Wednesday, March 28, 2007


More on Crowds

In selecting excerpts on crowds from Seneca's 7th Moral Epistle, I omitted his denunciation of gladiatorial games (7.2-4, tr. Richard M. Gummere):
But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.

What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, - an exhibition at which men's eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.

Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts "by request." Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword.
Phil Flemming writes in an email:
Thank you for reminding me of Seneca’s On Crowds.

For many years I’ve had a problem with listening to the moralizing of Seneca Hypocrites, but On Crowds is an especially powerful piece of writing. It is very curious that there is nothing remotely comparable in the rest of the Imperial Stoa. In vain, we look for other denunciation of the recreational butchery practiced in the arena. Epictetus, Musonius, Dio, Marcus — all offer us only the mildest reproofs of enjoying “spectacles”. So too St. Augustine!

I cannot imagine the depraving effect of regularly watching the blood sports practiced for entertainment in the arena. It is bad enough to be exposed to the carnage of war, but to see the same things offered as entertainments!

Gibbon pointed to the Games as a clear symptom of the degeneracy of the Empire and I agree. Cultures addicted to recreational savagery have no moral claim to survival, and perhaps this was a central tension of Gibbon's great work. Rome was at once the repository of all that was valuable in classical civilization, but it was also a degenerate society that deserved its end.

I shall forbear to offer comparisons with our culture and the American Empire, but I think we will live to see things offered on our television as entertainments that would excite the most jaded Roman spectator.
Phil's email prompted me to search the index to Epictetus, which led me to this passage in his Discourses as reported by Arrian (4.4.26-27, tr. W.A. Oldfather), in which the philosopher takes a much more benign view of crowds than Seneca:
"I don't like a crowd, it is turmoil." Say not so, but if circumstances bring you to spend your life alone or in the company of few, call it peace, and utilize the condition for its proper end; converse with yourself, exercise your sense-impressions, develop your preconceptions. If, however, you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people. For what is pleasanter to a man who loves his fellow-men than the sight of large numbers of them? We are glad to see herds of horses or cattle; when we see many ships we are delighted; is a person annoyed at the sight of so many human beings?
On the other hand, nothing causes more annoyance to a man who hates his fellow-men than the sight of large numbers of them. I recently happened on a humorous poem by Morris Bishop entitled The Complete Misanthrope:
I love to think of things I hate
  In moments of mopishness;
I hate people who sit up straight,
  And youths who smirk about their "date,"
And the dates who smirk no less.

I hate children who clutch and whine,
  And the arrogant, virtuous poor;
And critical connoisseurs of wine,
And everything that is called a shrine,
  And Art and Literature.

I hate eggs and I hate the hen;
  I hate the rooster, too.
I hate people who wield the pen,
I hate women and I hate men;
  And what's more, I hate you.

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