January 11th, 2007

Bread and Circuses


One of the easiest ways to get our priorities out of their proper order is with the abundant selection of bread and circuses in our society.

The term “bread and circuses” is best defined on this site as follows:

In Juvenal’s time (55-127 A.D.), the Roman Republic was but a distant memory as the power of the emperors grew stronger and stronger. The once proud Senate that had witnessed the splendid orations of Cato and Cicero—dominated and weakened year after year by the succession of dictators—atrophied into a figurehead of an institution. However, Juvenal felt that the populace took the duties of citizenship far more seriously during the days of the Republic than in the virtual dictatorships of the Caesars.

He lamented that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses.”

Those scornful words “bread and circuses,” panem et circenses in Latin, become more meaningful when you understand that Roman citizens became increasingly addicted to free distributions of food and the violent gladiatorial and other contests held in the Coliseum and the chariot races of the Circus Maximus. He felt that Romans had lost the capacity to govern themselves so distracted by mindless self-gratification had they become.

Thus, bread and circuses, is a phrase now used to deplore a population so distracted with entertainment and personal pleasures (sometimes by design of those in power) that they no longer value the civic virtues and bow to civil authority with unquestioned obedience. Bread and Circuses has also become a general term for government policies that seek short-term solutions to public unrest.

Additional descriptions of the term can be found here, here, or here.

Comparisons between our society and that of ancient Rome have been made by numerous sources, one of which being President Benson in his talk “Watchman, Warn the Wicked”. Benson also cites a talk by then-Governor Reagan on the same topic.

History repeats itself. Most people with a cursory knowledge of historical events would admit this fact. Those who have read the Book of Mormon are even more familiar with this repetitive cycle. So if history repeats itself, and our day has been compared to the declining days of the Roman Empire, where do bread and circuses come in?

Let’s ask ourselves how large a part entertainment plays in our life. Celebrity obsessions, sport addictions, must-watch TV shows, and the rest. Perhaps you are an anomaly in the data (as I like to consider myself), but I find these Nielsen statistics highly disturbing:

The total average time a household watched television during the 2005-2006 television year was 8 hours and 14 minutes per day, a 3-minute increase from the 2004-2005 season and a record high. The average amount of television watched by an individual viewer increased 3 minutes per day to 4 hours and 35 minutes, also a record.


W. Cleon Skousen, in his pamphlet “Do You Really Want The Rest of the Book of Mormon?”, said:

Recreation is important, but in many cases we have allowed it to literally root out of our daily lives the study of the gospel and the scriptures. No doubt our challenge is not so much a lack of time as it is the perpetual rat race which smothers us under a virtual tidal wave of tantalizing trivia.

Likewise, Goethe has said:

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

Are our priorities out of whack? Instead of watching the latest episodes of our favorite TV shows (95% of which is trash, in my opinion), are there other things we’d be better spending our time with? How about reading the scriptures, or a good book? How about being anxiously engaged in a good cause?

It’s time to go on a societal diet. No more bread. No more circuses.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once posed the question “What would be the use of eternity to a person who cannot use well one half hour?”


Read quotes about “priorities” on Quoty

3 Responses to “Bread and Circuses”

  1. Naiah Earhart
    January 11, 2007 at 10:43 am #

    Whoa. Those Neilsen statistics are just disturbing. We, as a family, ‘kicked’ tv almost three years ago. I can’t begin to imagine where we’d find the time to watch hours and hours of tv!!! Our day is full as it is! It seems so impossible to do, but we just kind of found ourselves in a situation where we went without it for a while and then never did go back. Our tv, which had sat for over a year, unplugged and facing the living room wall, was finally donated to our kids’ gymnastics gym. Whether you wean slowly, go cold turkey, or even just religiously abide by a timer and turn it off when you’re done, I can’t say enough how great it is to get all the noise and emotional static of tv out of your life!!!

    As for the rest, I’ve been thinking about this same bread and circuses idea, in a slightly different context—sense of entitlement. I’m beginning to notice a pattern to many social dysfunctions; almost all of them begin with a sense of entitlement, be they in society at large or a simple private problem between spouses.

    The sense of entitlement to leisure time has more than overblown itself in our lives. It’s as if anything we have to/ought to/should do only has to happen between the hours of 9 and 5, leaving every evening and weekend to be our “much deserved” time off…I’ll spare you my soap box schpiel here, but I’ll just say that we need to ditch that sense of entitlement and replace it with a healthier acknowledgement of needing to replenish oneself, as needed, as opposed to whenever one wants.

    Our own sense of entitlement is making us lazy–leaving us without the benefits of our own efforts.

  2. Michelle
    January 11, 2007 at 12:17 pm #

    Connor, sobering post. We live in a world where priorities are hard to keep because so much is clamoring for our attention, most of which has little to no eternal value. What’s the scriptural phrase? Improve our time?

  3. Elizabeth
    January 17, 2007 at 1:46 am #

    The International Herald Tribune also ran a story on American’s proclaimed yet unproven interest in politics. When are we going to wake up and start taking action? (Not that I am currently taking much action; this question is for me, too.)

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