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Sunday, June 1, 1997

Russell Kirk’s Conception of Decadence

Kirk Thought the Road to Avernus Captured America's Downward Descent

Mr. Whitney is senior speech writer for Michigan Governor John Engler and the senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

When the late Dr. Russell Kirk sought a publisher for The Conservative Mind, he approached a young Chicago firm run by Henry Regnery. Regnery seized on the significance of the manuscript and in 1953 published the book that would help launch the postwar conservative movement in the United States.

That same year, just a few blocks away, another publication was about to debut, and it too would launch a major American movement. Hugh Hefner’s controversial magazine would become the vehicle for disseminating the Playboy philosophy in the United States.

There is high irony in the fact that the postwar conservative movement and the Playboy philosophy were launched within months and indeed within blocks of each other. But Kirk would not have been surprised by the juxtaposition. He warned readers: It appears to me that our culture labors in an advanced state of decadence; that what many people mistake as the triumph of our culture actually consists in forces that are disintegrating our culture; that the vaunted democratic freedom of liberal society in reality is in servitude to appetites and illusions that attack religious belief, that destroy community through excessive centralization and urbanization, and that efface life-giving tradition.

The Road to Avernus

If there was an allusion that Kirk believed best captured America’s downward descent into decadence, it was the road to Avernus. The allusion, frequently found in Kirk’s later writings, comes from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. Avernus, according to Latin mythology, was the entrance to Hades. It happens to be a real place, a lake located in the crater of an extinct volcano about eight miles west of Naples. The word is derived from the Greek, a-ornis, literally, without a bird, because of the belief that its mephitic vapors would cause any bird that flew over it to fall out of the sky.[1] Dryden’s translation renders it thus:

Smooth the descent and easy is the way

(The Gates of Hell stand open night and day);

But to return and view the cheerful skies,

In this the task and mighty labour lies.[2]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective avernal entered our language about 1578 as a synonym for hellish. This is revealing, for it suggests the intent behind Kirk’s repeated allusion to Avernus. Decadence is not so much about Right or Left as about Above and Below; not so much about the choices we make in politics and economics as about the thousands upon thousands of decisions we make in matters of faith and morals. Decadence is not to be confused with sin, of course. They are not the same thing. But in a very real sense decadence is linked to a hellish existence, and in ways that become increasingly apparent as one ponders the many manifestations of cultural crisis. This link, this apprehension that decadence is hellish, is the key or first principle to apprehending whether we as individuals and as a people are in decline.

Symptoms of Decadence

But Kirk was no reductionist. He believed that, while the breakdown of faith and morals takes you down the main road to Avernus, there are many byroads headed in the same direction—byroads paved with the rubble of failed political and economic systems, with the erosion of civil and domestic society, and with the debris of the arts and higher learning.

The political road to Avernus, for example, has been paved with the ruins of countless ancient cities. At their worst, such cities as Babylon, Persepolis, and Rome illustrate the clinical symptoms of decline. They were leviathans of unchecked power, overcentralized government, rampant overspending, crushing taxes, lethargic bureaucracies, and a spoils system that rewarded mediocrity.

These symptoms are hardly unfamiliar to readers of The Freeman. In 1996 the IRS—the agency most Americans would gladly dump into the crater at Avernus—sent out more than eight billion pages of forms and instructions, and Americans collectively devoted more than five billion hours to filling them out.[3] Another statistic that says something about our culture is that, in Washington, D.C., alone, there are three times as many lawyers as are found in the entire nation of Japan. Moreover, if you walk the streets of our nation’s capital, you are twice as likely to pass a law firm as a church.[4] It seems we reward not compromise and consensus, but conflict and concupiscence.

Another important byway to Avernus is paved with the rubble of failed economic systems and policies. The decline of self-reliance and property holding, the shrinkage of opportunity and the middle class, an obsession with luxury and unearned wealth—these are true signs of the decadent. They certainly were the symptoms that plagued the closing decades of the Roman republic largely as a result of a great influx of slaves. Independent farmers and craftsmen could no longer compete in the marketplace with cheap slave labor, and the traditionally sturdy Roman populace became dependent on government welfare. Rome swelled with a proletariat that developed an appetite for violence, narcotics, and the hideous diversions of the Colosseum. One of the most spectacular gladiatorial contests was put on by the Emperor Trajan, who, even accounting for the exaggerations of Suetonius, pitted some 10,000 gladiators against one another over a period of four months. These mass exhibitions of state-sanctioned murder were just one way Trajan kept the mass of impoverished citizens from thinking about more important things—like how to get rid of him.

Kirk saw the signs of decadence along another well-traveled byroad to Avernus—the erosion of civil society and its institutions. Few could match Kirk’s mordant wit when it came to exposing the follies of one terminally decadent institution—the academy. He called Michigan State University, his alma mater, Behemoth U because it regarded students as so many Model T’s on the assembly line. Likewise he was a trenchant critic of our elementary and secondary schools, which have dumbed down curricula to build up self-esteem, apparently under the illusion that ignorance is bliss.

Modernism and Post-Modernism

Kirk frequently cited the work of C. E. M. Joad,[5] a Platonist-turned-Christian who discerned signs of decline in all manner of modern and post-modern philosophy. Avant-garde thought was plagued by metaphysical disorientation, confused logic, a-la-carte morality, and the loss of any higher purpose in human life. This century, these symptoms erupted spectacularly among the so-called Parisian intellocrats. These arbiters of intellectual fashion were in fact rampaging ideologues whose thought was distinguished by the failure to test ideas against reality.

With remarkable casuistry, a Sartre or a Merleau-Ponty could argue away the brutalities of Stalinism. A Derrida could vaporize the very concept of meaning—and philosophy and language departments have yet to recover. The Parisian intellocrats prove that ideas—alas, even bad ideas—have consequences.

Still another byway to Avernus can be seen in the debris of modern/post-modern art and humane letters. Peter Ustinov once remarked that if Botticelli were alive today, he’d be working for Vogue. But it’s not just the trivialization of art that is so disturbing; it’s the nastiness. In one of his finest essays, The Perversity of Recent Fiction, Kirk wrote that contemporary literature had come a great way . . . down the road to Avernus. And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls into ruin. So many books and Hollywood scripts were products of the diabolical imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder. They were singularly lacking in the moral imagination.

The moral imagination—this term is one of the most frequently encountered in Kirk’s work. It comes from Edmund Burke, and it refers to the human gift to see that we are more than naked apes; indeed, that we are made in the image of God. The moral imagination, wrote Kirk, aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. Without it, letters and learning are sterile. Worse, our whole life suffers, for we are cast forth, in Burke’s words, from the world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.[6]

Another byroad to Avernus was lined with the victims of the breakdown of society’s most basic institution, the family. Kirk was much impressed by the analysis of the ancient writer Polybius, who attributed the decline of Greece in large measure to the decline of domestic society. Young people were increasingly unwilling to marry; or if they married they were unwilling to have children; or if they had children, they were reluctant to bring them up, preferring instead to let them die of exposure or to give them up for adoption. As a result, a great many city-states lost their vitality and youth; they became easy targets for invasion because there were so few freemen defending the city walls. Again the parallels with contemporary America are ominous.

The Cause of Decadence: Decline of the Cult

All these byroads to Avernus deserve study in their own right. But if we only explore the byroads, we will never find our way to the main road, to the root cause of our predicament. We must go beyond the symptoms in politics, economics, civil society, philosophy, and humane letters. Kirk tells us that the root of our problem is The dismissal of the sacred: that rejection lies at the heart of our difficulty.[7] That is the main road to Avernus.

Kirk held that our beliefs, our faiths, are central to our well-being as individuals and as a commonwealth. As the British historian Christopher Dawson frequently put it, a culture comes from the cult; it comes from what a people worship—be it God or mammon. Cultus is Latin for worship. People come together around the cult to try to apprehend some greater meaning in their individual and collective lives than grubbing for food and sexual release.

As Kirk used to point out, it is of immense practical importance that groups of families join together in a cult, for only then will they share a moral code. And only when they share a moral code can they begin to cooperate on a large enough scale to defend themselves against marauders while advancing against the brute forces of nature.[8]

Kirk tells us the precise moment when he realized that a culture comes from the cult. He was visiting the Chicago Institute of Art sometime back in the early 1950s, and strolled into a half-darkened corridor on both sides of which were miniature models of medieval buildings, making up a town. At the far end of the exhibit, in a case dominating the display, was the model of a great Gothic cathedral. The accompanying placard explained that the exhibition culminated in the church because it was the focus of all human activity, and the core and source of our civilization.

The experience was to have a lasting effect on the man who described himself, at the time, as a thoroughgoing secularist. The encounter in that half-darkened corridor suddenly made him alive to the historic reality of Christian culture. And he became convinced that Civilization, the civilization we have known, is the child of the church.[9]

But suppose, Kirk challenged us, suppose that with the elapse of centuries, faith diminishes and the cult withers. What then of a civilization that has been rooted in the cult?

He concluded: . . . my own study of such concerns has led me to conclude that a civilization, a culture, cannot survive the dying of the belief in the transcendent order that brought it into being. When belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. . . . So it has come to pass, here in the closing years of the twentieth century.[10]

Hence America’s decline on the road to Avernus.

Yet Kirk was not without hope. He used to quote a line from St. Gregory the Great, who lived in the wake of the collapse of the Western Empire. Rome lay about him in ruin. A dark age had descended upon the West. But Gregory, in one of his more famous sermons, said: See how the world now withers in itself; yet still flowers in our heart.[11]

1. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th ed., s.v. Avernus, p. 63.

2. Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI, lines 128-31.

3. John Steele Gordon, American Taxation, American Heritage, May-June 1996, p. 63.

4. Dick Armey, How Taxes Corrupt, Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1996.

5. Cf. C. E. M. Joad, Decadence: A Philosophical Enquiry (London, 1948).

6. Russell Kirk, The Perversity of Recent Fiction, address to the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., May 21, 1981, p. 3. This essay appears in Redeeming the Time, a collection of Kirk’s writings, edited by Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996).

7. Russell Kirk, A Culture’s Road to Avernus, in Essays on Our Times, vol. 4 (July 1988), p. 4.

8. Ibid., p. 7.

9. Ibid., p. 8.

10. Ibid., p. 8.

11. St. Gregory the Great, quoted in Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu, Cal.: Pepperdine University Press, 1977), p. 172.