Panem et Circenses: Latin, literally “bread and circuses,” a phrase supposedly coined by Juvenal, describing the cynical formula of the Roman emperors for keeping the masses content with ample food and entertainment.
On a podcast by Tim Ferriss that I was listening to recently, he posed a fascinating question to his guest. The question was: “If you could put up an enormous billboard somewhere, with anything on it, where would you put it and what would it say?”
That really got me thinking. I mean, what would I put on a billboard that summed up one concept that I feel strongly about? The options, in my reflections, seemed endless, as they probably are. And, I suppose, something really meaningful – apocryphal, even – would invariably need to take the form of a shared enlightenment… or a shared warning.
Later, in my sleep, the answer came to me. For me, it would simply be Panem Et Circenses.
We live, right now, in an age where this adage (and its application) has taken on a reality that is deeply sinister on one hand, and deeply liberating if we understand it and take steps to guard against it in our thoughts and lives. I believe that this is so important that a grasp of it has the potential to change the lemming-like destiny that humankind seems to have forged for itself.
Neil Postman summed this up for me in a quote that is both thought-provoking and chilling. He writes about George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984, and compares it to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Did that make you pause, wide-eyed? I really hope so.
The fact is, we’ve bought into the current meme that passive entertainment (visual, auditory, and gastronomic) is the goal of human experience, a reward for our work and a badge that signifies our supposed accomplishments in modern society . But nothing could be further from the truth. I know, that sounds pretty amusing and even hypocritical coming from an author, right?
However, here’s the distinction: art, creativity, and literature are capable of awakening humankind to new potential, new growth, new evolution. They’re capable of questioning systems, prompting change, and provoking positive metamorphosis. And if they’re not doing that… then they’re instead being diluted, regulated, and presented to people (and bovinely accepted) as an opiate for the masses.
I don’t like being on the receiving end of so many social systems that seem to be purposefully designed to dumb people down. It’s precisely the same tactic that has been used over the course of millennia by many mainstream religions: creating a restricted paradigm of thought, labelling anything outside of it as heresy, and relying on dumb public assent to enforce so-called norms of thought and behaviour.
I mean, think about it for a second. For the first time in modern history, we have virtually limitless access to information – we have the Internet, we have instantaneous wireless communication, we have the capacity (potentially) to harness the power of countless minds simultaneously in order to catapult humanity out of a present that is characterized by war, poverty, ignorance, conditioned consumerism, environmental destruction, and religiously inspired terror.
And what do we do with this amazing potential? We share pictures of ourselves eating meals, pretending to look suave, boasting about our children and pets, showing off our latest purchases, parroting religious or political rhetoric, and engaging in utterly meaningless and endless arguments online with people who we have never even met.
For crying out loud.
We should be exploring the depths of the human mind with the intent of evolving our capacity for good, instead of plumbing the depths of human inanity. We should be focusing on humankind’s expansion into the Universe, not the expansion of some singer’s ass.
(There is a newer, and even more insidious factor at work here, too: the prevalence of big data and the rise of AI as a weaponised propaganda machine on a staggering scale.)
Like it or not, this is something that has profound implications for the future of humanity. How absurd (and fitting!) would it be if we became a species that brought about its own extinction due to creeping apathy and self-imposed ignorance? It’s not such a far-fetched prospect. Perhaps the Great Filter of evolutionary growth is not a cataclysmic event, but rather a self-imposed extinction brought about by lack of will, loss of purpose, and the death of vision. If you take a look at the direction we’re heading in, is that really so unlikely?
The time has come for us to realize, forcefully, that our evolution on this planet and beyond depends, not on comfort, but on discomfort. We need to deliberately push away the creature comforts and the idiotic herd behaviour – both as individuals, and as a species. Growth – of any kind – requires discomfort, even pain. It requires focus, effort, and a good dose of bloody, good old fashioned positivity and determination. It requires disciplined contemplation, genuinely creative thought, and mature sharing of resources.
And for that to happen, it requires that individuals (yes, that means you and I) need to consciously and deliberately change our patterns of preference and behaviour. You will not die if you miss out on the latest gossip, or the opinion of some vacuous talking head.
Example: If you refuse to look after yourself physically, if you refuse to exercise or maintain your body in any way, what do you think the long-term (or even short-term) result will be? The irony is that when people do wind up with diabetes, or dementia, or heart failure, or lifestyle-induced cancer, they immediately blame someone else. It’s genetic, they say with a fatalistic shrug. It’s the company I keep, the convenience of junk food, the fact that nobody told me this was going to happen.
The stark, simple truth is this: we are each completely and utterly responsible for everything we do and think. Everything is a choice. To deny that is to deny your power as a human being – a power that is far, far greater than what we are possibly capable of grasping right now.
Here’s my (multi-layered) question to you: What are you doing, on a day to day basis, that is going to potentially elevate you above the plane of the average? What are you doing right now that could potentially change the future of your children, or the next generation? What are you doing, what are you working on, that is going to deepen your insight, your mental and emotional and spiritual capacity, your depth of knowledge, your power to influence your environment (and the Universe itself) for good?
Those are big questions. And I don’t have all of them covered, either. But I’m aware of them. I’m acting on them, and striving for growth and change every day.
I beseech you: don’t fall for the blandishments of bread, and the mesmerism of circuses. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy comfort, though – but assume mastership over it, or it will most surely become your master.
Do you want to be a slave? I don’t.
There are a million ways to climb out of the apathy pit and change your world… if you want to, that is.
Seek, and you shall find.
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