Bread and Circuses

panem et circenses

iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli
uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim
imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses.
-Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81

This poem was penned by a satirical Roman poet in the 1st/2nd Century AD. It translates to:

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses

At a high level, this is analogous to busying the masses with entertainment to the point that they no longer care about real issues that should be pertinent to them. It is to declare entertainment as the true “opiate of the masses.”

The poet was bemoaning not a love of food and entertainment – but the selling of one’s rights to bureaucracy in order to preserve them.

For many people, social media fills an entertainment void. This can come from following one-liners from people on Twitter, constantly checking websites like Buzzfeed or Reddit, and following your favorite YouTube made desi celebrities like IISuperwomanII.

The problem is not necessarily in the entertainment itself, but in losing balance. Shaykh Abu Aaliyah Surkheel explains this concept well,

The eleventh century hadith master, ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’ When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death: its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God; be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’ In fact, in the prophetic teachings, a cheerful countenance and an easy-going nature is to be tempered with the sobering recollection of God, death, the Afterlife and the imminent Judgement and Accountability. … ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures [i.e. death].’ A heart desensitised to such realities, or numbed to their recollection, is a heart that has had the stuff of life sucked out of it.

…Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, distracts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, disintegration of society and breakdown of the family; as well as existential issues more serious still, that relate to our Creator, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

It can feel overwhelming when so many important issues demand our attention or demand our activism. It is easy to ignore them in favor of putting oneself into a Netflix induced stupor, binge watching 22 episodes in 24 hours.

Balance is required not just of entertainment, but of food as well. What does food have to do with social media?

Look at the number of comments any time the issue of halal/zabihah meat is brought up. This is not meant to underscore the importance of the issue or even to criticize passion for halal sustenance – but at some point we have to address other issues. The problem here again is a lack of balance. Our religious advocacy cannot be a one-issue platform – particularly if it prevents us from seeing the bigger picture elsewhere.

The ultimate irony is that we live in the information age. The abundance of information lulls us into complacence and we feel we no longer need to worry about it. The hedonistic lifestyle of fulfilling one’s desires then becomes the primary pursuit.

What are your thoughts on this issue? How would you tell a friend the best way to strike the proper balance?

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