Abstract: THOUGH THE THEME OF HIS Sidgwick Memorial Lecture at Cambridge was “Decadence,” and though he knew that “somewhere in the dim future” decline lay inevitably ahead, former British prime minister Arthur Balfour saw in 1908 “no symptoms either of pause or of regression in the onward movement which for more than a thousand years has been characteristic of Western civilisation.” 1 Just over a century later, his “dim future” has become our grim present. With the relative decline of the West upon us, historians have an important role to play in supplying the perspectives necessary to make sense of changing circumstances. It might aid us in this process to revisit the debate embedded in the political economy of Enlightenment Italy, which was almost certainly the most advanced debate on decline in the history of the West. Why? Because, uniquely, Italy had twice declined from a hegemonic position: once through conquest, with the barbarian invasions that toppled Rome’s Western Empire; and once through commerce, with the economic competition from territorial monarchies that signaled the end of the Italian Renaissance. These two catastrophes provided theorists there with unique insights into the nature of decline and inspired ceaseless (though now little-known) debate about the means of overcoming it. As a guide through these uncharted and often melancholy lands, we can look to the nearly forgotten poet Agostino Paradisi (1736–1783) of Modena, the peninsula’s third professor of political economy and one of his century’s most acute theorists of decline. Our poet presents us with an ideal case study for rethinking not only the political economy of decline, but the very nature of Enlightenment itself. The time when one could speak boldly of “the Enlightenment” is long gone. The old Enlightenment was Parisian, ruthlessly reforming the Old Regime in reason’s name. 2 Commended and condemned by historians, it ostensibly gave birth to democracy and to the rights of man, as well as to Nazism and the gulags. 3 Today the I would like to thank Robert Fredona, Istvan Hont, Jacob Soll, Anoush F. Terjanian, and particularly Francesca L. Viano for their comments on earlier versions, as well as Robert A. Schneider and the anonymous reviewers for the American Historical Review for their incisive critiques. Jane Lyle has been an extraordinary copyeditor. 1 Arthur James Balfour, Decadence (Cambridge, 1908), 39, 59. 2 The classic synthesis of this historiographical paradigm remains Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, 2 vols. (New York, 1966–1969).