Lives Fit for Beasts

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by Fr. George Rutler  •  •  October 25, 2020   

Many seek only bread and circuses

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In one survey of grammarians, two words deemed to be among the most beautiful sounding in the English language were "agape" and "philadelphia."

The Roman poet Juvenal

The problem is that these words are actually Greek. There also are many aphorisms in the English language that have become so familiar that one may not realize that their sources are in antiquity. Take for instance "Who will watch the watchers?" — this was originally a phrase of the Roman poet Juvenal (born in AD 55).

He also coined the expression "a sound mind in a sound body," and, in college, we were not allowed to forget its "Latinity," for it was written on a wall of the gymnasium: "Mens sana in corpore sano."

Juvenal had a talent for lapidary expressions, and I suppose his most common one is "bread and circuses" from his Satire X. Precisely because he was satirical, he was not popular among the more thin-skinned Romans. Juvenal was of the senatorial caste and was much of a snob (for he disdained what some of our contemporary politicians have called "a basket of deplorables"). 

But his point was well taken at least in the sense that the majority of the populace could be controlled by being offered things — like government subsidies and sports — in exchange for the freedom they had enjoyed in republican Rome before Augustus created the imperial "deep swamp" that eventually led to the moral decay of their civilization.

There is a portion of the people that, as Juvenal satirized, 'anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.'

In our days of high political fever, one need not embellish the cultural parallels. A natural philosophical school of Stoics disdained vulgar seductions by the imperium, but they were of little threat, and when they became political obstacles, they could be eliminated the way Nero compelled Seneca to kill himself shortly before his elder brother Gallio did the same.

Statue of Nero and Seneca

It is not irrelevant to the story that Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia and the just judge who dismissed the case against St. Paul (Acts 18:12–17). It was the emergence of the strange new cult worshiping a "Christos," whom his followers said had risen from the dead in the backwater of Judea, that began to threaten the Roman "deep state."

Political discourse today has degenerated into riots because what is at stake is not a mere matter of government, but a crisis of humanity itself. There is a portion of the people that, as Juvenal satirized, "anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses," but behind their superficial choice of living are sinister forces as from a swamp that would subvert by anarchy all that the Christian mind knows to be true.

About one-fifth of the citizens in the United States are Catholic, and how they vote will determine how many of them really are faithful to the "Christos" who asked, "For what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26).

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