Today’s hyper-violent movies serve the same function, and have the same moral effect, as the gladiatorial shows in ancient Rome

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Here is my word on the Batman issue:

Weaning itself from the dehumanizing allure of theatrical cruelty was one of the projects of the monotheistic society that emerged in the centuries of the Roman Empire. Stoics, Platonists, Epicureans, and Christians spoke against the custom of crowding the arena to watch condemned criminals kill each other or be killed by professional exterminators. In the later centuries of the Empire, once the majority of citizens became Christian, the gory displays became a thing of the past, but to morally sensitive people from the first century to the fifth it seemed that the blight was permanent.

In one of his Letters (VII), the first-century AD stoic Seneca opined to his addressee Lucilius, “There is nothing as ruinous to good character as to idle away one’s time at some spectacle.” In Seneca’s judgment, “vices have a way of creeping in because of the feeling of pleasure that [a spectacle] brings.” By “spectacle” Seneca meant the brutal displays of blood sport on view more or less “24/7” in Rome and the other large cities of the Imperium. An advisor to Nero, Seneca had sometimes to accompany the royal retinue to one of the stadia. Seneca observed how watching butchery-for-entertainment degrades the spectator, making him “greedier, more ambitious and more given to luxury” than he might otherwise have been, and prey to “thoughts of greater cruelty and less humanity.”

Seneca describes the most popular type of gladiatorial show:

The men had nothing with which to protect themselves, for their whole bodies were exposed to the thrust, and every thrust told. The common people prefer this to matches on level terms or request performances. Of course they do. The blade is not parried by helmet or shield, and what use is skill or defense? All these merely postpone death.” The masses shout: “Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive!”

“Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games,” Seneca concludes: “Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them.” [LA replies: This reminds me of the fury with which some bloggers and VFR readers have responded to my severe criticisms of various pop culture atrocities over the years. I am condemning that which they dearly love, and they flip out.]

In Confessions, Book VI, St. Augustine recounts the case of his friend Alypius, who “had been born in the same town as I [Carthage] but … was a bit younger than I.” Augustine admired Alypius, who shared his older friend’s interest in Christianity and was studying Scripture with him. “But in the whirlpool of Carthaginian fashion—where frivolous spectacles are hotly followed—he had been inveigled into the madness of the gladiatorial games.” Alypius “doted upon the circus,” Augustine writes, “and I was deeply grieved, for he seemed likely to cast away his very great promise—if, indeed, he had not already done so.” Alypius preceded Augustine to Rome. Augustine recounts the sequel in Chapter 13 of Book VI:

There he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows. For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows. He protested to them: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.” When they heard this, they dragged him on; [they were] probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got to the arena … Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness. Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity … he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body…. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness—delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob [that] he [had come] into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither.

There were cruel entertainments in the medieval centuries—bear-baiting and the varieties of animal combat—but no gladiation. It fell to North American civilization in the years after 1968 (“The Summer of Love”) to reinvent the cult of evisceration. And that—a cult of evisceration—is what a good deal of Hollywood’s fare amounts to. The appetite that feeds on simulations of fatal violence is no different from the appetite that feeds on the real thing. The degrading effect will be precisely the same.

P.S. This is a specific case of the general proposition that liberalism is a sacrificial cult.

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LA to Thomas Bertonneau (July 23):

“Weaning itself from the dehumanizing allure of theatrical cruelty was one of the projects of the monotheistic society that emerged in the centuries of the Roman Empire.”

Particularly in relation to the Batman movies, what a fantastic point!

And overall a wonderful comment. Will post tomorrow.

Thomas Bertonneau replies:

I try to see the big picture (pardoning the phrase). Trust liberalism to wipe out two thousand years of moral refinement.

John P. writes:

I’ve been following the discussion on The Dark Knight Rises with great interest. I’ve never seen the film and will neither attack nor defend it. Rather I’d like to consider some broader aspects of the problem of nihilism and violence in entertainment. I believe Thomas Bertonneau has raised a good point about gladiatorial combat but I have to say I consider bear-baiting and cat burning morally worse than violent films. And they were practiced by a Christian society. I also have to raise the question of plays like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus which is shockingly violent and nihilistic. Revenge Tragedy, which is what I think Batman is, was very popular throughout the 17th C.

I guess the broad question I’m trying to get to is: is there no place for the exploration in art of violence and nihilism which are, regrettably, a notable feature of the human experience?

I’m uncomfortable with politicizing art although I admit it seems a necessity today given the use that has been made of art by our opponents.

LA replies:

Of course there is a place in art for the exploration of violence and nihilism. And I very much like Titus Andronicus which I think is an extraordinary work—unlike anything else Shakespeare wrote, but a highly original work which only Shakespeare could have written. He takes torture and dismemberment, the stuff of horror movies, and, amazingly, turns it into art.

So, why do I approve of Titus Andronicus but not today’s hyper violent movies?

To start with the most obvious reason, it’s a matter of degree. With Shakespeare you’re seeing actors on stage. You’re not being thrown, your hands metaphorically tied behind your back, into a sensate pit—a high-tech, explosively graphic, ear-shattering, all-encompassing assault on your senses and your soul. Shakespeare’s play is about extreme violence and revenge. That is very different from the cinematic elaboration of a such a story into Surround-Sound, soul-crushing sensationalism, which is barbarism, not art.

On another point, I’m not sure that I would call Titus Andronicus nihilistic. As I remember, all the horrors, no matter how horrible they become, are still taking place within a moral framework. One does not walk out of the theater feeling that moral truth has been denied or subverted, but rather that one has seen human revenge and violence being worked out to their extreme.

I invite Mr. Bertonneau and others to provide further distinctions between the legitimate and the illegitimate theatrical presentation of extreme violence.

I had the good fortune to see a production of Titus Andronicus in Central Park many years ago that made a great impression on me. A movie in later years with Jessica Lange was, as I remember, adequate, but lacked the impact of the stage production I had seen. There’s no way around it: Shakespeare’s plays are not meant to be read (though reading them can be very rewarding), and they are not meant to be seen in a movie (though you can get good things out of a movie); they are meant to be seen on stage, with Shakespeare’s characters incarnated before your eyes by living, breathing actors.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

John P. writes:

“I believe Thomas Bertonneau has raised a good point about gladiatorial combat but I have to say I consider bear-baiting and cat burning morally worse than violent films. And they were practiced by a Christian society.”

I would put bear-baiting and animal-combat on approximately the same level as the forty-year torrent of ultra-violent, nihilistic film-“entertainments” inflicted by Hollywood on the American audience. It is unfair to say that cruel diversions involving the abuse of animals “were practiced by a Christian society.” No—they were practiced by human beings who belonged to a society that, while struggling to be Christian, was still regrettably reprobate in many ways, but which had renounced gladiation. What else counts for abuse? What about forty relentless years of acculturating American teenagers, who make up the bulk of movie audiences, to ultra-realistic simulations of the most horrific types of violence imaginable? The Christian attitude toward the human-animal relation was summed up by Saint Francis, who regarded the beasts as our little brothers and sisters. That was Christian.

Mr. Bertonneau continues:

Where violence is a topic in literature, it partakes of the abstraction of the text. Movies are about sensual images. This is a different, a cruder, realm than that of the literate imagination. In Attic tragedy, the violence was ob-scene, literally, behind the backdrop and out of sight. In Shakespeare, whose stage had minimal stage props, the words depicted the acts; at most the gruesome deeds were pantomimed in some stylized way.

Laura Wood writes:

I am dumbfounded by the comparison of Titus Andronicus with today’s hyper-violent movies. I have a low tolerance for graphic depictions of violence, both on principle and emotionally, but Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespearean dramas. I saw a production of the play last year at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. It spared none of the details and I loved it.

Titus’s gratuitous act of revenge against the son of Tamora at the beginning of the play sets in motion the chain of violent acts. When Lavinia, his daughter, stands on the stage, her hands severed and dripping with blood after she is raped by Tamora’s other sons, one is able to grasp the horror of it. The root of violence lies in the human personality. Excessive portrayal of blood and gore detracts from understanding sadism and revenge. It is not the physical injuries that leave the greatest impression in the play, but Aaron’s personality, his extreme sadism and delight in murder.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 24, 2012 09:41 AM | Send

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