Does Decadence Cause Decay?

Noble gentlemen and ladies in [Japan’s] Heian period (794-1185) were often remarkably promiscuous. … “Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than by any moral principles, and good looks tended to take the place of virtue.” … It was, as all this suggests, a rather effete culture. The aristocratic ideal of male beauty—highly perfumed, moon-faced, smooth-skinned, extravagantly dressed—was close to the feminine ideal. A distinct air of decadence during the peak of the Heian period also suggests the approaching end of a regime, a world, in Genji’s words, “where everything seems to be in a state of decline.”

Less than two hundred years later, the self-obsessed nobility of the Heian court, distracted by the rituals and refinements of palace politics, oblivious of the world outside the capital, and mostly bored out of their minds, were overwhelmed by more vigorous provincial clans, notably the samurai, with their warrior codes and martial ideals. But in Genji’s time, the early eleventh century, the imperial capital (today’s Kyoto) still held sway; anyone unlucky enough to live in the provinces was considered too uncouth to be taken seriously. (more)

This seems a familiar history story, that elite self-indulgence and moral decadence causes social decay and displacement. It contributes to the Hunger Games stories, for example. It also seems a common foundation of conservative thought. But, is it true? I ask because I actually do not know. Has anyone done statistical tests on systematic historical datasets to see if decadence actually causes decay and displacement? I could imagine counter arguments, such as that decadence promotes peace instead of destructive war-mongering. So I’d prefer not to have to rely only on a few anecdotes and plausible intuitions.

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  • Frederic Bush

    “Less than two hundred years later” is actually rather a long time.

    • Curt Adams

      I was going to point this out. A run of almost 400 years compares pretty favorably to most longer-term monarchical systems like the Chinese dynasties, the Roman Empire, the Caliphates, or the later Shogunate. Only one data point, of course, but the Heian regime would indicate “decadence” in that sense doesn’t have much to do with a regime’s longevity or stability.

  • It may be easier to test the inverse by looking at immigrant groups within the U.S. Do less decadent groups outperform more decadent groups? I’d imagine so. If that’s the case, then I’d be more comfortable saying an absence of these virtues leads to decline.

    “Declines” are infrequent enough that I don’t expect to know much about them. We have less large declines than we have theories that might explain declines. For example:

    • lump1

      I would think that decadence-seeking immigrants will economically outperform the ones who are satisfied with a humble (less decadent) lifestyle. Widespread public decadence – a hunger for fineries like silk, books and opera – seen from a different perspective is nothing more than the rise of the middle class. It’s the people who couldn’t care less about fashion, Tolstoy and vintage wines who underperform.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    It depends a lot on how you define decadence, doesn’t it?

    One man’s decadence may be another’s liberty.

    • efalken

      Good point. Most dictators are pretty ruthless and masculine, but they aren’t presiding over human flourishing.

  • Peter Turchin does a lot of work on this kind of stuff. Eg Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall.

  • lump1

    I think there are too many issues here to track. One is the divergence between the manners of the rulers and the ruled, which seems to be the Heian story, Marie Antoinette, Anthony and Cleopatra drinking wine with crushed pearls, etc. Yeah, that rarely ends well, put the problem is not the decadence as such, but the inequality and the discontent caused by it. The court in Paris would have been beloved if the French peasants were upwardly mobile enough to emulate at least some of the courtly indulgences. The Habsburgs were pretty damn decadent, but because Austrians were getting richer, they arguably served as aspirational figures.

    Another issue is that civilizations have their peaks and declines, and the post-peak period is often labeled as decadent, but this is always done in hindsight. That’s because the peak generated wealth that gets turned into comforts and luxuries, and these seem decadent only because we know with hindsight that things had started falling apart. We also ignore decadent figures like Nero and Caligula who ruled while Rome was still going strong.

    Then there is the sense of decadence which implies executive laziness and indifference, which may have been the case in the Heian period. But laziness can be caused by many things, not only decadence. GW Bush is an example of non-decadent laziness in power, while Franz Josef’s court in Vienna was decadent but governed diligently.

    I suspect that what we would find is that what’s really bad is not decadence as such, but an extreme and unbridgable inequality between the ruling and the ruled. The two are related, but not the same.

  • adrianratnapala

    It could be that decadance “fails” precisely because it promotes peace instead of destructive war mongering. That is, it is all good, until some successful, destructive war mongers come and end the party.

    That opens the question of whether the rules have changed: sometime after the invention of gunpoweder, low-tech barbarians stopped being able to occasionally kick the ***t out of more developed cultures. Maybe the decadance penalty is obsolete.

  • James Oswald

    “..decadence promotes peace instead of destructive war-mongering.”

    Rather than a counter argument, that’s precisely the mechanism by which decadence causes decay. Decay is the same as peacefulness and prosperity. When people talk about the Romans decaying or the Byzantines decaying, they are talking about people losing their toughness and ability to fight. Decadence is peaceful trade, prosperity, and being pampered. Then the Mongols come in and kill everyone because the decadent society was getting fat on fancy food instead of being in the wilderness wrestling bears.

    • truth_machine

      “Decay is the same as peacefulness and prosperity.”

      Er, no, it clearly isn’t.

      Your mistake, of confusing one thing that *sometimes* accompanies another, is even worse than the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation.

    • What is meant by decadence is the loss of virtue.

      • Vitalik Buterin

        And what is _meant_ by virtue is that subset of skills and personality traits that are optimized for surviving rather than thriving?

      • This isn’t thriving: “the self-obsessed nobility of the Heian court, distracted by the rituals and refinements of palace politics, oblivious of the world outside the capital, and mostly bored out of their minds.”

        The way I’d describe it is an all-consuming concern for status and signaling and attendant loss of substance. [It seems a natural hypothesis that it is the result of elites enriched by huge rents, causing the prevalence of behaviors like conspicuous leisure and consumption and other forms of status signaling.]

  • Dave Gottlieb

    I’ve considered a sampling bias story: “decadent” societies are more literate, so their declines and falls are overrepresented in historical records. Link:

  • truth_machine

    post hoc ergo propter hoc is a favorite “conservative” (rather , reactionary) fallacy.

    • ipencil

      I love that you attribute that logcial fallacy to “conservatives”, when the most often used example of it in US history is by leftists who claim that the economic growth in the post-WWII era was due to all the social programs of the 1930’s.

      • truth_machine

        That it’s a favorite of “consevatives” doesn’t mean that no one else uses it (not that I’m conceding your ideologically driven assertion). Tu quoque fallacies are also a favorite of “conservatives”, that is, reactionaries, like you. The reason that I wrote a comment about “conservatives” is that they are mentioned in the article as having this view. I wonder if you even read it. So it is Robin Hanson, not I, who did the “attributing”, you intellectually dishonest right wing dolt (which is redundant).

      • ipencil

        not that I’m conceding your ideologically driven assertion

        What was your assetion? By your own admission, leftists routinely use this logical fallacy, but you specifically called out conservatives because you have an ideological message you want everyone to hear.

        And yes I read his post. He simply notes that what he perceives to be an unverified assumption he thinks is mostly attributable to conservatives. He’s not accusing them of making a mistake or committing a logical fallacy. He’s asking if anyone has shown what he believes to be a core belief of conservatives to be true. To which you respond by claiming conservatives (as you define them, rather than how they are actually defined; you can start with Edmund Burke if you feel like educating yourself; or, you know remain ignorant) that it’s obvious no one has proven this and that’s it’s just a logical fallacy “conservatives” make, in fact assert it’s a “favorite”.

  • efalken

    I think Gibbon really started this with his analysis of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic, which blame the fall on Christianity’s pacifism. The problem is, early heroes like Cincinnatus seem tougher, but they were building an empire, so builders would have to be. A maintainer is almost forced to be less masculine. It could be an ex post selection bias.

    So, if you look at who presides over growing vs. shrinking empires, you’ll find tough vs. effete stereotypes, but perhaps not in periods of stasis.

  • Two components of Heian decadence are described: loss of virtue (style over morality) and loss of virility.

    A question for students of history: what is the degree of correlation between the two? Are these two aspects of one process? Or is their coexistence in Heian Japan historically contingent?

  • Rimfax

    In that decadence is noteworthy in a society, it is noticed by those who do not have entrenched privilege, whose existence implies inefficiencies in the social economy. Inefficiency invites decline and conquest. The decadence is only a symptom of that inefficiency.

    For a thought experiment on decadence without inefficiency, see the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. The society is decadent because of efficiency and a lack of entrenched privilege. As a result, it is remarkably resilient rather than in decline. Yes, I know this is fiction, but as a thought experiment it is relatively robust.

  • Ibn Khaldun’s writings on asabiyyah would be the go-to text. Later folks like Spengler or Glubb Pasha are just following in his footsteps. Turchin, cited below, is probably the best modern acolyte of him.

  • Foo McBarson

    If you look at Chinese history, you see the lowlands area getting conquered and overrun by hardened barbarians of the northern steppe, who then grow complacent as rulers and a while later are overrun by a new bunch of hardened barbarians from the north. This might be specific to those circumstances though; the steppe peoples had a superpower in the form of mounted archers (an extremely difficult but deadly skill they studied from childhood), so arguably offense was systematically favored over defense. Mounted archers + high intelligence were all it took for Genghis Khan to easily pwn the rest of the ancient world. Luckily he didn’t have a solid succession plan in place and his empire fell apart after he died; otherwise huge swaths of both Asia and Europe would have stayed under the grip of what was quite possibly the most thoroughly evil and horrifying empire in history.

    • Autolykos

      Mounted archers are not the superweapon that armchair historians and players of certain strategy games often assume them to be. They are great on open terrain for manoeuver warfare and harassing enemies. But they tend to fare poorly in mountains, forests or sieges*, and are practically unable to hold and defend territory. Which explains pretty well what areas were in fact conquered and held onto by the Mongols, and where they had to stop.

      *Yes, the Mongols occasionally overcame that disadvantage by a combination of genius leaders and huge (local) numerical superiority, but those were costly victories they would not be able to afford in areas filled with castles, like Europe.

    • Curt Adams

      That’s not an accurate description of Chinese history. Of the empires, only the Yuan dynasty was created by foreign conquest. The Manchus were foreign, but the Ming had already pretty much collapsed by the time they came in. The Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties were all created by Chinese forces.

    • IMASBA

      Succession plan or not, the Mongol Empire would have torn itself apart anyway. Too many big egoes with big armies separated by big distances… and that’s always the problem with vast empires.

  • rrb

    If long periods of prosperity lead to decadence, then of course we should see decadence at the end of a civilization but not the beginning. Maybe that’s enough for some people to conclude decadence leads to decay. They just compare the conditions at the end to the conditions at the beginning.

  • Cambias


    Restoration England. Famously decadent, to the point that plays written then could not be performed for 300 years due to subject matter. Also saw the rise of Britain to the rank of global superpower.

    Renaissance Venice. Also famously decadent, yet one medium-sized city managed to go toe-to-toe with the Ottoman Empire for a century and hold its own.

    I think the problem is that usually we define societies as “decadent” when we know that they went into a decline. If they’re successful but loose-moraled and libertine, we use other words.

    • malkav60

      Arguably the first few decades of the United States were more decadent than the following decades. We went through seven presidents before finally getting an orthodox Christian

  • ipencil

    How would you test this? What are your definitions of “decadence” and “decay”? What sort of measures would you use to indicate those?

  • malkav60

    Well if the conservatives are correct, the United States is in good shape. Our elites are harder working and have better family values than the rest of the population.

  • Citizensearth

    I think empires fall when the internal cultures fragments one part of the empire won’t pull a hair for another part. That can be one class for another, one territory for another, or one ethnicity for another. The power structures fragment, and it can no longer coordinate to address problems or external threats. In the case of Rome, my theory is that the seeds of that were sown considerably earlier (with the decline of the republic), but an empire of that size and strength has a lot of power and takes a long long time to decline. (link –

    Decadance can play a part in that (poor morals don’t make for duty inspired citizens), but I think its somewhat orthagonal to the core issue of fragmentation.

    • Citizensearth

      * excuse bad wording, first post was expecting an edit button

    • IMASBA

      Rome had a triple layered inequality problem: they had slaves, a lot of slaves, during most of their history only a minority of free men were given citizenship and among the citizens there quickly grew an insane level of hereditary economic inequality. Naturally there weren’t many volunteers to risk their lives manning the borders at the end… And half of them were busy fighting private civil wars between members of the plutocracy.


    IMHO most empires fall because of plagues, invasions, uprisings and civil wars. The most important things when running an empire seem to be to take good care of your people and your allies as well as having a system of government that’s not based on kinship or being the victorious general in a civil war.

    When reading historical sources you also have to guard against the biases of the original writers who may have come from a culture that likes to blame disaster on decadence.

  • charlie

    There is likely a circularity problem here.

    Part of why certain behaviors are labeled “decadent” is that they are perceived to not be conducive to the long term health/sustainability of the group, institution etc in which they take place. So, they will be correlated with decline by definition.

  • stevesailer

    Ibn Khaldun’s argument 700 years ago was that political downfall was caused by the ruling group splintering and backstabbing each other, allowing a poorer but unified outlander tribe to conquer.

    • Surge

      I have a different theory: that altruism survives in small endogamous groups, but in larger population centers the prevalence of selfish behavior increases. Power centers go through cycles of rise and decay in response to the degree of unity and altruism in the dominant group. The longer a group stays in power, the larger it becomes and the more it attracts selfish climbers. Once the decay collapses the power center, there is space for a new smaller — but more altruistic and therefore more powerful — group to take its place.

      This idea works whether you see group cohesion as genetically or as culturally determined. More directly, size can weaken the ethnic bonds between group members, and the lack of the need to gain power can subvert relevant virtues.

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  • tingyu

    200 years is hardly such a short time as to infer causation here. If it takes 200 years of debauchery starting now to have Samurais take over, I’m sure most people would agree to start the party if asked casually.

  • kurt9

    I’m not sure what is meant by “decadence”, as it is a grossly overused word. The only definition of decadence that makes sense to be would be a general lack of work and entrepreneurial ethic with a lack of persistence and perseverance in productive accomplishment. What use is there for a definition of decadence that is not based on productive accomplishment and work ethic? Such a definition seems quite meaningless to me.

    • The Heian aristocracy wasn’t lazy. It appears to have been hardworking: in plots, status signaling, and style. What made it decadent is the divorce between the concerns of the elite and real productive activity.

      One could point to the fleecing of their customers by the financial elite before the crash and the funneling of the brightest students into nonproductive financial occupations. If the next election is a faceoff between the Bush and Clinton dynasties, that would be a different kind of symptom of decay. And then we have a mass underclass that is fed food-stamp bread and entertained by reality-tv circuses.

      • kurt9

        Well, it certainly represents mal-investment in Austrian economic terms.

  • Brian

    Let’s define decadence as status seeking behavior undertaken in times of increased prosperity and surplus: ostentatious displays of wealth, societal forms and practices created explicitly outside of norms to show wealth and status. Such behaviors become self-reinforcing, no one who does not conform to them is taken seriously. As time goes on for whatever reason the surplus diminishes. The ostentatious displays that once were executed out of the surplus now begin to eat into the principal. The society has become less flexible as more resources are required to be committed by it’s elites towards social display then in previous eras. This doesn’t ensure the decline of the society, but it certainly acts as an anchor around it’s neck.

    Note.. the decadent behaviors probably come in huge variety. From the elaborate ritual of the Sun King’s court, to the notion that a true gentleman doesn’t work in Britain

    • Cambias

      Ostentation is only part of the traditional picture of decadence. There’s also a breakdown in (public) adherence to moral codes. Maybe status competition via ostentation replaces competition via displays of morality.

      There also seems to be a component of declining social trust in decadent periods. More corruption, more taking private advantage, more zero-sum thinking.

  • It was, as all this suggests, a rather effete culture. The aristocratic ideal of male beauty—highly perfumed, moon-faced, smooth-skinned, extravagantly dressed—was close to the feminine ideal.

    Does the author really mean “effete?” Heian society might very well have been effete, but that is hardly clear from the passage cited. Instead, it sounds like the author meant to say “effeminate.” Big difference.