An Analysis of Nietzsche's Conception of Decadence

Hurrell, David (2019). An Analysis of Nietzsche's Conception of Decadence. PhD thesis The Open University.


Nietzsche’s readership often assumes that what is meant by the term ‘decadence’ is simply a condition of moral and cultural decline. This study argues that Nietzsche’s conception amounts to a more complex hypothesis. While Nietzsche gives no formal analysis of decadence, Chapter 1 provides an initial discussion of the ‘formulae’ and ‘recipes’ for decadence that Nietzsche mentions. It emerges that decadence denotes a disunity within a self and a culture, and the dynamic relationship between the two. Moreover, Nietzsche describes decadence as a physiological condition with psychological consequences that inclines those who suffer from it to be against life. An investigation of the method Nietzsche uses to unmask decadence’s workings in Chapter 2 reveals that he arrives at his ‘decadence hypothesis’ by reasoning backwards from the assumption that cultural values stem from individuals’ physiological and psychological weaknesses. Central to his hypothesis is that adoption and proliferation of decadent values inhibit and further weaken decadent lives. An initial critical assessment shows that Nietzsche’s hypothesis is possibly self-referential, incomplete, and cannot be seen as established as the best explanation. Chapter 3 elucidates in more detail the underlying causes of decadence as a process of physiological corruption of humanity by the forces of civilization that suppress an individual’s powers. Decadence emerges as possibly self-reinforcing, self-replicating, and self-propagating. Since Nietzsche and commentators frequently use the term ‘decadence’ to describe also the subsequent psychological expressions of decadence, Chapter 4 presents an analysis of the effects, and then discusses a number of exemplar decadents (Chapters 5-8) to demonstrate a discernible set of common attributes: psychological, epistemological, and metaphysical expressions of weakness underpin decadence’s most important attribute, i.e., restricted agency and failure to realize an authentic self. Chapters 9 and 10 offer further support for a physiological reading of decadence and provide a summary of my findings.

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