Salient. The Newspaper of Victoria University College. Vol. 19, No. 7. June 16, 1955
Bread and Circuses in Frustrated Lives
Bread and Circuses in Frustrated Lives
The impressive structure of the Roman Empire was white-anted by a vast slave population. The decline and decay of the Empire was accompanied by the increasing demand of the slave population for bread and circuses. Our own situation today is in some respects strangely parallel.
The Roman Empire was to all outward appearances an impregnable institution. Wherever the Roman armies had extended their sway, roads and aqueducts, law and order, had followed as a matter of course. The excavations at Pompeil, and more recent excavations elsewhere, have revealed the existence, of such modern amenities as plumbing and sanitation, running water, and internal heating.
Nevertheless, the imposing Roman edifice began to crack ominously with the growth of a vast landless slave population. Scholars estimate that more than half the population consisted of slaves. In Rome the slaves demanded the issue of free bread.
Not Bread Alone
But even the Romans found that men cannot live by bread alone. Emotlonally starved and frustrated, herded in jerry-built tenement blocks, lacking opportunities for creative activities the slaves demanded the lavish provision of circuses and public entertainments. The areria, with its chariot races, provided an opportunity for competition, excitment and betting; and the circus, with its gladiatorial combats, an opportunity for the enjoyment of blood and danger and death.
Few Rights for Workers
Like the ancient Romans, we live in an age of unique technical achievement. Our machine age, however, is dependent for its existence on a vast army of workers. They live herded into squalid slums in sprawling cities. The workers have few rights as persons.
Significantly enough, factory employees are called "hands." We do not think of them primarily as individual human beings; from the point of view of our technical civilisation they are cogs in a machine. This fact is made starkly clear by a notice that recently appeared in an American factory: Don't waste the time of the machine!"
This Illustrates the fact that man, instead of being master of the machine, is made its slave. Our industrial workers will only accept these inhuman conditions If "bread and circuses" are increasingly provided. Consequently, we have more and more social amenities extending from "the cradle to the grave." Indeed, these amenities have now been extended further; they begin before birth with pre-natal care, and continue after death with subsidised burial.
These things which are in themselves good and desirable, have only become conscious necessities with the advent of a technical civilisation.
Factory hands however, arc not content with bread alone. Regimented, drilled, conditioned, tied to monotonous and repetitive work, they crave emotional release and relaxation. They receive this from the cinema and mass sports.
Mass sports are a typically modern invention for the release of nervous tension. There is the element of mortal danger; in motor races and air races, for instance, the spectacle is increased by the possibility of immediate death. As Lewis Mumford points out, the cry of horror is not one of surprise, but of fulfilled expectation.
Hardening of Minds
A large percentage of the working population lives on an enjoyment of blood-letting; then on the screen it is repeated on a thousand cinemas, until we are hardened and habituated to blood and calculated murder and spectacular suicide.
Cruelty and Sadism
Becoming stale by repetition, we demand more and more desperate exhibitions of cruelty and sadism. These things provide an outlet for the frustrated emotions of a population which lives in a machine age. Those who participate in mass sports and who act in films have become proxies for us all.
[unclear: frequently], at the oval, we live in the person of the players; our muscles contract and relax with the progress of the game; our breath comes quick and fast; out shouts add to the drama; in moments of excitement we pound our neighbour's back or embrace him. By a process of projection, or self-identification, we escape for on hour from meaningless and personal insignificance.
Is there any escape for us in our mass society? Or are we doomed to be puppets, fated to be lulled into a false contentment by the provision of "bread and circuses"?
The prophet Islah has a word of peculiar relevance for our contemporary situation: "I have called thee by name: thou art mine." God calls men out of a meaningless existence into personal fellowship with Himself. Life has a meaning, a purpone, when we feel we belong somewhere or to someone. God calls in not in a mass, but individually, "by name".
A man's name is his most personal possession: it distinguishes him from everyone else and marks him out as a distinctive person. God calls each one of us in this most personal way.
A realisation of this fact will inevitably transform life. It lifts us out of the mass; it gives us a new point of vantage; it gives us an insight into God's purpose for the world, and enables us to become co-workers together with Him.
Professor Arnold Toynbee, who has examined in detail the [unclear: rise] end fall of the 20 civilisations of which we have historical knowledge, says that a declining civillisation can only be saved by the growth within it of a creative minority. Christians today have the opportunity of being such a creative minority. If our Western civilisation is to he saved it must be through the radical transformation of our machine society. Christians must work, there fore, for the reduction and elimination of its harsh and callous brutalities.
Christians, in the realm of leisure, must work for better cultural and athletic facilities, so that the human personality of every man may be fully developed.
But above everything else, Christians must proclaim the fact that God in Christ is able to deliver us from the paralysing sense that we are mere ants in an antheap. That is, they must proclaim that God calls us from life in the mass to a living, personal fellowship with Himself.