Bread and Circuses

(Originally posted Oct. 24, 2020)

Somewhere around the second century CE, the Roman satirist Juvenal coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ which has come to mean placating one’s populace with cheap bribes to distract them from their political grievances. Here’s the logic.

Thomas Hobbes observed that “If any two men [sic] desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only), endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” (Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIII).

By ‘conservation’ Hobbes means survival which is fundamentally the security of food and water. The constant conflicts in the Band of Africa (between the jungles of the south and deserts of the north) are in large measure fuelled by want of food. Hence to prevent revolt a government is well-advised to keep its populace above the level of subsistence.

By ‘delectation’, Hobbes means the want of things that contribute to what we take to be the good life, including those things associated with upward social mobility. Conflicts might arise over access to jobs and education, or desperate people might resort to looting and crime to improve their lots. Hence to prevent revolt a government is well-advised to keep its populace entertained, by which is meant believing they have a chance at upward social mobility whether they do or not.

High-fashion knock-offs pedalled at malls can make someone with a modest income feel rich. And there are people who “shop for the bag” and not the clothes to display status. Those with low or moderate incomes play the government-run lottery for a faint shot at instant wealth. Bingo halls fill with welfare recipients on payout day. And game shows, such as Wheel of Fortune, and talent searches, such as American Idol, allow viewers to imagine themselves the lucky recipient of a windfall or as an undiscovered star.

So the advice arising from ‘bread and circuses’ is to avoid revolt keep your populace above the level of subsistence and keep ’em entertained.

This advice is not only applicable to governing a state but also to preventing revolt in one’s own home. It used to be that mothers sat their kids down with a snack and activities to gain a moment of peace on a rainy day. Now many parents plop their kids down with snacks in front of a screen. I don’t know whether, in which respects, and to what degree this development is positive, negative, or negligible. But I do wonder if among the iGeneration, those who’ve never known a life without the circus of social media, there will be a Leon Trotsky, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Che Guevera, or a Rosa Parks. I’m thinking of people who have not only powerful intellects, but also social intelligence — faculties which cannot develop when one is habituated to cheap distractions.

Categories: Social and Political Commentary

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