"The decline of a civilization has long been linked, anecdotally, to less moral censure and a decline in manners (manners being self, usually-moral censorship)." (Brock Adams, commenting an earlier question).

My question is: what is the historical pedegree of this notion? Brock Adams has suggested "Cato, Mark Twain, Heinlein, Bismark (I think), and Churchill" but I am not sure about Twain. Cato, for certain. Gibbon also naturally comes to mind.

(To clarify my meaning, J.B. Bury had written two books about the history of ideas: "History of the Freedom of Thought (1914)" and "Idea of Progress (1920)"; I am looking for a similar history of the idea of moral decline).

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    problem is, one person's morality is another person's hell. Think the Taliban, they're the peak of "decent" behaviour, demanding a total abstinence of any form of entertainment or temptation. Yet you'd hardly call them civilised I hope. Similarly, I don't call the jailing of people for "indecent exposure" civilised, I find the entire concept of "indecent exposure" to be morally wrong and a violation of the fundamental human right to free expression. – jwenting Feb 24 '13 at 19:03
  • @jwenting: Sure, that's why I am not asking "do loose morals lead to decline?" but rather "who said in history that loose morals lead to decline?" So, your comment answers my question thus: "The Taliban did and jwenting doesn't". :) – Felix Goldberg Feb 24 '13 at 19:52
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    Excellent conversion of a potentially argumentative discussion into a history of ideas question. – Samuel Russell Feb 24 '13 at 21:23
  • The old blame the young's moral laxity, the young blame the old's inaction. – Russell Feb 24 '13 at 23:26
  • I meant to emphasize manners more -- which was mostly what the people I remember were writing/talking about. This does not include all "moral" censure, by a broad definition of the term. For example, excessive arbitrary dictates -- the kind often associated with "religious persecution" -- would not apply. But I would argue that they where not moral either. – Brock Adams Feb 24 '13 at 23:31

Edward Gibbon, in "the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," lists the following reasons (among others):

The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:

  1. Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
  2. Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
  3. Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
  4. Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
  5. Increased demand to live off the state.”

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are found in America today.

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    and none of them explain what really happened, which is permanent civil war draining the country of its resources, until invasion by marauding tribes could no longer be resisted because all the legions were either destroyed, too busy fighting each other, or positioned to defend remote areas where their commanders had set up private fiefdoms rather than where they could provide defense for the empire as a whole. – jwenting Feb 26 '13 at 7:24
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    @jwenting: Actually, we can't be sure what happened at all. I mean, the bare facts are more or less known but there are a number of very different interpretations one can put on them. I'd cite here the introductory part of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… - but with some trepidation because I actually wrote that bit myself a while ago... :) Still, I think it's a cogent partial summary of the debates on this. – Felix Goldberg Feb 26 '13 at 11:25
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    I view Gibbon as just one more example of the history of the "moral decline" theories that the OQ was talking about. So clearly these ideas were around in the 18th century. – T.E.D. Feb 26 '13 at 14:14

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