Simple and Sophisticated Pleasures in the Capitol

While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.

an image of several elaborate chocolate cakes, including some with rabbit decorations

Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”

I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.

I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.

So what is decadence? If I say that a chocolate chip cookie is decadent, what does that mean to you? My guess is that you will think of something like “luxurious” or “pleasurable”; it probably suggests that the chocolate is especially rich or abundant and perhaps that the cookie costs more than you would usually spend, unless you are the sort of person who habitually buys the very best. You might also take it to mean that there is something slightly scandalous or taboo about indulging in the cookie.

The reason I’m using chocolate chip cookies as an example is because President’s Choice produces a line of Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookies:

Made with creamery butter and the maximum number of chocolate chips that we could cram in, these are still our best selling cookies after 28 years!

Here decadence suggests richer butter, ampler chocolate, higher quality, and perhaps a certain age or established popularity. I hope I can consider this case closed: decadence, for most of us, means some combination of luxury, pleasure, and sophistication.

Despite widespread use of “decadence” to mean “luxury” or “pleasure,” it originally meant “decline” or “degeneration,” especially in reference to a supposed decline in Western civilization. (Twitter user Matthew Ciszek graciously shared with me the Oxford English Dictionary‘s entry on “decadence,” which lists several definitions pertaining to decay or decline and none pertaining to pleasure.2) Since ancient Greece, with resurgences in late Roman antiquity, the early modern period, and the Romantic period, there has been a belief that civilization goes through periods of improvement and decline; in this view, the artistic, intellectual, and moral qualities of a people, nation, or culture advance to a certain height and then are brought low in an endless cycle. It is important to note that the artistic, intellectual, and moral qualities supposedly move together, so that in philosophically fallow periods artists on the one hand will typically produce derivative works, merely copying their predecessors (and inexpertly at that), and on the other hand the majority of a population will be less morally disciplined in comparison to that civilization’s height. (The term “Golden Age,” you might already know, comes from Hesiod’s version of this thesis.) The word “decadence,” then, referred to a civilization’s decline, and so it also referred to derivative artistic work and moral iniquity. In time, it came simply to mean moral iniquity.

I somehow don’t think President’s Choice meant to advertise their cookies as symptoms of Western civilization’s moral degeneration, but that is the implication.

(On Twitter I polled my followers on what the word “decadence” meant to them; 57% chose “pleasurable luxury or luxurious pleasure,” 29% chose “a decline in culture or civilization,” 14% chose “ostentatious or extravagant display, maybe of wealth,” and 0% chose “immorality or something morally suspect.” It had, alas, a very small sample size.)

What spans the gap between civilizational decline and sophisticated pleasures is a belief that sophisticated pleasures are markers of civilizational decline, and of moral decline in particular. I assume my regular readers will already be familiar with the idea that pleasure is morally suspicious in its own right, but I’m going to spell it out just in case. In general, strains of Protestantism have been suspicious both of pleasure and of pomp, ceremony, and aesthetic sophistication. Some of this suspicion Protestantism has inherited from the pre-Reformation Western church and some of it is a reaction to the sorts of corruptions which figures like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli deplored in the Roman Catholic Church. Today we call this sort of attitude “Puritan,” but it is not quite fair to blame it all on the Puritans; they were neither unique in their distrust of luxury nor uncompromising in their suspicion of pleasure—after all, it made sense to enjoy the Lord’s bounty. (I have tried and failed to find the mythbusting article about Puritans which I read a few years back that would support this claim; if I find it, I’ll share it.) Nonetheless, the many Protestant groups which founded the United States of America and historically-Methodist Toronto are responsible for that nation’s long-lasting distrust of physical pleasures and sophisticated taste.3

There’s a lot more to say on this which I wish I were up to saying. Asceticism recurs in many of the world’s religions, in particular those which encourage some of their members to be monastics; does the Protestant idea that all Christians are monastics of a sort suggest that all Christians should therefore be ascetics of a sort? (See, perhaps, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.) Does a lingering Platonic distinction between reason, passion, and appetite mean those cultures and groups who pride themselves on their reason—for instance, imperial post-Enlightenment England—feel a need to disavow those things which arouse passions and appetites? Is there an Epicurean element here, in which pleasure itself is not disavowed but instead moderation is encouraged in those things which bring pleasure so that pleasure might be maximized? These questions are not merely beyond my scope; they are for the moment beyond my competence. My contention here is more particularly that this historical distrust of pleasure persists, specifically those connotations the word “decadence” sometimes still evokes and generally in how various media depict sophisticated pleasures. It seems especially true in more Protestant, or post-Protestant, parts of the West, of which the United States of America is the most obvious example.

And of course there are reasons—good ones—to be suspicious of certain kinds of pleasure. The Epicureans were not entirely wrong; overindulgence does reduce pleasure in the long run. Luxuries also have costs, so the more a person is able to take part in a luxury, the more likely they are to be benefiting from inequality; if such a person is not actively exploiting others, they are at the very least not giving their surplus resources to others as charity. A life devoted to pleasure is a life distracted from justice, wisdom, and altruism; such a person is also likely unprepared to make hard sacrifices. But the suspicion of pleasure I am noticing seems to exceed such considerations, failing to acknowledge beauty and pleasure as the goods they are. The problem in Epicureanism is the richness and quantity of pleasure, not their “fanciness”; while a sophisticated but subtle and limited pleasure cannot be condemned in an Epicurean account, a simple pleasure immoderately enjoyed can be. Similarly if a sophisticated pleasure is not expensively produced, or is expensively produced but can nonetheless be shared between all members of a society (for instance, the beauty of a cathedral or of public art or of a street festival), then it can be offensive to neither equality nor charity. Wasting a fortune on simple pleasures, however, is offensive to equality and charity. And certain pleasures—including sophisticated ones—can fortify a person as they pursue lives of justice and wisdom; if watching your favourite show is the only thing that keeps you going some days, then that pleasure is contributing to whatever good you do. The problem is an excess of pleasure or a disordered attachment to pleasure, not that pleasure’s sophistication or simplicity. And yet “simple pleasures” are lauded over the fancy ones.

So far I have not defined with any precision what is meant by a sophisticated pleasure in contrast to a simple one; although I find such imprecision both annoying and embarrassing, in this case it is deliberate. I am not at all sure that there is a real distinction between decadence and humble comforts. Decadence and simple pleasures are more categories than a classes: fuzzy, ill-defined, a sort of I-know-it-when-I-see-it scenario.4 Some of this might have to do with what a person can afford, so that those pleasures within my budget are simple ones and those which stretch or break my budget are decadence. It is more than that, however. In Fort McMurray I was acquainted with many people who could easily afford multiple pickup trucks, campers, ATVs, motorboats, and snowmobiles who would still disdain foreign film, pizza with artichoke hearts, fine art, or designer clothes as being too “fancy” for their tastes. Perhaps I am mistaken, but based on how I used the word when I was younger I think they use “fancy” as a synonym for both “pretentious” and “decadent.”

There is an element of class in this reverse-snobbery: these are people from working-class backgrounds and communities, often defensive about their lack of education. However, it also exceeds class: these are no longer people with working-class paycheques and anyway there are many working class people who love foreign film and creative foods, or would love them given the chance. If you are entirely unfamiliar with this sort of background, this article on conservative blogger Rod Dreher and his sister, and Amod Lele’s meditations on Dreher’s sister particularly, reminded me of some neighbours and relatives from my childhood and some of my acquaintances in Fort McMurray. (Please note that, since these articles were written, Rod Dreher has become more vocally and cartoonishly racist, misogynistic, and transphobic.)

How does this play out in The Hunger Games? If you have seen it, think again of the Capitol: obviously the inequality which supports its wealth and the violence and exploitation it uses to maintain that inequality are evil. But the figures are made ridiculous otherwise, as well: they wear outlandish clothing with heavy dazzling makeup, and they eat fine food. There is in Catching Fire a reference to the so-called Roman vomitoriums, where ancient Romans supposedly vomited food after a meal so that they could eat more. This use of vomitoriums is a myth and the practice of vomiting to make more room for food was never common, yet this idea has long been used to characterize the moral decline of the elite classes in the Roman Capitol. The allusion to this myth of vomitoriums suggests the film-makers, or perhaps Suzanne Collins, are knowingly or unknowingly drawing on that long history of equating cosmopolitanism and liberalism with decadence, both in the sense of immoderate pleasures and of moral and civilizational decline.

In other words, it is quite fair to criticize the character Effie Trinket for caring more about property than about human lives when she is scandalized by Katniss stabbing a table but not scandalized by the annual execution of children; that is indeed appalling. It is also fair to criticize Caesar Flickerman for manipulating the suffering of those children to help support an oppressive regime. The film is very blunt in its moral condemnations here. But it goes further: by using fashion and food to distinguish between sympathetic characters from unsympathetic ones, it associates fashion and fine dining with these evils, even though it is nonsense to suggest that these things are evil in themselves.5 That conflation is what I find troubling. Of course there is nothing wrong with simple pleasures, but there is a long history to the opposition to sophisticated ones, and that history should give us pause.

If I find someone arguing this better—or, indeed, making an argument at all—or if I find some history of the relationship between anti-decadence and libertarianism, and the relationship between both and misogyny, I will make a point to post it here. But I wanted to get something out for Jon and this is what I have managed. Besides, Lucy Keer’s recent post begins with an apologia for provisional incomplete blogging, which I will take as an excuse to post this provisional, incomplete discussion.

  1. Do people know that my background is rural and working class? When I was an undergraduate student I think people did; I suspect few do anymore, but this is hard for me to gauge. Certainly I could never really pass as rural or working class among the rural working class, even when I was one of them.
  2. “decadence, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, (link:…Accessed 8 November 2018.
  3. If you are skeptical that a region’s culture for so long ago can have an influence on that region’s contemporary culture, I encourage you to consider Colin Woodard’s thesis about eleven distinct cultures in the United States of America.
  4. Categorization is not the same as classification. Classification works by intension, meaning that each class is strictly, logically defined before members are added to it; as a consequence, there is no ambiguity concerning whether or not a member belongs to a class, nor are some members more typical of a class than other members. Categorization works by extension, meaning that categories are designated by examples rather than definitions; as a consequence, there can be ambiguity concerning whether or not a member belongs to a category, and some members are more typical of a category than other members. Except in specialized discourse, language works by categorization rather than classification, which is a constant frustration to those trying to use that language in specialized discourses.
  5. At any rate, even if you can point to a moral framework in which such things are evil in themselves, that framework will almost certainly be different from mine and from most of my readers; it is the sort of thing that needs spelling out more explicitly.

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