What do you think of when you hear the word decadent?
If the first image to cross your mind was a rich and indulgent chocolate, you’re not alone.
There’s a certain contradiction within the idea of decadence. I can’t decide whether the word has a negative or a positive connotation. I think we say decadence is bad but feel it’s good. We may be a bit repressed in our decadence. But then again, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of decadence every now and then?
I just asked someone what she thought might be decadent that we usually don’t associate with decadence. She answered, “foot rubs.” Imagine a decadent foot rub. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
The word decadent implies a certain excess, but I would argue that it’s also essential. A life with no decadence sounds so bland and uninspiring, so I think we all ought to have at least a little. Thus, I may define decadence as our essential excess. It’s also inevitable.
Human nature is to want more of what we like and we definitely like chocolate, so we inevitably want more. Decadence by its very nature goads excess. It’s a crucial element of humanity, or hummanness. So naturally, there’s a political aspect to decadence.
A pattern of history is ages of decadence that precede the rapid and sudden decline of societies. Think, late Roman Republic, or Berlin in the 1920s. The perception of decadence often triggers a backlash and political upheaval.
In Rome, the decadent age was followed by the Empire, while in Germany a decadent area was followed by Nazism. It seems silly to think that a cycle beginning with chocolate may end in Nazis, but that’s what history tells us. Why does this happen? Decadence seems in part defined as a luxury.
I can’t think of a decadence that isn’t expensive. Chocolate was expensive and foot rubs are expensive. Kits Kats aren’t that expensive, but Ferrero Rocher is. Kit Kats are delicious but not quite what I’d consider decadent. On the other hand Ferrero Rocher, along with their Lindt chocolate ball counterparts, are almost the epitome of gustatory decadence. What would happen if Lindt chocolate balls became cheap? Would they still be decadent? I think I’m onto something.
There’s a class element to decadence. The ultra wealthy have tended to indulge in decadence more than the poor. That’s not always the case. Today the ultra wealthy are far more likely to avoid unhealthy food, like chocolate, than the poor. So the resistance to decadence can’t be just about class. But I suspect it may be about envy.
A fair and rough characterizations of past decadent ages is that a certain part of the population lived lavishly while others suffered and toiled. To detail the sociopolitical and economic relationships between the decadent and non-decadent classes is beyond the scope of this writing, but suffice to say the perception of decadence in some has raised the ire of others. For a recent example, consider Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry meal during the COVID lockdowns. That was a death knell to trust in California’s government.
Decadence is essentially pleasure, and in pleasure it can be easy to forget about suffering. I am an advocate for pleasure. I think decadence can be sublime, so I encourage it. But we must remember to share. If you can afford Ferrero Rocher, buy the big box and give some to someone who can’t. Else, we may end up with Nazis once again.