Bread & Circuses
Is it Morally Irresponsible To Be Consumed With The FIFA World Cup?
By Stephen Mumford (University of Nottingham)
June 10, 2015 Moazzam Brohi/Flickr.
This article is part of The Critique Exclusive The Philosophy of Sport In Practice Part I: The FIFA World Cup.
The Roman poet Juvenal long ago introduced the phrase ‘Bread and Circuses’ to our culture, alluding to the idea that political power is easily bought through the simple provision of wheat and entertainment (Satire 10: 77-81). Feed the people and they will be yours to command. Have them miss three meals, however, and you face revolution. As well as food, the people need a distraction and in the modern era sport has come to replace the circus as the dominant mode. Chief among contemporary world sports is Association Football (‘Soccer’ being a mutated contraction of‘Association’). The game was immediately popular for spectators in late-Victorian England and spread around the world rapidly in the early 20th Century. The world governing body FIFA was formed in France and hosted its first World Cup in 1930. Television has taken the accessibility of football to the highest level. The Final match in each competition is the most watched event in the world, every fourth year.
“As well as food, the people need a distraction and in the modern era sport has come to replace the circus as the dominant mode”.
Yet we still must ask the question made pressing by Juvenal’s thought. Are we being pacified by mere Bread and Circuses? The 2014 World Cup series took place in a context of growing world disorder and manifest oppression. During the competition, the death toll began of civilians in Gaza, killed by Western-supplied Israeli rocket fire. Iraq was under a new deadly threat from ISIS. Syria was in disarray. Ukraine was on the verge of civil war. Many in Turkey think their rights are being gradually eroded. Other conflicts, disputes and injustices continue around the world, often ignored by the media. Instead, football was the top story. On one particular night, it seemed the tragedy of Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany was bigger than any tragedy in Gaza, judging from the proportion of media attention. Were we all complicit in that verdict, sitting in front of the TV watching inconsequential games while others suffered? Should we have been protesting on the streets or raising funds for the seemingly endless supply of on-going humanitarian crises?
The case against sport looks even worse if one considers that it might not be a mere accidental side-effect that when we get so attracted to the ball, we miss the injustices all around us. Some of those injustices could be perpetrated against ourselves and sport can be very deliberately and purposively exploited by sinister forces for its diversionary powers. Perhaps it was Mussolini who first saw the large-scale political uses of football, making sure at all costs that Italy won the 1934 World Cup to bolster his fascist government. The lengths to which he went are barely believable (see Chris Hunt’s World Cup Stories, 2006). But they succeeded and Il Duce maintained his grip on the nation; a nation then willing to ignore its lurch into moral corruption.
It looks damning. We need only add the premise that sport serves no useful purpose and the argument is concluded. But here the issues become more clouded. Certainly sport looks useless at first face. What matter is it that one team gets the ball in the net more than another? More generally, how is anything gained by one man proving he can jump higher than another, what contribution to health or wealth does it make when a woman beats another in tennis, or someone successfully hits a golf ball into a hole? The players, and those watching, could in the same period have spent time in scientific endeavour, helping address injustices, or joining in some feat of engineering, all of which could have made a valuable contribution to the plight of humanity.
“What matter is it that one team gets the ball in the net more than another? More generally, how is anything gained by one man proving he can jump higher than another, what contribution to health or wealth does it make when a woman beats another in tennis, or someone successfully hits a golf ball into a hole?”
Nevertheless, a deeper argument can be brought to bear that ultimately proves the sockdolager. For what is said about sport applies equally to the arts. Therein lies a clue. For what use do painting, literature, philosophy and music play? Was Picasso wasting his time colouring canvases, Shakespeare and Plato when they wrote words or Mozart when he composed? None of them built bridges, cured illness, or advanced technology. Nor did they solve any of the world’s political problems. Moreover, have the rest of us been wasting our time viewing paintings, reading and listening? Are these not idle, useless hours? Are our artists part of the circus and we the unwitting, pacified onlookers, ignoring human catastrophe because we are too enraptured with van Gogh?
Neither in the case of art, nor I would say sport, is there a clear-cut case for its uselessness. We simply need to look harder and in less concrete terms. The purposes of art and sport are less immediate but their value lies in what they teach us about life. They may not produce direct benefits but what they do is teach us how to be human. And these are valuable lessons no less because conflict and war very often occur because the aggressor has forgotten his humanity.
One superficial upshot of this analysis is that the world would be a better place if those making war had put down their weapons and joined with the rest of us in watching the football. Immersion in the game means that no harm can be done in other activities. But a more positive consequence can be defended. More than merely distracting our tyrants, by watching sport, those individuals are less likely to be tyrannical because of what they learn.
“The purposes of art and sport are less immediate but their value lies in what they teach us about life. They may not produce direct benefits but what they do is teach us how to be human. And these are valuable lessons no less because conflict and war very often occur because the aggressor has forgotten his humanity”
Again, art provides a useful analogy. The exact role of art is of course not certain. Its function is contested and, in any case, often changing. But it seems broadly defensible to say that the contemplation of art makes the viewer a better person, even more aware of the sufferings of others, for instance. And, when art is at its most sublime, it makes us acutely aware of the human condition. Not all art does this, of course, but we are still on safe ground in saying that those who most contemplate the arts, tend to be better people for it.
“More than merely distracting our tyrants, by watching sport, those individuals are less likely to be tyrannical because of what they learn”
Such an argument does not transfer automatically over to the case of sport. One might claim that the ethics of sport, being based around competition and rivalry, tend to promote the opposite of humanitarianism. But sport can be defended even here. Again, having no practical purpose, we ought really to wonder why it is that sport fascinates us so much that we have a need to play and watch. Speculative though it might be, sport seems to tell us something about our natures as embodied beings with a need to exercise our physical and mental causal powers. Sport encourages, through reward, the display of such powers, skills and prowesses to their maximum potential. Sport also shows us that those who endeavour, collaborate and recover from previous defeats, are those who tend to succeed. These are all valuable lessons. And while competition is inherent in almost all sport, it is far from clear that this promotes war or an ethic of domination. Rather, it is the vehicle by which we bring out each other’s excellences. It is thus unlikely that people watch football rather than care about the tragedy of Gaza. The two are compatible. Indeed, the football fan may well care more.
Juvenal’s discussion of Bread and Circuses will always remain pertinent, however. Watching sport can be useful in helping us understand ourselves yet, as Mussolini showed, it can also be used for political advantage. The difficult judgement is to recognise cases of the latter. The next two World Cups, scheduled for Russia and Qatar, will prove interesting test cases. Will sport flourish in its pure, enlightening form; or be used by the hosts for political gain? It would not be the first time.