Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism


Peter Theil reviews Ross Douthat’s forthcoming book The Decadent Society, wherein Douthat defines decadence as:

…stagnation and complacency, a dissipation of creative energy, a jaded will merely to muddle through. …

Douthat outlines four aspects of decadence: stagnation (technological and economic mediocrity), sterility (declining birth rates), sclerosis (institutional failure), and repetition (cultural exhaustion). …

Choosing agency over boomer complacency, The Decadent Society sets the stakes for the most urgent public debate of the 2020s: How do we get back to the future? …

A renaissance will require motivational goals. To be motivational, a goal must be both ambitious and achievable. For this reason, I suspect that we should hesitate to put our faith in distant star systems. The fountain of youth and the Tree of Life are not waiting for us in Tau Ceti or on Planet Vulcan in 40 Eridani. We need not be “loyal to the earth” like the atheist Zarathustra, but we would do well to expect our salvation to be worked out in the solar system we have been given.

For technologists, that means pursuing goals that are difficult but possible: cures for cancer and ­Alzheimer’s; compact nuclear ­reactors and fusion power. For statesmen, that means deconstructing the corrupt institutions that have falsely claimed to pursue those goals on our behalf.

It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy.

Douthat is coming to Washington next week for a talk and book signing. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to be there, but I’m going to read the book.

Pursuing goals that are difficult but possible sounds trite as far as advice for a great life, great career, or a national recovery. And yet, this is the way.