A Decadent Diagnosis

The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat; Avid Reader Press; 272 pp., $27.00


The ancient latin aphorism per aspera ad astra (“through rough things, to the stars”) might well be a fitting epigraph for New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s latest book. Its cover features a 19th century French illustration of Rabelais’ Gargantua et Pantagruel being fed sumptuous foods and attended to by “little people.”

For Douthat, Gargantua is modern America: interested only in “filling its own belly”; bored; lacking in initiative; and prone to avoiding rough things such as struggle and sacrifice. He begins by recalling the post-World War II drive to the stars that resulted in the “peak of human accomplishment”—the Apollo 11 moon landing. There were new frontiers to be discovered and an enthusiasm for expanding human experience. However, something happened after Apollo: Or more to the point, nothing happened.

In its decadence, America ceased caring about such ambitious projects and became more than happy to simply “eat, drink, and be merry.” Although Douthat speaks from within the Gargantuan regime he critiques, his counsel is wise: If we are to overcome this decadence, we must again embrace struggle and sacrifice.


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