EGMT 1540: ~decadence~ The Ethics of Excess

Can gluttonous overindulgence—too much of a good thing—really lead to social decay? Does sexual libertinism really lead to civilizational decline, as moralizers have long insisted? If so, how? Are luxury products and even art itself ethical pursuits for some people, if others lack subsistence? How, and under what circumstances, can appearances, ornaments, and extravagances—the fancy and the frivolous—actually be good for us as individuals and as a society? Which desires are virtuous (“it just feels right”) and which ones are vices (“guilty pleasures”)—and how do we tell the difference? This interdisciplinary seminar considers the fraught relationship between ethics (inner virtue) and aesthetics (outward appearances) through the concept of “decadence.” The term refers to seemingly disparate phenomena: the historical period of the fall of Rome; baroque aesthetics; Gilded Age wealth inequality; Revolutionary attitudes towards women’s power; gender deviance and sexual minorities including LGBTQ people; and much more. In each case, cultural commentators have bemoaned corruption and loss. But what, specifically, was supposedly decaying? What can narratives about collapse tell us about those commentators themselves? 2 (Perplexing convergences abound: for instance, what is the significance of the observation that authoritarian dictators and queer dandies can both favor a “decadent,” ornamented style?) To answer such questions, the course examines the concept of “decadence” drawing on methods from intellectual history, literary studies, art criticism, economics, and moral philosophy. Through reading, writing, and discussion, we will become attuned to narratives of historical change (growth and decay) as well as concepts that lie on the juncture of, and thereby challenge, our preconceptions about what is beautiful, what is good, and how the beautiful and the good do or don’t relate to each other. We will spend our time together building in preparation for a final class project that will take the form of a multipolar debate.