"It is an historical concept, which may mean many things. Above all, absolute decadence does not exist, in the metaphysical sense of the absolute, because, like any historical concept, it bears a relativity. The question to pose is the following: to what is it relative? As an historical concept it is inevitably relative to the past, to a spatio-temporal situation which has effectively existed. It could not be known as relative to the future, in the manner of utopia, history and utopia logically being contraries. Otherwise put, decadence appertains to the world of represented existence and not to that of a non-existent prefigured world which ought one day to exist. In the second instance, the idea of decadence implies a situation which is in decline, in the path of deterioration in relation to an anterior state which was a state of expansion, of power or which still manifested a positive intensity in the different domains of human activity. Even in this case decadence would remain an empty notion if one could not mark the fall by boundary poles, of objectively determinable signs, therefore effectively detectable in the temporal course of things. Utopia does not have need of this genre of determinations because it escapes from historical time and that it is of the order of the imaginary, of the pure idea which pretends to be true beyond all spatio-temporal experience. This does not mean that the imaginary ought to be condemned, because it is one of the dimensions of thought, but it remains inoperative if one wants to grasp the phenomenon of decadence. Finally, it is necessary to define the notion of generation. It designates an indistinct collectivity according to the age of its members, which means that it assembles sociologically, without other precision, those who are the same age. The notion of generation is thus one of the means of giving the rhythm of historical time according to the biological criterion. One generation lives an history which the succeeding generations can only represent to themselves. In this sense it designates a collective experience.
We now possess the elements which allow us to indicate the reasons for which my generation may experience the sentiment of decadence. We have experienced in our youth the end of the European epos, which began in the sixteenth century. We participated directly or indirectly in the Second World War, characterized by the loss of the world power which Europe had exercised and its displacement to America and Russia. We have also known the Europeans as masters of the seas and of the lands of the globe, we have collaborated in the prodigious extension of scientific and technological thought which has burst forth from the sciences of nature and edified the human sciences (sociology, ethnology, etc.). We have participated in that which without doubt will be the last intra-European conflict, the last of the conflicts which have sustained the European vitality over the course of the centuries on the basis of a creative rivalry between the European peoples. We were witnesses to the vitality of the cultural and artistic foyer which Europe was, where the American writers like H. James, H. Adams or Hemingway and the Russian writers like Turgenev and Dostoyevsky came to drink as from the source of a stream. During our youth Europe had achieved the conquest of the Earth, not leaving unexplored any region of the globe. Europe thus attained its limits, because there no longer subsisted upon the Earth any unknown zones. But we would thus ignore that it had come to reach its limits, that it would no longer go beyond them. We would not know it, any more than we would know that the Resistance would be the last jolt of Europe confronted with its demons. But we know it today, because in the space of one decade all of this immense secular construction was brusquely demolished. In ten years the patient and gigantic work of four centuries collapsed, Europe no longer controlling any geographic space other than its own. The destiny of the world no longer depends upon Europe, except incidentally, whether this is a matter of politics, of the economy, of the military, of art. Life goes on, and Europe is no longer what it was. It’s not a matter of the end of the world, but of the decadence of Europe. The marker which permits speaking of decadence therefore finds itself in the experience of my generation, because it may compare the Europe which was and that which it is no longer."
"The great historians of Rome, like Gibbon or Renan, have situated the decline of Rome in the epoch of Marcus Aurelius. It was under this emperor that Rome renounced the policy of conquest for confining itself to defending the frontiers of the Empire. There was no sudden rupture, like the example of Europe which in the space of ten years was itself cantoned into its geographic space, but this halt to the élan of Roman politics rapidly had two consequences. The first was in external politics: the abandonment of the most distant provinces, which had the effect of encouraging, sometimes despite themselves, the Barbarians, wholly surprised by the continued weakening of the Roman armies. The repercussions were rapidly felt in the legions, with the relaxing of discipline, up to the point of abandoning, on the part of the soldiers, after demanding before the emperor, their cuirass and their helmet, thus exposing themselves again, at their disadvantage, to the blows of the enemy. I only make mention of this point, amongst so many others which the historians have related to us of this epoch. The second was in internal politics: the power was placed in auction. The emperors succeeded at a mad rhythm, several of them only reigned for several months. Of ten inhabitants of Rome, there were no more than two who were still truly of Roman or Italian origin. Finally, cosmopolitanism became the rule, in such a way that Rome ended by ceasing to be the centre, this being displaced by the whim of the fantasies of the emperors, culminating in the division of the Empire. This was finally the collapse of the traditional values, religious, moral and otherwise. The occupation of Rome by the barbarians roused up no more than a few literary indignations. If I have taken the example of Rome, this is in order to better understand the problem of generations. Barely two or three generations after Marcus Aurelius, Roman grandeur had already disappeared from consciousness. Hardly any author evoked decadence, because each new generation was preoccupied by its immediate vital problems, by the religious quarrels, the succession of ephemeral emperors. One attempted to defend oneself on the frontiers, but one didn’t in any way preoccupy oneself with the menaces around the Mediterranean basin, where one contented oneself with surviving in the daily gloom, without other horizons. In all probability, the European generations to come will have as little care for that which Europe was as the Romans of the fifth century for that which Rome was, save for some spasms like that of the Emperor Julian. Constantine, Theodosius concerned themselves above all with consolidating their power, and not with the destiny of Rome. Rome had even ceased to be an idea for the generations of the decline: they didn’t even know that they lived in decadence. This didn’t interest them, which is to say that the decline wasn’t even accepted, but quite simply ignored."
- Julien Freund. Decadence and the Phenomenon of Generations. International Political Anthropology Vol. 14 (2021) No. 1 8