.” Easier to do something than said.

Adam Gurri wrote in a post which should have been titled “Luck Be A Sadist Tonight” about the preoccupation of the Greek philosophers with the notion of luck, that disordering force which belongs to nature, within the reach of humans, but not to be grasped. The philosophical traditions of the West have never come to grips, I submit, with the ineluctability of decay. When the Greeks, our librarians and teachers, became preoccupied with luck, they biased us toward the notion of inexorable progress. We do not have a philosophical framework for the importance and necessity of decay. For example, “A seed must fall to the ground and die in order to fulfill its telos, which is to grow into abundance” is an Eastern contribution to the world of thought, and efficacious, but I wouldn’t know to which strain of philosophy a similar thought might belong.

Is this correct: do we not have a philosophical framework which incorporates decadence within a larger thought system?

It is significant, I think, that when we read the Stoics, who were actually grappling with this notion of decay, we feel compelled to sift them for value in our Continental-dominated systems, but, as Samuel Hammond mentioned somewhere (I can’t find the locus), they come as a packaged deal, so we set them aside as artifacts, points on a timeline, a historical footnote in the process of getting us here, not as contributors to our understanding and enjoyment of life.

The practical effects of developing a framework for decadence is the suppression of anxiety, a passion which creates no end of evil, beginning with stupid comments and ending in destroyed lives. For example, an argument was made that the institutions of Continental Europe were essentially in a state of decay, and that Hitler and Stalin would do the job of bringing them to an end. After they did their job, then the Anglosphere could expand into Continental Europe with little to no sacrifice. Because we were in the grips of a framework which knows only progress, North American heroes were nevertheless sent to suffer and die, disrupting the “normal” progress of the North American continent. Moreover, the institutions slated to fall away completely were preserved, in part, and cynicism set in.

From here, an argument could be made that North American institutions, particularly those of the United States, began to participate in all the worst aspects of Continental institutions, and are themselves now in the queue to return to the dust, perhaps even to be toppled by the Flowers of Guatemala. A Stoic, or anyone with a framework for decadence, stands happily by, saying, “This, too, shall pass,” returning to his work with a song in his heart and a spring in his step.

Now, as an addendum, I find it curious that our narrative traditions are dominated by the language of decadence. The simplest plot device, such as “boy loses girl,” assumes decay. Emotionally speaking, the boy must die in order for the man to get the girl, and then the girl must die in order to become a woman who receives her man. Is our philosophical tradition predominantly Western and our narrative tradition predominantly Eastern?

Fun stuff. We are doomed. And then some.