Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872 / Phoenix Art Museum
From Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay
“We change cures, finding none effective, none valid, because we have faith neither in the peace we seek nor in the pleasures we pursue. Versatile sages, we are the stoics and epicureans of modern Romes.” – E.M. Choran, A Short History of Decay
This is an examination of reactions to mass culture that interpret it as either a symptom or a cause of social decay. Television, for
example, is sometimes treated as an instrument with great educational potential which ought to help-if it is not already helping-in the
creation of a genuinely democratic and universal culture. But it just as often evokes dismay, as in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel and movie Being There; its most severe critics treat it as an instrument of totalitarian manipulation and social disintegration. All critical theories of mass culture suggest that there is a superior type of culture, usually defined in terms of some historical novel: the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, Periclean Athens. I shall be looking to the past for an ideal culture “positive classicism.” But critical theories of mass culture also often suggest that the present is a recreation or repetition of the past in a disastrous way: the modern world is said to have entered a stage of its history like that of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Hence, “bread and circuses.” Comparisons of modern society with Roman imperial decadence 1 shall call “negative classicism.”
Frequently what a social scientist or a literary critic or a popular journalist offers as analysis of mass culture or the mass media proves to be something else: a version of a persistent, pervasive mythology that frames its subject in the sublime context of the rise and fall of empires, the alpha and omega of human affairs. Very little has been written about mass culture, the masses, or the mass media that has not been colored by apocalyptic assumptions. It would be too easy to say that where genuine analysis ends mythologizing begins, but that is often the case. The terms of this mythology-“mass culture” itself, but also “the masses,” “empire,” “decadence,” “barbarism,” and the like, defy definition. Their meanings shift with each new analysis, or rather with each new mythologizing. Unless it is rooted in an analysis of specific artifacts or media, the phrase “mass culture” usually needs to be understood as an apocalyptic idea, behind which lies a concern for the preservation of civilization as a whole. I call negative classicism a “mythology” both because it is apocalyptic and because it pervades all levels of public consciousness today, from scholarly and intellectual writing to the mass media themselves. Of course it is a secular mythology, close to Roland Barthes’ s concept of “myth as depoliticized speech”; a near synonym for it might be “ideology.” But negative classicism transcends the specific ideologies-conservatism, liberalism, radicalism, fascism, socialism, Marxism-and is used in different ways by them all. Its most thoughtful expositors elaborate and qualify it with great sophistication and rationality, but it still functions more like an article of faith than like a reasoned argument: in many cases, a mere passing allusion to “bread and circuses” or to such related notions as “decadence” and “barbarism” is meant to trigger a chain of associations pointing toward a secularized Judgment Day in which democracy, or capitalism, or Western civilization, or “the technological society” will strangle upon its own contradictions, chief among which is likely to be an amorphous monstrosity called “mass culture.”
In general negative classicism has involved associating mass culture and the mass media with other socioeconomic factors that are clearly destructive or “decadent.” In a recent essay that discusses uncontrolled industrial expansion, overpopulation, international conflict, and an alleged demise of political leadership, I. Robert Sinai pays most attention to “mass culture” or “mass civilization” as the principal cause of the “disaster and decay” that he forecasts as the immediate future of the world. Even something so apparently constructive as “mass literacy” is, from Sinai’s perspective, destructive: “mass literacy has, as ought to be more than apparent by now, lowered the general level of culture and understanding.” A McLuhanesque addition to this idea is that, according to Sinai, “the old verbal culture is in decline and there is everywhere a general retreat from the word.” As in McLuhan, the visual mass media, cinema and television, are tbe main saboteurs of mass literacy, although mass literacy itself has been a cause of the decay of something else-high culture or civilization, developed only through the leadership of creative elites.
The high culture based on privilege and hierarchical order and sustained by the great works of the past and the truths and beauties achieved in the tradition destroyed itself in two World Wars. We are now living in a cruel “late stage in Western affairs” marked by feelings of disarray, by a regress into violence and moral obtuseness, by a central failure of values in the arts and in the graces of personal and social behaviour. Confused and bombarded, modern man is suffused with fears of a new “Dark Age” in which civilisation itself as we have known it may disappear or be confined to … small islands of archaic conservation.
Sinai is undoubtedly speaking loosely here, because what he says in the rest of his essay is not that high culture cornmitted suicide, but that mass culture has assassinated the genuine al·ticle, the elitist civilization of the past. And, where mass culture is perceived as a destructive force or tendency, as in an example of negative classicism like Sinai’ s, the fall of empires is rarely far behind. “All social systems are ruled by an iron law of decadence,” says Sinai, and ours is no exception. If the term “decadence” alone does not point clearly to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, then the term “barbarism” brings the pattern into focus. Echoing Toynbee, Ortega, Spengler, Nietzsche, Tocqueville, and many other negative classicists, Sinai believes that high culture is today besieged by “the masses,” bent on the “vulgarisation and proletarianisation” of “the arts and sciences.” The masses represent “the new barbarism,” which has “arisen within modern civilisation rather than being an invasion from without.”
In a discussion of Sinai’ s essay published in a later issue of Encounter, several writers, while agreeing with much of his analysis, offer wry, thoughtful comments about his doomsaying. They point out that, if the emergence of the masses and the development of mass culture has its destructive side (and what process of social change has not?), it has also its constructive side. Elitism or aristocracy may have given rise to high culture, but on the backs of the vast majority. Furthermore, as Ronald Butt writes, “if it is the fate of all civilisations” to decline and fall, “why should it disturb us intellectually (whatever the inconvenience to us personally), particularly if it is part of a natural process of death and rebirth?” Butt’s question, of course, reveals an illogicality characteristic of all prophetic social criticism, including the mythology of negative classicism. If the falls of empires can be prophesied, they must be predetermined. Because the “iron law of decadence” must be inescapable to be “iron,” the better part of intellectual valor would seem to entail making the best of abad situation rather than writing Jeremiads about it. Besides, as Butt goes on to say, although Rome did indeed fall, out of its decay “came the much higher, more spiritual and humane aspirations of Christian Europe.” He adds: “It is not a fashionable thing to say, but … I would personally have, preferred to live in the humane cultural excitement of Alfred the Great’s Christian court than in the bread-and-circuses atmosphere of Imperial Rome. Except, of course, for the lack of hot water and heating.”
The phrase panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses,” comes from Juvenal’ s tenth satire. Referring to the attempted coup by Sejanus against Tiberius, Juvenal writes:
And what does the mob of Remus say? It follows fortune, as it always does, and rails against the condemned [Sejanus]. That same rabble, if Nortia [Etruscan goddess of fortune] had smiled upon the Etruscan [Sejanus], if the aged Emperor had been struck down unawares, would in that very hour have conferred upon Sejanus the title of Augustus. Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things–Bread and Circuses!
Juvenal suggests that the Roman Republic has given way to the Empire because the fickle populace has abandoned its political responsibilities for doles of food and the lures of the racetrack and the arena. In modern writing, his phrase is often cited in criticisms of mass culture to denote a process of social decline. The modern masses (so goes the argument) have abandoned political involvement in favor of welfare programs and the distractions of the mass media. The result is the betrayal of the Enlightenment ideal of democracy based on an educated, egalitarian public and the emergence of fascist and socialist tyranny, the final totalitarian shapes of “mass society.” Analyzing the “Caesarian democracy” established in nineteenth-century France by Napoleon III, Sir Lewis Namier uses Juvenal’ s phrase in a way that sums up what it has come to mean in contemporary discourse: “Panem et circenses once more-and at the end of the road, disaster.” It hardly matters that when Juvenal wrote, the Empire’s star was still rising and Roman civilization was at its height. Juvenal’ s is the withered hand of the satirist-almost of the prophet-that seems to point to the precipice. So Juvenal takes his place in the already well populated ranks of modern forecasters of doom.
In his survey of theories of mass society, Salvador Ciner says, “Of all the contributions made by Roman thought and imagery to what would later become the mass society outlook, probably the most important was the belief that the multitude must be fed bread and cheap entertainment if it was to be kept quiet, submissive and loyal to the powers that be.” This belief has remained powerful long after the Roman circuses and coliseums have fallen to ruins. How often it has served as a Machiavellian rule for actual policymaking cannot even be guessed. But it has frequently been asserted that “bread and circuses” underlies a supposed collusion between governments and the producers of culture and entertainment. According to David Riesman, “‘conspiracy’ theories of popular culture are quite old” and are “summed up … in the concept of ‘bread and circuses.'” Riesman cites Thorstein Veblen’s 1929 Dial editorial, “The Breadline and the Movies,” for presenting “a more sophisticated concept, namely, that the modern American masses paid the ruling class for the privilege of the very entertainments that helped to keep them under laughing gas.”
From Veblen’s perspective and more generally from that of the left, “bread and circuses” has proved a useful phrase for helping to explain and condemn the processes by which capitalism has managed to deflect “the proletariat” from its revolutionary goal. From the viewpoint of the right, the phrase has been just as useful for helping to explain and condemn the failures of egalitarian schools and mass cultural institutions such as television and the press to educate “the masses” to political responsibility. In both cases, the culture and also the political attitudes of “the masses” are criticized, as are the ways in which the ruling class or the government manipulates them. And in both cases, the shade of Rome looms up to suggest the fate of societies that fail to elevate their masses to something better than welfare checks and mass entertainments.
Those who have translated, imitated, or cited Juvenal have no doubt always interpreted “bread and circuses” as showing the political and cultural irresponsibility of the common man, though they have not always found something clearly analogous in their own eras. Thus, John Dryden drew a neoclassical moral from Juvenal about the “folly” of “the Mob” or the “Rascal crowd” when it tried to play politics, but he could not think of a better translation of panem et circenses than this:
But we who give our Native Rights away,
And our Inslav’d Posterity betray,
Are now reduc’d to beg an Alms, and go
On Holidays to see a Puppet Show.
Needless to say, “puppet show” is an inadequate rendering of the excitement of the mass “spectacles” of chariot races in the Circus or of gladiatorial combats in the Coliseum. Samuel Johnson’s “imitation” of Juvenal’ s tenth satire, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” gets no closer:
Through Freedom’s sons no more remonstrance rings,
Degrading nobles and controuling kíngs;
Our supple tribes repress their patriot throats,
And ask no questions but the price of votes;
With weekly libels and septenníal ale,
Their wish is full to riot and to raíl.
This is not to say that Dryden and Johnson were unclear about the meaning of Juvenal’s phrase; they were both good neoclassícists who knew Roman history thoroughly. But they could think of no close parallels either for panem or for circenses in their own society, Britain between the Restoration and 1749. Both Montesquieu in 1734 and Gibbon starting in 1764 gave explanations of the imperial policy of bread and circuses, but no more than Dryden and Johnson did they think of it as a contemporary problem.
The great historian of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was an ardent believer in modern enlightenment and progress, who did not think that “the triumph of barbarism and religion” which had destroyed ancient civilization would repeat itself in the modern world. Though Gibbon believed that the Roman experience offered lessons that any wise nation should learn, he saw little danger of Europe’s being plunged into a new Dark Age. “The experienee offour thousand years should enlarge our hopes and diminish our apprehensions: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed that no people, unless the bee of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism.” The experience of the French Revolution, however, led more conservative thinkers to believe that Europe as a whole was threatened by a reversion to barbarism, the Dark Ages, or worse. Metaphors drawn from Roman history are always close at hand in Edmund Burke, fur example, as when he worries about “barbarism with regard to science and literature” as a result of revolutionary values, or when he writes of the property confiscations in France in terms of similar confiscations under Sulla.
The 1848 Revolutions and the Roman Republic / University of South Carolina Libraries
Much modern history has involved at least a surface imitation of classical models, from the architecture of government buildings to the outward shape of events. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” wrote Marx. He had in mind the way the French Revolution “draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.” So France between 1789 and 1814 had been haunted by the ghosts of “resurrected Romans- the Brutuses, Graechi, Publieolas, the tribunes, the senators and Caesar himself,” the last in the shape of Napoleon. Either history repeats itself or we make it repeat itself by imitating classical models. This happens, Marx believed, either because people cannot shape the future freely (which partly means without making the same mistakes twice) or, what amounts to the same thing, because most people are not heroes.
Wholly absorbed in the production of wealth and in the peaceful struggle of competition, [the French bourgeoisie after 1830] no longer comprehended that ghosts from the days of Rome had watched over its cradle. But unheroic as bourgeois society is, yet it had need of heroism, oi” sacrifice, of terror, of civil war and of national battles to bring it into being. And in the classically austere traditions of the Roman Republic its gladiators found the ideas and the art forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles.
Implicit in Marx’ s Roman analogizing is the question of the extent to which the past always shapes the future, and beyond this lies the further possibility-of course rejected by all orthodox Marxists-that the future may inevitably be a repetition of the past, or that, as many of the great classical writers thought, history moves in a circle. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, partly as a reflection of revolutionary times, references to bread and circuses begin to point morals that foreshadow modern critiques of mass culture. Montaigne, Robert Burton, and Sir Richard Steele wrote about the Roman games more or less as did Montesquieu and Gibbon, without any great moral concern. But in 1782 Joseph Priestley criticized “the barbarous exhibit ion of gladiators,” and in the early nineteenth century, Chateaubriand, Byron, Sismondi, and De Quincey all condemned the Roman games on humanitarian grounds. In “Childe Harold’ s Pilgrimage,” Byron’s hero, standing in the ruins of the Coliseum, remembers the fallen gladiators and praises barbarian innocence, “butcher’ d to make a Roman holiday” (stanza CXLI). Byron’s full moral goes beyond humanitarian sympathy to imply a connection between bread and circuses and the downfall of ancient civilization.
But here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam;
And here, where buzzing nations choked the ways,
And roar’d or murmur’d like a mountain stream
Dashing or winding as its torrent strays;
Here, where the Roman millions’ blame or praise
Was death or life, the playthings of a crowd,
My voice sounds much, and faH the stars’ faint rays
On the arena void-seats crush’d-walls bow’d-
And galleries, where my steps seem echoes strangely loud.
This is not a translation or imitation of Juvenal, of course, but something better: a critical interpretation of history. In this regard, romanticism seems preferable to classicism: it offers the belief that Rome fell to make way for progress, or the more general belief that it is possible to improve upon the pasto In any case, only in Byron’ s time does the idea of bread and circuses come to be viewed with a certain horror, as a pattern that modern society is unfortunately imitating all too closely, but also one that, if understood critically, can perhaps be avoided.
“When under the Emperors, the old Romans asked for nothing but bread and amusements,” wrote Giuseppe Mazzini in 1844, “they became the most abject race conceivable, and after submitting to the stupid and ferocious tyranny of the Emperors they basely fell into slavery to the invading Barbarians.” Here is a nemesis to avoid, if at all possible. Mazzini is concerned with the waning of moral idealism in the modern world, both on the part of rulers and on the part of the people. He still does not have an exact analogy for Juvenal’s circuses in mind, but is rather thinking about the encroachments of bourgeois industry and commerce upon the life of the spirit, much as Marx does in the “resurrected Romans” passage. In 1836 Mazzini had written: “We remember that when the material factor began to hold the field in Rome, and duty to the people was reduced to giving them bread and public shows, Rome and its people were hastening to destruction; because We see today in France, in Spain, in every country, liberty trodden under foot, or betrayed precisely in the name of commercial interests and that servile doctrine which parts material well-being from principles.” So for Mazzini as for many later social critics, what may seem like progress in one sense-the ruthless advance of “commercial interests”-seems like decadence in another.
As an Italian, Mazzini inherited both a negative and a positive classicism. The aim of his liberal nationalism was to resurrect Roman unity and glory in their best forms, while avoiding the problems of decadence and barbarism. Much the same aim was later adopted by a far less liberal nationalist party, the Fascists, who quite lite rally sought to resurrect the Roman Empire and who saw in their Duce the ghost of Caesar. Mazzini was an ardent republican and believer in national self-determination, never an imperialist. But empire was the order of the day for the Fascists, as indeed it had become for many of the other nations of Europe after the Franco-Prussian War. And modern imperialism more than ever called up Roman ghosts. “For Fascists the tendency to Empire, that is to say, to the expansion of nations, is a manifestation of vitality; its opposite, staying at home, is a sign of decadence.” So wrote the new Caesar, Mussolini, in his 1932 encyclopedia article, “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Mussolini could also say, echoing Mazzini’ s call for a spiritual re vi val: “All belief is extinct, we have no faith in our gods, no belief in the Republic. Great principles are no more. Material interests reign supreme. The multitude demands bread and amusements.” Part of the sad irony is that Mussolini gave the Italian masses bread and amusements and little else except for political violence and tyranny at home and warfare abroad-in Ethiopia, in Spain, and in the rest of Europe. The Roman Empire was indeed reborn in Italy in the 1920s, but its life was brief and tragic: it rushed through the cycle of rise, decline, and faH in twenty rather than in a thousand years.
From 1870 down to World War 11, meanwhile, the other countries of Europe also marched across much of the rest of the world like new legionnaires. Some Englishmen expected their empire to be the new Athens instead of the new Rome, but it is not clear that Britain was more successful at spreading civilization than at exploiting the “dark” corners of the earth. The Pax Britannica was at least metaphorically parallel to the Pax Romana (a “peace,” however, which in both cases was characterized by almost continuous warfare somewhere in the world) , though there were many who believed, with Sir John R. Seeley, that the British Empire was destined to more glorious ends than Rome: “No greater experiment has ever been tried on the globe, and … the effects of it will be comparable to the effect of the Roman Empire upon the nations of Europe, nay probably there will be much greater.” German expansionists, by way of contrast, often dreamed about rekindling barbarian vigor rather than about restoring Roman imperial or classical greatness; after Herder, Fichte, and Wagner, Kultur meant something pristine and Germanic, rising out of the forests whence long ago had come the Cimbri and the Teutons. While their Italian allies yearned for Augustan power and glory, many Germans-perhaps more honestly-joined up for new barbarian invasions, to overwhelm and to purify the decrepit civilization first planted by Rome.
Mussolini viewing the Ara Pacis Res Gestae / Wikimedia Commons
Mussolini’s “classical revival” was of course a fraudulent classicism and an affront to those humanists who believe that knowledge of the classical past is necessary to the defense of modern civilization, who think that learning is a keystone of freedom, and who see in fascism not a revival of an ancient heritage but a travesty of it-a revival at best of barbarism all the same, the classicist defenders of high culture against the depredations of “the masses” have themselves frequently been fascists or fascist sympathizers: the “case” of Ezra Pound is not unique, but is to greater or lesser degree the case also of the other “reactionaries” whose politics have been analyzed by John R. Harrison: T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence. To their number must he added many other intellectuals who managed through the first half of this century to be both classicists and fascists, or who otherwise put high culture into the service of totalitarian causes. The case against the reactionaries can he matched by that against those Marxists who, in the face of Stalinism, continued to be apologists for Soviet totalitarianism. But conscious declarations of positive classicism-as for example those of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Charles Maurras and T. E. Hulme, Friedrich Nietzsche and Irving Babbitt-have usually involved reactionary rather than leftist or even liberal political attitudes.
As defined within the framework of the two classicisms, “mass culture” emerges as an apocalyptic concept, the undoing of true culture or civilization. Negative classicism mal’ be a natural and perhaps even logical response to modern political and ecological crises. It is harder to understand why mass culture or the mass media should be included among the major causes of crisis. From a liberal perspective, anl’ diffusion of culture outward or “downward” to the vast majority should he seen as a sign of progress rather than decadence. But the very phrase “mass culture” was first used in diagnoses of social disease and breakdown. Closely linked to the emergence of “the masses” as a revolutionary threat in the last century, and then also to the reactionary and fascist threat in this century, “mass culture” as a theoretical category is viewed as the special product of “mass society,” which in turn is either totalitarian or a stage between democracy and totalitarianism, as the former collapses into the latter. The phrase “mass culture” originated in discussions of mass movements and the effects of propaganda campaigns, film, and radio shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The systematic study of propaganda techniques began somewhat earlier, just after World War I, at approximately the same time that psychoanalysis was becoming widely influential. Kindred terms- “mass art,” “mass entertainment,” and “mass communications”- also crop up in the 1930s. The main reason is not hard to discover: the convergence in that decade of concern about the effects of radio and the movies (with television clearly on the horizon) and concern about the rise of totalitarian parties and “mass societies” in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union.
Framed by the totalitarian movements of the 1930S, “mass culture” from the outset has carried negative connotations. The terms closest to it in English, “popular” and “folk culture,” are both older and less pejorative, though sometimes they, too, have been linked to “barbarism” and “decadence.” Unlike “the folk” or even “the people,” however, “the masses” have usually been perceived as a threat to the existence of civilization, closer to the second than to the first term in Matthew Arnold’s title, Culture and Anarchy, or to “ignorant armies clashing by night” than to the “sweetness and light” of the “classics.” Hence, “mass culture” appears on the modern scene as a primarily political and apocalyptic term, used to refer to a symptom of social morbidity, the cancer or one of the cancers in a failing body politic.
Unlike the phrase “mass culture,” the mythology of negative classicism did not originate as a response to European social breakdown between the two world wars, but much earlier, as a response to industrial and democratic “progress” perceived as breakdown. It first developed and thrived upon the weaknesses and inconsistencies of nineteenth-century liberalism. The “decadent movement” of Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire arose in opposition to bourgeois notions of social advance through technological and commercial expansion. Liberalism in both Europe and America looked forward to the gradual extension of democracy to all social classes and eventually to all nations. Democratization was to be made effective through universal education and an extension of industrial prosperity to all classes and nations. But the change would occur through the elevation of “the lower orders” or “masses” toward the standard of living of the upper classes rather than through the “leveling” of those upper classes. The liberal utopia of the future would stop short of egalitarianism and of any radical tampering with the institution of private property. Social class differences might diminish, but the hegemony of the bourgeoisie would remain intact through the gradual incorporation of the working class into the political system. As Raymond Williams has shown for Britain, “culture” became a key term in nineteenth-century liberal theory, for it was by the diffusion of culture partly through state-supported schools that “the masses” could gradually be pacified and brought into the fold. To cite Matthew Arnold’ s title again, “culture” was to supplant “anarchy.”
No matter how optimistic, most liberal theories of progress barely concealed a number of fears. One was that the working-class “masses” would not be patient enough for a gradual program of enculturation to take effect. Trade unionism, socialism, and revolution were among tbe working-class responses to social injustices that seemed unmitigated by piecemeal measures of liberal reform. A related fear, finding frequent expression toward the end of the nineteenth century in theories of “crowd psychology” such as Gustave Le Bon’s, was that “the masses,” rather than being transformed into some approximation of the bourgeoisie, would “invade” or “engulf” the bastions of privilege. Defenses of “elites” and “minorities,” like those in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, appeared to be liberalized versions of conservative defenses of class and of “noble” values. Instead of their elevation through a wholesome absorption of “high culture,” “the masses,” it was often feared, would drag everything down to their level, perhaps smashing the very machinery of civilization in the process. These fears, only shadows in much liberal writing, were forthrightly expressed in conservative theories that sought to counteract democratization, as for example in Edmund Burke’s Rejections on the Revolution in France and Joseph de Maistre’s Soirées de Saint Pétersbourg.
The recent history of theorizing about mass culture has involved a repetition of many of the ideas first expressed by Burke and de Maistreo In the 1960s, negative classicism was partly balanced by optimistic and utopian themes like those summed up in Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970). Much of the optimism of that decade was generated by the activist hopes of the New Left. But, like some other hopeful movements, the New Left has followed a course of disillusionment that can be illustrated by another title, from a work by (me of the disillusioned, Jim Hougan-Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies (1975). America has not “greened,” and the counterculture, fragilely blooming in the wasteland, has proved to be easily co-optable by the mass media. Hougan’ s title is similar to others from the mid-seventies on, which purport to show where society has gone wrong and which suggest that it is entering a new period of “decadence” or “barbarism” or both, perhaps to he followed by a new “Dark Age.” According to L. S. Stavrianos in his paradoxically hopeful essay, The Promise 01 the Coming Dark Age (1976), “the circumstances of the fall of Rome . are very relevant to the present world.”
Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart, New York City, 1977, photo by Marcela Noah / Wikimedia Commons
On the basis of the term’s most frequent uses in contemporary discourse, no strict definition of “mass culture” is possible. It is everything and anything, depending on what a particular critic most wishes to anathematize. Radicals may see omens of decline and fall in the demise of the New Left and the co-optation of the counterculture by the mass media. Conservatives find evidence of social decay in the New Left and the counterculture themselves. In The Death of Progress (1972), Bernard James cites Arnold Toynbee’s distinction between external and internal barbarians, and writes:
Where the external barbarian pounds at the gates of civilization with battering ram and war club, the internal barbarian insinuates values and habits that degrade civilized life from within. I interpret much of the so-called counter-culture we witness about us today as evidence of such internal barbarism. It takes the form of vandals scratching obscene graffiti on the wall of a synagogue or a courthouse; it is a mass of middle-class youth milling about at rock fests, knee deep in the rubbish of spent affluence; it is the faddish imitation of primitive dress and body paint.
This assessment of the “barbarism” of the counterculture contains nothing new; members of the Beat Generation of the 1950s, after all, were dubbed “holy barbarians,” and they in turn were only the modern American carriers of the “barbarism” and “decadence” of nineteenth-century Bohemianism. But, as “rock fests” suggests, there is more than a hint in James’s account of “the decay of meaning” of a confluence between “mass” and “counter” culture; for him, “barbarism” stands for both. James goes on to say that the significance of the new barbarians “is that they betray gross and alien values, bellowing curses from beyond the walls of civility …. They are evidence that something has gone out of modern Western civilization, that something is also insinuating itself through every breach in Western ideals. They bring to mind images of goatskin-dad Visigoths stumbling among the ruins of ancient Rome, draping themselves with loot, grinning as they urinate at the base of empty temples in the Forum. These symbols of Classic ideals had no meaning to such men.”
The “symbols of Classic ideals,” however, have a great deal of meaning to most radical intellectuals, even though they do not always admit it. Like Marx and like the Frankfurt Institute theorists, contemporary radical s are often at least covert classicists. Many of the creators of the counterculture of the 1960s saw themselves working in opposition to various stifling versions of mass and middle-class culture (often treated under the same rubric), as Todd Gitlin’ s recent assessment of the largely destructive impact of the mass media on the New Left suggests (The Whole World Is Watching, 1980). And if modern Bohemianism and student unrest bear more than a superficial resemblance to their nineteenth-century counterparts, then perhaps their self-consciously “decadent” and “barbaric” features have partially obscured their cultural originality and energy. The nineteenth-century artistic “decadence,” far from signaling a cultural decline and fall, was a major source of artistic renewal and of modern avant-gardism, in opposition to bourgeois and academic conformity. Much that is most vigorous in contemporary culture may also delight in naming itself-and in being named by its critics-“decadent” and “barbaric. “
The irony of historical cyclism lends to many expressions of negative classicism a quality of paradox: out of progress comes decline and bll. “Growing efficacy involves growing degeneration of the life instincts,” writes I. Robert Sinai in The Decadence of the Modern World (1978), “the decline of man. Every progressive impulse must sooner or later become fatigued . . . a culture may founder on real and tangible progress. As the leading edge of progress, the promise of fulfillment toward which all industrial and democratic effort at least ought to be directed, “mass culture” emerges in much contemporary discourse as the biggest of recent historical disappointments or frauds, the apocalyptic pivot upon which the rise of “the masses” or “the common man” or “mass democracy” turns back on itself. Sinai’ s paradox nf the decadence of progress can be seen in similar assertions by many recent writers. Marya Mannes wonders whether, “in the midst of the greatest technological leap known to man, the mastery of [the] universe,” we may not be facing “a night of the soul, a return to a new form of barbarism?” And Hans Morgenthau declares that “it is one of the great ironies of contemporary history that the moral and material decline of the West has in good measure been accomplished through the moral and material triumphs of the West.”
Pride goeth before a fall. Gibbon and Montesquieu had written that Rome fell because of her “immoderate greatness.” In his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” Rousseau makes a stern Fabricius denounce the “fatal arts”-everything from rhetoric to amphitheaters of Rome, all of which might be construed as signs of progress, but which Fabricius interprets instead as fatal to “the ancient Roman simplicity.” “The Roman Empire in its turn, after having engulfed all the riches of the universe, fell a prey to peoples who knew not what riches were.” Luxury undermines empires, which is another way of saying that civilization leads to the death of civilization. The same paradox or perhaps tautology is central to much contemporary writing about mass culture. The mass media are the most powerful instruments ever invented for the dissemination of civilization; they are also frequently declared to he the tools of our cultural suicide. Viewed through the telescope of negative classicism, mass culture is the culture of imperialism, and the end of all empires is “barbarism” and “decadence.” As Rome was both the zenith and the burying ground of ancient civilization, so modern mass society with its mass culture is both zenith and nadir of modern progress, acme and end of the line for the “dual revolutions” of industrialization and democratization. Or so negative classicists either fear or hope.
For the mythology of negative classicism, mass culture is only one factor, although often the main one, in a larger system of parallels between the Roman Empire and modern society. According to Robert Nisbet in Twilight of Authority (1975), “The Romanization of Western society proceeds apace.” From Caesar to Charlemagne to Napoleon to Napoleon III to Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin: such has been the repetitious course of the nations of Europe, doomed apparently to call and recall the ghost of Caesar. Even more frequently, America rather than Europe is seen as the new Rome. In The Crisis of Our Age (1941), Pitirim Sorokin writes: “Many signs suggest a possibility that America may play, in a modified form, in regard to Europe, the role of Rome in regard to Greece.” Similarly, Arnold Toynbee, that great exponent of negative classicism, declares that America “now stands for what Rome stood for”-that is, for the defense of imperial vested interests against the needs of the poor and of the Third World countries. More recently, casting a jaundiced glance back at the deterioration of “the American dream” in the 1970s, Malcolm Muggeridge quotes Gibbon’s statement that “it was artfully contrived by Augustus Caesar that in the enjoyment of plenty, the Romans should lose the memory of freedom,” and comments: “In the case of the American dream, for Augustus Caesar read the media and the advertisers who support them.” “Bread and circuses” is here synonymous with mass culture and also with the economic prosperity associated with consumerism, which from a liberal perspective might be viewed as signs of progress rather than decadence.
Equivalent examples abound. Arthur M. Schlesinger’s The Imperial Presidency (1973) invokes the Roman transition from Republic to Empire, as do also the titles of Amaury de Riencourt’s two books on American politics: The Coming Caesars (1957) and The American Empire (1968). “The parallel established in The Coming Caesars between the development of the Classical world and the development of the modern Western world provides the conceptual framework for [Riencourt’s later] study of the rising American empire. In particular, the similarity of the ancient Greeks to the modern Europeans, and of the ancient Romans to the modern Americans, remains implicit throughout.” A striking example of the persistence of negative classicism occurs in America as a Civilization (1957), when Max Lerner tries to reject Roman parallels to the American experience. His list of the possible similarities between America and Rome (including everything from “bread and circuses” and “the turning toward new religious cults” to the importance of the military and “the premonition of doom in the distant march of barbarian tribes”) is so long that it finally seems difficult to think of ways in which America is not Rome: “To finish the portrait, add the cult of magnificence in public buildings and the growth of the gladiatorial arts at which the large number of the people are passive spectators but emotional participants; the increasing violence within the culture; the desensitizing and depersonalizing of life; the weakening of the sense of place; the decay of rural life; the uprooting of people in a mobile culture; the concentration of a megalopolitan urbanism.” But even this does not “finish the portrait,” because Lerner con tin ues wi th “the greater looseness of family ties and sexual relations … the exploration of deviant and inverted forms of behavior; the Byzantinism of life, the refinements of luxury”-and so forth. After this grand summation of all the ways in which America seems to be repeating Rome, Lerner concludes anticlimactically that “America is not Rome but itself.” Well, yes, but what he really shows is how negative classicism can overshadow even the writings of the liberal believers in social progress.
Entropy, by Jeremy Rifkin
That our age and culture are apocalyptic is a truism. As Frank Kermode remarks, we are always striving to satisfy “our deep need for intelligible Ends,” and to do so we often resort to “myths of Empire and Decadence.” Doomsaying, present to greater or lesser extent in all ages, has become the chief mode of modern culture. In the early 1970s the report of the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, gave the world approximately a century to survive. AIso in 1972, in The Doomsday Syndrome, John Maddox questioned the more extreme prophecies of the ecologists and wrote:
It used to be commonplace for men to parade city streets with sandwich boards proclaiming “The End of the World is at Hand!” They have been replaced by a throng of sober people, scientists, philosophers, and politicians, proclaiming that there are more subtle calamities just around the comer. The human race, they say, is in danger of strangling itself by overbreeding, of poisoning itself with pollution, of undermining its essential human character by tampering with heredity.
For the first time in the history of America (Europe has had earlier and perhaps greater causes for pessimism), the general public’ s faith in progress has broken down. Images of ecological catastrophe, energy shortages, economic depression, and the neo- Malthusian “population bomb” have merged with older fears of a nuclear holocaust. According to Jeremy Rifkin in Entropy (1980), the second law of thermodynamics and not progress is the shape of things to come. Even the mass media now frequently convey the message of a social decline for which, according to the “bread and circuses” analogy, the mass media themselves are largely to blame. Beneath the gimcrack surface of happy gadgetry and smiling toothpaste ads which is often mistaken for the whole of American mass culture, a quite dismal, catastrophic vision of the future has been spreading. Perhaps this means that the gap between disenchanted intellectuals (whose business it has always been to express critical alienation) and the public or the masses is closing. Perhaps it means that a new wave of gloomy religious emotion is sweeping over the masses, with as yet unforeseen consequences. Neither prophecies of doom nor mass religious movements, however, are new historical phenomena. Just as an analogy for the welfare state and the modern mass media is frequently found in “bread and circuses,” so an analogy for modern mass eschatology is frequently found in the rise and spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire. Mass culture is often attacked as the ultimate result of secularization; “bread and circuses” are held to be among the worst products of an age that has liquidated the sacred. But mass culture is frequently also attacked as a surrogate religion, or at least as a breach in the walls of civilization through which the religious irrationality of the masses is beginning to intrude. Ironically, the mythology of negative classicism frequently warns us against the mythologizing or the quasi-religious functions of the mass media.
The apocalyptic warnings of negative classicism have their reflections in the mass media themselves. According to W. Warren Wagar, at least since 1914 “the serious literature of most Western countries” has been “drenched with apocalyptic imagery.” Among other exampIes, Wagar points to “the ‘cyclical’ historians, Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin, and their disciples, [who] predict the imminent going-under of modern civilization.” A recent, rather diluted version of Spengler and Toynbee is Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age (1971). Despite his fears about the masses and mass culture, moreover, Vacca expresses apocalyptic themes not far removed from those in such mass circulation science fiction stories and films as A Canticle for Liebowitz, Omega Man, Dune, and Star Wars. In all of these works, “the end of our time is upon us,” and the barbarization-if not the total destruction–of the world is at hand. Perhaps the major difference between negative classicism in the cyclical historians and apocalyptic themes of social decay or destruction in the mass media is the degree to which the former accuse mass culture itself of subverting civilization. But often there seems liule to choose between the gloomy news of “the last days” as expressed in the writings of an intellectual doomsayer like I. Robert Sinai and the mass eschatology that filters through television and newspaper headlines. In both cases, it seems appropriate to wonder if we are witnessing a rebirth of religious irrationality, and perhaps even to wonder if warnings of social disintegration may be symptoms of the disease they warn us against.
The distinction between “high” and “mass” culture, dubious at best, breaks down when it comes to such widely shared phenomena as the mythologization of history or apocalyptic doomsaying. Though it is more common to see the mass media as purveyors of shinier toothpastes than of eschatological dread, a major theme of current mass culture is that the mass media themselves are either “decadent” or “barbaric” or both, that they are instruments of our destruction, that they are leading society down the garden path to totalitarianism. The displacement of books by television in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel and film Fahrenheit 451 is an example, and so is Paddy Chayefsky’s movie Network. And Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, with its “videot” antihero Chance, expresses in fable form the now quite widespread fear that television is rotting people’ s minds. Kosinski echoes older fears about the totalitarian tendencies of the mass media-the arguments of the Frankfurt Institute theorists, for example, according to which the “culture industry” operates as propaganda machinery first for capitalist exploitation of the masses, and then (capitalism inevitably breaking down) for fascism.
Not only is the intellectual concept of mass culture often an eschatological one, but the mass media also convey apocalyptic self- reflections, including negative classicism. These eschatological self~reflections derive partly from the fact that television, for example, especially in its commercial forms, tends to destroy all boundaries between one thing and another-between toothpaste ads and Shakespeare, crime and politics, sexual reticence and sexual exploitation, soap operas and news, “children’s hours” and adult programming, and so forth. It also derives from the commercially strategic antithesis between “entertainment” and everything deemed culturally “serious.” As Erik Barnouw observes, “As used fol’ decades by Hollywood and today by networks and sponsors, [entertainment] implies that there is no message-messages being for Western Union-and no purpose of any sort other than to fill leisure time and make you feel good.” A crude cultural judgment is thus built into television, contrasting information and entertainment. The news is supposed to be serious and important; the rest is supposed to be one form or another of distraction from the world’s woes. This, too, is a kind of classicism and a faint affirmation of the political responsibility that Juvenal thought had in his day been abandoned for bread and circuses. Most watchers of the Super Bowl or of World Cup soccer do not realize that they are mimicking the spectators in Roman arenas, cheering madly and turning thumbs up or down for their favorite gladiators, but that comparison is nevertheless implicit in the very structureof televised sports “spectaculars.” In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch quotes a surfboard rider on how the intrusion of the networks has affected his avocation: “Television is destroying our sport. The TV producers are turning a sport and an art form into a circus.”
Negative classicisrn, however unconsciously, has become part of the self-definition of the mass media. Those critics who believe that mass culture is only a uniform mush that wipes out all distinctions fail to see that the media produce their own negations. They know themselves to be inferior, ephemeral, throw-away, decadent, even while they are all-pervasive and seemingly all-powerful. Their empire, too, is built on sand. And they are forever implying or echoing classical ghosts, shadowy memories of high culture. Most television drama is not tragic, it is not antique, it cannot be Sophocles or Shakespeare-and everyone infers that it must be antithetical to tragedy. Injust the same way, the more cheery and sparkling the toothpaste ads, the more mass eschatology lurks just behind the surface of the screen, adhering invisibly to it like a sort of emotional plaque. It needs only an occasional entrance on the evening news or a brief outburst of terror in a police drama for its unintended message to register. One of the more measurable effects of televised violence concerns the extent to which heavy viewers overestimate the amount of violence in the real world. Television tries to say: all is well with the world. We conclude: all is not well with the world.
Flat-screen televisions for sale at a consumer electronics store in 2008. / Wikimedia Commons
Television is the perfect reification machine, but its dehumanizing and distinction-blurring messages tend to unravel and fall apart in the moment of their fabrication. The same quality of monolithic impenetrability coupled with internal cracks and weaknesses characterizes all industrialized mass culture. Above all, mass culture always offers a pretense of dialogue when it is in fact or outside the life of the individual “consumer.” Jürgen Habermas describes one of the ways in which mass culture tends to call forth its dialectical negative when he writes:
The gentle social control exercised by the mass media makes use of the spectacles of an undermined private sphere in order to make political processes unrecognizable as such. The depoliticized public realm is dominated by the imposed privatism of mass culture. The personalization of what is public is thus the cement in the cracks of a relatively well-integrated society, which forces suspended conflicts into areas of social psychology. There they are absorbed in categories of deviant behavior: as private conflicts, illness, and crime. These containers now appear to be overflowing.
The fake privatization of public concerns together with the monologic denial of two-way or democratic communication cannot maintain its illusory hold over the consciousness of “the masses” or “the public” forever, and is perhaps always dimly perceived as inadequate, subhuman, undemocratic.
Partly through cracks in the mass media themselves, then, negative classicism has become the major myth of our time. Its development has been an important aspect of Western cultural history since about the time of the French Revolution. In order to understand its contemporary manifestations, I have followed it back as far as Gibbon and Burke, though I have also concentrated on sorne of its chief mythologizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include Marx, Engels, and the Frankfurt Institute theorists on the left; existentialists from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, and Albert Camus; Freud, Jung, and the psychoanalysts; the “cyclical historians”; and Baudelaire, Flaubert, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, José Ortega y Gasset, down to Marshall McLuhan, Christopher Lasch, Richard Sennett, and Daniel Bell among cultural critics and theorists. Most of these figures partake to greater or lesser degree of the two classicisms, because most of them treat contemporary mass culture as the antithesis of some true way, whether that way involves an individual “leap of faith” as in Kierkegaard, proletarian education and revolution as in Marx, the transcendence of the exceptional man as in Nietzsche, adherence to an Enlightenment ideal of reason as in Freud, Christianity plus a nostalgic authoritarianism not far from fascism as in Eliot, or the advocacy of democratic and communitarian ideals as in Lasch and Sennett. The list is far from complete, but these are among the most influential and representative shapers of the two classicisms and of contemporary theories of mass culture. An analysis of their thinking should suggest both that our present insistence upon decadence and apocalypse, though extreme, is hardly new, and also that even in periods and writers who have seemed to believe most optimistically in the idea oflinear progress, the undercurrent of negative classicism has run strong.
Just as varieties of liberalism have striven for release from the past, varieties of classicism have striven to restore its authority. From its beginnings in Renaissance humanism, modern classicism has measured a defective present against a largely utopian past. While the recollection of past cultural greatness has often helped to invigorate current strains of art, writing, and education, the act of recollection itself may suggest the “decadence” as easily as the innocent “rudeness” or “barbarism” of the present. Friedrich Schiller’ s distinction between “naive” and “sentimental” poetry involves a related contrast, but one that ought to present difficulties for any version of classicism. “Naive” art is straight from the source, from “nature”; “sentimental” art longs for the condition of “naivete,” but can do no better than imitate it. “Sentimentality” is thus always a symptom of the artist’s fallen state, the inability to re capture lost innocence. Classicism as the defense of the high culture of the past against the supposedly mindless mass culture of the present wears the aspect of Schiller’s “sentimentality.” As such, it is itself a symptom of “decadence,” or of the distance from our “naive,” supposedly organic and healthful roots in the classical past. Here classicism and mass society with the mass culture that classicism rejects prove inseparable, parts of a single historical totality that may be called “modern civilization” or the “modern condition.” Here, too, arises the paradox that classicism itself may be as sterile and empty as what it condemns, while mass culture in its latest manifestations-the cinema, radio, television, at least in their formative periods-may behave like Schiller’ s “naive” art, displaying perhaps a complete ignorance of past culture, but also displaying the creative energy and freshness that often accompany the births of new art forms and media. (Perhaps the fact that television grew upon ground already planted by motion pictures and radio explains why it has seemed less “naive” and vigoraus than its predecessors. It inherited two very short but spectacular traditions, and may thus have suffered under the burden of its own dimly recognized but oppressive classicism.)
As a form of utopian recollection and cultural “sentimentality,” modern classicism is always a debate between the ancients and the moderns in which the ancients win-a debate between past “high culture” and present “mass,” or “popular,” or “démocratic,” or “totalitarian,” or “commercial,” or “bourgeois,” or “secular,” or “industrial” pseudoculture. Conservative and radical critiques both lead to identifications of mass culture with either “decadence” or “barbarism” or both. But from a third perspective, that of democratic liberalism, mass culture is sometimes seen as the last, best hope of civilization. The diffusion of culture-knowledge, an appreciation of the beautiful, perhaps wisdom-to the common man, even when it involves dilution or sorne los s of value or substance, is declared to be a new factor in history which should be viewed optimistically. Thus, according to Herbert J. Muller in The Uses of the Past, Roman analogies should beat least temporarily shelved, because “common men are having their first real chance in history, and have not had it long.” However that may be, in America as in Europe, especially after Vietnam and Watergate, the rising tide of social crisis literature with its catastrophic mass culture theories has all but drowned out voices of liberal caution such as Muller’s.
The bread and circuses pattern cannot itself be seen as a major causal factor in the decline and fall of Rome; it may be symptomatic of decadence, but the sources of decay went deeper. Nevertheless, one frequent explanation for the decay of ancient civilization is at least related to bread and circuses. This is the idea that, as Rome grew from a city-state on the model of the Greek polis to an empire on the Alexandrian model, it took on the character of a mass society. Roman civilization was invaded from without by the barbarians, but it was also subverted from within by “the lower classes.” In a passage that inspired Muller’s defense of the common man, Mikhail Rostovtzeff presents this thesis at the end of The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. At some point in its development, classical civilization ceased to assimilate the masses. Whether they were internal or external barbarians, the masses instead began to impose their values on the ruling classes. Hence, bread and circuses. Hence, too, Christianity. According to Rostovtzeff:
We may say, then, that there is one prominent feature in the development of the ancient world during the imperial age, alike in the political, social, and economic and in the intellectual field. It is a gradual absorption of the higher classes by the lower, accompanied by a gradual leveling down of standards. This leveling was accomplished in many ways. There was a slow penetration of the lower classes into the higher, which were unable to assimilate the new elements. There were violent outbreaks of civil strife: the lead was taken by the Greek cities, and there followed the civil war of the first century B.C. which involved the whole civilized world. In these struggles the upper classes and the city-civilization remained victorious on the whole. Two centuries later, a new outbreak of civil war ended in the victory of the lower classes and dealt a mortal blow to the Greco-Roman civilization of the cities. Finally, that civilization was completely engulfed by the inflow of barbarous elements from outside, partly by penetration, partly by conquest, and in its dying condition it was unable to assimilate even a small part of them.
Photograph of Michael Rostovtzeff / Wikimedia Commons
What Rostovtzeff believes to have occurred on a broad scale and over centuries in the ancient world is, to use José Ortega y Gasset’s phrase, a “revolt of the masses.” Mass culture in its classical form-bread and circuses-appears as one aspect of the failure of the best classical values to take root among common people. Civilization founders upon its inability to be a civilization for everybody. Through diffusion and dilution, it leads to its antithesis: barbarism, both external and internal. But there is some question of the extent to which Rostovtzeff projects the features of modern mass society backward upon ancient civilization. And there is also the question raised by Muller of the extent to which democratization has yet been allowed to take effect and to prove itself in modern conditions.
In the failure of the ancient world to civilize the masses, Rostovtzeff sees “a lesson and a warning” for the modern world. The first thing to be learned is that “our civilization will not last unless it be a civilization not of one class, but of the masses.” Obviously, unless the civilizing process can penetrate all levels of society without turning into its opposite, it will ultimately fail, and while it lasts it will continually be threatened by subversion from below or from outside. Rostovtzeff goes on to say that the second thing to be learned “is that violent attempts at leveling have never helped to uplift the masses. They have destroyed the upper classes, and resulted in accelerating the process of barbarization” (541). Ways must be found to disseminate civilization to the masses without diluting it. Upper-class elitism, Rostovtzeff thinks, must be combined with democracy. But how? The demise of ancient civilization presents us with no models of success, only failure. Thus it happens that bread and circuses reappears on the modern scene as a problem begging for solutions; the study of Roman ruins leaves Rostovtzeff with questions he cannot answer: “The ultimate problem remains like a ghost, ever present and unlaid: Is it possible to extend a higher civilization to the lower classes without debasing its standard and diluting its quality to the vanishing point? Is not every civilization bound to decay as soon as it begins to penetrate the masses?” (541).
Rostovtzeff’ s questions are basic to any consideration of mass culture as a symptom or a cause of social decadence, but one answer may be mass culture itself. Despite the bread and circuses analogy, there was no equivalent in the ancient world for the mass media, including the press, radio, television, cinema, and also no equivalent for systems of mass public education. The mythology of negative classicism tends to lump all these unprecedented features of modern life into one destructive category, defined under the aspect of bread and circuses as the undoing rather than as the potential salvation of modern civilization. For either capitalist or socialist democracy to work, intelligence, information, and humane values must either arise from or be bestowed upon the masses. But, Rostovtzeff fears, the very process of disseminating culture to the masses turns it into its opposite, into “mass culture” in the most negative sense. Meanwhile the masses themselves begin to impose their own crude, “barbaric” values on the entire society. “Bread and circuses” emerges from the dilution-or, better, dissolution of high culture and from the worst instincts of the masses themselves. Like many other conservatives and conservative liberals, Rostovtzeff believes that the modern progress of civilization may have reached its high point in the partial, bourgeois democracies of the last century, and that the extension of freedom to everyone can only bring the cycle down from its peak, toward decadence, barbarism, disaster.
But what was the mechanism whereby the elites of the ancient world sought to disseminate high culture to the masses? The answer is that they had no such mechanism and that they did not even dream of civilizing the masses in the sense Rostovtzeff means. What the elites of the Roman world gave to the masses was “bread and circuses,” in which the elites themselves participated with more or less enthusiasm. And the spread of Christianity, which may itself be interpreted as a form of civilizing the masses, from the beginning lay outside the control of the ruling elites. A truer analogy to modern mass culture may perhaps be found in the early Church than in “bread and circuses,” though both have frequently been cited as examples of what is happening today, of our modern decline and fall.
Rostovtzeff’s questions form the core of the conservative version of negative classicism. The radical version of the same mythology only reverses its terms, not the general pattern, laying blame for our downfall upon the ruling classes rather than upon the victimized masses. But perhaps something is happening throughout much of the modern world for which the past offers no analogies. In his various defenses of the mass media, especially the electronic mass media, Marshall McLuhan has effected one of the most complete, and certainly one of the most controversial, breaks from the two classicisms among recent theorists of culture. The terminology of McLuhanism, however, is no less eschatological than that of negative classicism. In his heady prophecies of the coming “global village” and the electronic “noosphere” or overmind, McLuhan leaves out ofthe picture whether the village will be civilized or not and whether the overmind will be intelligent or foolish. “The medium is the message” and, as far as McLuhan is concerned, the message is good. Despite his weaknesses, McLuhan offers a striking challenge to negative classicism. And there have been other, quieter theorists who have also challenged it, often on the grounds suggested by Herbert Muller.
The past never inscribes all the writing on the wall, and any application of classical analogies to the present must be questioned from the outset. In his account of “The Social Causes of the Decay of Ancient Civilization,” Max Weber criticizes the idea that there is much to be learned about the modern world from Roman history:
The interest of a story is always keener when the audience has the feeling: de te narratur fabula [the story is about them], and when the storyteller can conclude his yarn with a discite moniti [beware]! Unfortunately … we can learn little or nothing for our contemporary social problems from ancient history. A modern proletarian and a Roman slave would be as unable to understand one another as a European and a Chinese. Our problems are of a completely different character.
Cautionary notes like Weber’s, however, have not kept Roman ghosts from haunting the modern world. But the conclusion of his essay leads to another, perhaps harder question, about the value of what was lost and what gained in the transition from classical civilization to the Middle Ages. Weber refuses to weigh entire societies and eras in the meager scales of reason; nevertheless, his obituary on the ancient world leads to an idyllic description of the world that followed:
So the threadbare wrap of ancient civilization disappeared, and the intellectual life of Western man sank into a long night. But that fall reminds us of that giant in Greek mythology who gained new strength whenever he rested on the bosom of mother earth. If one of the old classical authors had arisen from his manuscript in Carolingian times and had examined the world through the window of the monk’s cell in which he found himself, his surroundings would have looked strange to him, indeed: the dung-heap odour of the manor-yard would. have hit his nostrils. But those classics were in deep sleep now, as was all civilization, hidden away under the cover of an economic life which had returned to rural forms. Neither the songs nor the tournaments of feudal society roused it out of this sleep. Only when, on the basis of free division of labour and of commercial exchange, the city had arisen again in the Middle Ages, when, later still, the transition to a national economy prepared the ground for civil liberty and broke the fetters imposed by the external and internal authorities of the feudal age, only then the old giant arose and carried with him the intellectual inheritance of antiquity up to the new light of our modern middle-class civilization.
Portrait of philosopher Johann Georg Hamann, Sturm und Drang idealogue / Wikimedia Commons
Similarly, it is as idyIl or utopia that the “new Middle Ages” figures in many of the apocalyptic designs of negative classicists today: a place of rest after the Sturm und Drang of modern social existence. Negative classicism often turns out to be an ironically hopeful mode of thought: “decadence” and “barbarism” become the signs and portents of a longed-for transformation.
In the “new light” of “middle-class civilization,” with its neoclassical government buildings, coliseums, and freeways, its Roman law codes and its institutions both republican and imperial, we can at least look back over the expanse of the Middle Ages and the ancient world and wonder: What indeed has been gained? And what lost? At the height of the Roman Empire, Juvenal felt that much had been lost. There were others, however, who contradicted him. Those most responsible for bread and circuses, the emperors and their cohorts, did not see anything amiss about Roman life. One has only to consult Augustus’ s Res Gestae to see the gap between emperor and satirist. Here is Augustus on the bread and circuses policy that he did much to make an imperial custom:
To the Roman plebs I paid 300 sesterces apiece in accordance with the will of my father. . . . These largesses of mine reached never less than 250,000 persons …. In my thirteenth consulship 1 gave sixty denarii apiece to those of the plebs who at that time were receiving public grain; the number involved was a little more than 200,000 persons .
. . . I gave a gIadiatoriaI show three times in my own name, and five times in the names of my sons or grandsons; at these shows about 10,000 fought …. Twenty-six times I provided for the people, in my own name or in the names of my son s or grandsons, hunting spectacles of African wild beasts in the circus or in the Forum or in the amphitheaters: in these exhibitions about 3,500 animals were killed. 47
And so forth. For Augustus, there is only a self-reflecting glory in the imperial spectacles and the dole. For the thousands of plebs who were the recipients ofhis bounty, there must have been a similar feeling of living at the pinnacle of history, in the most important city and at the most important time in the world. It is perhaps more difficult to imagine what the thousands of gladiators and victims of the arena thought, though the rebellion of Spartacus in 73 B.C. offers a clue. What Juvenal thought is clear.
Richard Cilman has recently argued that the word “decadence” should be discarded as illogical. Perhaps so, but his essay itself attests to the importance of the word in contemporary discourse. Behind the word, moreover, lies the elaborate, pervasive, seductive mythology of negative classicism, with a history at least a century and a half long in European and American culture. Whereas Cilman would be satisfied if the word “decadence” were abandoned, I believe that the mythology of “bread and circuses” has influenced modern history and will continue to influence it profoundly. Whether or not it becomes the dismal reality of the future, the idea of decline and fall has acquired the force of a reality in the presento Perhaps our myths are always the things we take to be most real, and which therefore have the most real effects upon our lives. Historical déjd vu seems to be the order of the day, the substance of cultural modernism and even “post-modernism” themselves. According to John Lukacs in The Passing of the Modern Age (1970), “We live now amidst the ruins of a civilization: but most of these ruin s are in our minds.” The ruins of the present may or may not be more mental than actual, but they seem doubly ruinous and inescapable when the failures of the past are projected onto them. Insofar as they partake of negative classicism, books on contemporary society, whether sophisticated ones like Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) or more popular fare like Howard Ruff s cheerfully doleful bestseller, How to Prosper during the Coming Bad Years (1979), add up to a powerful imaging of the future in terms of the past. Myths of empire and decadence always point either toward a second coming of the barbarians or toward a second coming of religion. On the left appear the ideas of imperialism as the last stage of “late capitalism” and of the rejuvenating “barbarism” of the proletariat. On the right appears the idea that we must have, to use Bell’ s term, a religious “instauration” perhaps a revival of the old, perhaps the birth of a new faith-to save us from our secularized, spiritually dead-ended selves. These may be satisfying ways to round off prophetic stories, and they have the authority of the past behind them-the specific gravity, as it were, of all classicisms. But bringing a mythic pattern full circle cannot be the same as breaking out of that circle. As Marx declared, “A chapter on the decline of the Roman Empire which might read exceedingly well in Montesquieu or Gibbon would prove an enormous blunder if put in the mouth of aRoman senator, whose peculiar business it was to stop that very decline.”
“The decline, or aging, of the \Vest is as much a part of our mental outlook today as the electron or the dinosaur,” writes Northrop Frye, “and in that sense we are all Spenglerians.” Negative classicism, increasingly part of the content of mass culture itself, substitutes a catastrophic or a cyclic view of history for a progressive one. It holds truistically that society as we know it is passing away, to be succeeded by forms of social existence that will betray the features of a regression to earlier stages of history. According to this mythology, even the features of the present that seem most unlike the past-notably the mass media-are repetitions of classical patterns. Civilization does not lead to more perfect types of itself, but to decadence and barbarism. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer put it, “The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.” Perhaps negative classicism itself is a part of the general regression, hastening “the end of our time.” As myth, it may be no more rational than other forms of religious and apocalyptic thought, including those associated by it with mass culture. In The Doomsday Syndrome, John Maddox suggests that prophecies of doom may create an intellectual pollution that is just as dangerous as industrial pollution and nuclear fallout. At least myth should be recognized as myth, whether it comes from the mass media or from their intellectual critics. It seems clear, moreover, that sorne social critics write themselves into their visions of present and future “triumphs of barbarism and religion,” either as the would-be saviors of the old order or as the prophetic heralds of the new.
And they cast dust on their heads, saying, Alas, alas that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! For in one hour is she made desolate. Rejoice over her … ye holy apostles and prophets. [Rev. 18:19-20]
Besides the effort to see mythology for what it is (the main purpose of this book), a second effort is also necessary, to move beyond either skepticism or a fatalistic pessimism toward that political and cultural commitment most able to ensure that the liberation of “the masses” and the creation of “mass culture” will mean progress rather than decadence. The aim of all social and cultural theorizing just now should be to convert the mins of our civilization, real or imagined, into a living community.
- Robert Sinai, “What Ails Us and Why: On the Roots of Disaster and Decay,” Encounter, April 1979. p. 15.
- “The Sinai Discussion,” Encounter, February 1980, pp. 87-93.
- Juvenal, Satires, x, in G. G. Ramsey, ed. and tr., Juvenal and Persius (Cambridge, Mass.: The Loeb Classical Library, 1918). I have altered Ramsey’s “bread and games” to “bread and circuses.”
- Sir Lewis Namier, Vanished Supremacies: Essays on European History, 1812-1918 (New York: Harper and Row, 1963 ), p. 55.
- Salvador Ciller, Mass Society (New York: Academic, 1976), p. 23.
- David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961 ), p. 153· Thorstein Veblen, editorial on panem et circenses from The Dial, 14 June 1919, reprinted in Essays in Our Changing Order (New York: Viking, i934), pp. 45 -53.
- John Dryden, “The Tenth Satyr of Juvenal, Translated into English Verse,” in Poems, ed. James Kinsley, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1958), n, 723-24.
- Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated,” in Rasselas, Poems and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1952), p. 50.
- Edward Gibbon. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6vols. (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1954 ), IV, 111. Montesquieu, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, tr. David Lowenthal (New York: The Free Press andl Collier-Macmillan, 19(5).
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Baltimore: Penguin, 19( 9), pp. 193, 216- 17.
- Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852), in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 437.
- Michel de Montaigne, Essays, tr. E. J. Trenchmann, 2 vols. (London: Oxford, 1927), 11, 134-35; Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 2 vols. (London: Peter Parker, 1676), n, 171-72; Richard Steele, The Spectator, nos. 449 and 436; Joseph
Priestley, Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion, 2 vols. (London: Johnson, 1782), l, 219; Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” canto IV, stanzas 128-45; Vicomte de Chateaubriand, Etudes ou discours historiques sur la chute de l’empire Romain … (Paris: Carnier, 1873 ), pp. 402-3; I.C.L. de Sismondi. A History of the Fall of the Roman Empire (London: Longman, Brown, Creen, and Longmans, n.d.), l, 24-25 and 121-22; Thomas De Quincey, The Caesars (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1851), pp. 120-21.
- Giuseppe Mazzini, The Duties of Man, and Other Essays, ed. Thomas Jones (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1907), p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 133.
- Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism” (1932), reprinted in Adrian Lyttelton, ed., Italian Fascisms: From Pareto to Gentile (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 56. It is clear from the same document that Mussolini thought of his movement as a “classical revival” (p. 66).
- Mussolini quoted by Mario Palmieri, The Philosophy of Fascism (Chicago: The Dante Alighieri Society, 1936), p. 46.
- Sir John H.. Seeley, The Expansion of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971 , p. 240.
- The idea that England should be the new Athens rather than Rome of the world was expressed, e.g., by F. Seebohm, “Imperialism and Socialism,” Nineteenth Century, 7 (April 1880), 728. For British-Roman parallels, see Raymond F. Betts. ‘The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late-Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies, 15 (1971-72), 149-59. For German-barbarian parallels, see Peter Viereck, Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler (New York: Knopf 1941).
- John R. Harrison, The Reactionaries (New York: Schocken, 19661).
- Oxford English Dictionary. Supplemcnt (Oxford: Clarendon. 1976), ll, 849.
- L. S. Stavrianos, The Promise of the Coming Dark Age (San Francisco: Freeman, 1976), p. 6. For the transition from the more optimistic mood of the 1960s to the pessimism of the 1970s, see Daniel Yankelovich, The New Morality: A Profile of American Youth in the 70s (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974).
- Bernard James, The Death of Progress (New York: Knopf, 1973), p. 38.
- Ibid., p. 39.
- l. Robert Sinai, The Decadence of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1978), p. 5.
- Marya Mannes, They (Carden City, N.Y.: DouhIeday, 1968), p. 32.
- Hans Morgcnthau, “Decline of the West,” Partisan Review, 42 (1975), 514.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” in The Social Contract and Discourses, tr. G. D. H. CoIe (New York: Dutton, 1973), pp. 12 and 17.
- Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 174.
- Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age: The Social and Cultural Outlook (New York: Dutton, 1941), p. 256.
- Arnold J. Toynbee, America and the World Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 92.
- Malcolm Muggeridge, “On the Threshold of the Eighties,” The American Spectator, May 1980, p. 15.
- Amaury de Riencourt, The American Empire (New York: Dell, 1970 [1968)), p. xi.
- Max Lerner, America as a Civilization, 2 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967 [1957)), 11, 934-35.
- Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 8.
- John Maddox, The Doomsday Syndrome (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 1.
- W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968), p. 4. See also George Watson, “The Myth of Catastrophe,” The Yale Review, 65 (Spring 1976), 359: catastrophe was “the nearly universal myth of literary intellectuals between the wars.··
- See Harold L. Berger, Science Fiction and the New Dark Age (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976).
- Jerzy Kosinski, A Nation of Videots,” Media and Methods, 11 (April 1975).
- Erik Barnouw, The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 101.
- Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 106.
- Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics, tr. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon, 1970), pp. 42-43.
- Friedrich Schiller, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (Oxford: Blackwell, 1957 ).
- Herbert J. Muller, The Uses of the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957 ), p. 233·
- Mikhail Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), I, 534. A useful compendium of modern theories about Rome’s fall is Donald Kagan, ed., The End of the Roman Empíre: Decline or Transformation? (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1978).
- Max Weber, “The Social Causes of the Decay of Ancient Civilization,” 1896, in J.E.T. Eldridge, ed., Max Weber: The Interpretation of Social Reality (New York: Scribner, 1971), p. 256.
- Ibid., pp. 274-75.
- Augustus, Res Gestae, in Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization, 2 vols., Sourcebook II: The Empire (New York: Harper and Row, 1966 ), pp. 14 and 16.
- Richard Cilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Ciroux, 1979).
- John Lukacs, rhe Passing of the Modern Age (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 4. Compare Sinai, The Decadence of the Modern World, p. 5: “We are living amidst the ruins of a civilization, with both its mental and material structures crumbling.”
- Karl Marx, “The Indian Question,” New York Daily Tribune, 14 August 1857, reprinted in Marx and Engels, On History and People, Vol. VII of the Karl Marx Library (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977), p. 127.
- .Northrop Frye, “The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler,” Daedadus, 103 (Winter 1974), 7.
- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Seabury, 1972 ), p. 36.