Bread and circuses, as defined by Dictionary.com, is something, as extravagant entertainment, offered as an expedient means of pacifying discontent or diverting attention from a source of grievance. In a similar vein, thefreedictionary.com defines the phrase as offerings, such as benefits or entertainments, intended to placate discontent or distract attention from a policy or situation. Oh boy, where do I start? So much in western culture and society falls under this metonymic purview that I’ve decided to devote a whole section of my blog to it.
Perhaps the origin of the phrase bread and circuses is a good—and logical—starting place. So as not to waste your time with information you can find on the internet just as easily as I can, I’ll be brief. The phrase originated from a Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, around 100 A.D. The average Roman had lost all desire for political or social involvement. In Juvenal’s words, “the People have abdicated our duties [of voting or being politically involved]… [The People] now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” In other words, no one cared what was really going on in the empire so long as they received an occasional handout (bread) or were regularly entertained (circuses).
Fast forward, say, two thousand years. The most audacious experiment in governance of, for and by the people has endured for over two centuries. Granted, it was never perfect. Out of necessity it continually sought grounding upon its foundational document that was the law regardless of how some on either end of the political spectrum desired to alter its original precepts. And though there were people who did suffer under its system—particularly the poor or landless—this was usually due to those with power or money abusing their influence for selfish ends and not the fault of the law itself.
The common man experienced almost unheard of liberty. He was protected by the law in what he thought, said, wrote, and worshiped. He was entitled to a fair and speedy trial by a jury of his peers. He was secure in his papers and effects. He could redress his grievances. He had the right to defend himself. Of course, I speak of America and her Constitution. And though it might seem like it, I’m not out to lionize the good ‘ole U.S. of A. But I do feel that the political principles she embodied in theory (and sometimes in reality) are legitimate and life-affirming.
In my humble opinion, the Republic is falling. The reason the Republic is falling is because she’s become an empire. And history, both secular and biblical, reveals that all empires fall. The process is painful to observe and even more painful to experience. A British historian, Sir John Bagot Glubb, outlined the historical cycle of empires. They all followed a similar pattern.
1. The age of pioneers
2. The age of conquests
3. The age of commerce
4. The age of affluence
5. The age of intellect
6. The age of decadence
7. The age of decline and collapse
Also, according to Glubb, empires or nations tend to last no more than 250 years. If we calculate America’s founding at the traditional date July 4, 1776 and subtract that from 2015 we get 239. I’d say that’s pretty close to the end of the cycle.
Even if you think all this is historical hogwash, it’s clear by the most basic of moral standards that we in the West are certainly living in an age of decadence. Perhaps America is the flagship, but she has a whole fleet of other nations under her global influence. Enter bread and circuses.
In order for criminals who make their way into governments, institutions and corporations to get away with their nefarious deeds, the populace must be distracted. This distraction comes in many forms. The people can be bullied into submission. This is the case in most third-world countries. The common man is so concerned with staying out of the way of the police and military—who have been given a free pass to reign down terror on whomever they please—that his fear distracts him from the government’s open looting of the national coffers.
A bit more sophisticated distraction is the dangling of the welfare carrot before the poor or unemployed masses. A hungry man will put up with almost anything so long as he knows he will get to eat. This is the “bread.” Roman politicians passed laws so that free or greatly subsidized grain could be doled out to the poorer citizens. These politicians were smart. They knew how to secure votes. Or, in modern times the presidential candidate might promise the voters that they will receive a free cell phone if he wins the election. Whoops. That would never happen in a civilized, informed society. Okay. I won’t go there.
But what about the people who aren’t poor—who don’t need government subsidies? What about the middle and upper classes? Why, circuses of course! Entertain them to death, sometimes literally (i.e. those who’ve died sitting in front of a monitor from cardiac arrest after a three day gaming binge). Hollywood, T.V., video games, the internet and sports. These in and of themselves are neutral and can be socially beneficial. Their moral attributes don’t depend on the medium but the content. Nevertheless, they can and are used to distract the masses.
And entertainment, no matter how innocent and wholesome it begins, tends toward moral degeneration over time. Human nature lusts after more illicit and abnormal forms of entertainment in order to achieve the same levels of previous pleasure. As society becomes inured to the creeping corrupting influences, ethical and moral concerns are ignored or disregarded all together. It’s a vicious, exponentially-increasing cycle.
But aside from the moral factor (but not ignoring it), there is the remaining fact that in our distracted state, we are an intellectually-deficient society. Many American’s can’t find Iraq or Afghanistan on a world map, but they know their military invaded these theoretical (and “evil”) countries. Many Americans can’t name the three branches of government, much less recite one or two amendments from the Bill of Rights. Many are disgruntled with the current economic situation, but don’t know why it is what it is.
These are just a few examples of basic knowledge our parents and certainly grandparents took for granted. In fact, a lot of this basic stuff I even learned in school, and I’m not that old. Geography, politics, history, economics—how can one even function in the “market-place of ideas” if he doesn’t know or care to know where he came from and where he might be going? The simple answer: he/she doesn’t. On a sad aside, many people don’t even read one book a year.
Speaking from a spiritual perspective, I’ve observed how cultural distractions have also invaded the churches, turning aside many Christian communities of faith from following the Scriptures in certain areas, and fostering an unwillingness within the church’s walls to deal with the realities of the world outside.
If bread and circuses is a sign of decadent times, then it might be prudent to wake up and take notice what’s going on around us. A fallen empire doesn’t tend to get put back together again. However, out of its ashes could very well rise something far worse.