There’s Nothing Wrong With Bread and Circuses

Bad Arguments Vol. 54

bread and circuses

For those that are unaware (which, how you would be at this point is questionable), I am Canadian. As such, we just recently finished celebrating Canada Day on July 1st. The event is similar, yet vastly different historically, from the American Independence Day celebrated on July 4th. At events like these, people from all walks of life come together to celebrate their country, their shared history, or, at the very least, having an extra day off from work.

I could have used these events as an opportunity to discuss how one can be patriotic without supporting their government, or some of the bad arguments that pass along from both sides when it comes to the act of flag burning, but instead I figured this would be a prime time to take down the misanthropic attacks against celebration itself. I’m speaking of those (as you might have gathered from the title) that decry the gatherings and celebrations of people as little more than fodder being entertained by bread and circuses.

To start, let us look at the history and usage of this phrase, then I will be better equipped to explain why it is a bad argument the way it is currently used. The phrase comes from Satire X by the Roman poet Juvenal, critiquing the decline of heroism and active political involvement by the populace, and the politicians for aiming to gain political power through these distracting elements rather than through actual accomplishment. His claim was that the Romans had been reduced to wanting only food and entertainment, with all real involvement in politics and the nation pushed to the side, or handed off to the politicians able to provide the bread and circuses.

As the phrase evolved, we’ve come to use it less and less as a critique of the political class for attempting to buy our votes (as is half of the meaning), but to generally critique the populace for their “mindless” indulgence in entertainment over the substance provided by community involvement, devotion to real works or causes, or to the improvement of the self. The amounts of time and money spent on concerts, sporting events, and celebrating national events.

Often the link is made back to the fall of Rome, claiming that by allowing ourselves to fall for the “bread and circuses” we are, in fact, emulating the decline of the empire and our nations will fall. There are two key mistakes made in this worldview that I take the most issue with. The first is the idea that our indulgence in entertainment is bad, the second is the historical revisionism regarding Rome. I will start with the latter issue here.

There are multiple reasons for the fall of Rome. Political corruption, the rise of Eastern empires, excessive military expansionism, the changes in Roman social order caused by Christianity, reliance on slave labor, and so on, can all be attributed to the decline and eventual fall of the empire. Sure, the argument could be made that if the citizenry weren’t placated with bread and circuses they could, instead, have been involved enough to help prevent what took place, but that is little more than wishful thinking once we consider the Huns, actual barbarians, and all of the other factors at play.

Regarding the entertainment aspect of this argument, we can see several fatal flaws. The chief among them is the idea that, by taking part and enjoying these events, we have all abandoned any form of duty or involvement in the more “serious” matters; an argument most commonly seen during the superbowl. Are you unable to help out in your community simply because your Sunday afternoons are spent watching football? Do students not read and study and work on improving themselves despite going to parties come Friday night? If someone’s time is so pressed that they are unable to be politically involved, or pursue these more “noble” aims, do they not deserve the rest?

I can believe that listening to, say, mumble rap is a waste of time, and I definitely support people spending their time reading something that will educate them over something that will entertain, but their time isn’t mine to spend. Partaking in bread and circuses causes no real harm, and can often give the reprieve needed from the day-to-day grind of life. To claim that society will collapse unless people begin to throw all of their time towards their nation is not only preposterous, it’s subtly totalitarian. The proponents of this worldview could do well with partaking every once in a while themselves to learn to relax. Perhaps they could use a hug, too.

Read more from Killian at Think Liberty here


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