The ancients loved to be entertained. Despite varying degrees of asceticism in different cultures, entertainment was as significant an aspect of the ancient milieu as it is today. In the world of our earliest forbearers, storytelling as entertainment was a means of preserving history.
In a feat of immense importance, many of the stories and legends of the ancient Greeks were compiled in the works of Homer around the 8th century B.C. In subsequent centuries, storytelling gained more sophistication: the educated were increasingly inspired to write them down. The advent of theater proved to be a landmark in our cultural entertainment history.
Corresponding with this growth of formal entertainment was the development of moral criticism regarding entertainment’s merits. Philosophers debated the portrayal of the gods in Homer. Some radicals, like Plato, endorsed the censure of poets and playwrights. Central to Plato’s reasoning is the concept that ideas and entertainment can have lasting ideological consequences for children.
Later on, entertainment proved to be a dilemma for early Christian writers and church leaders. They sought to demonstrate to their fellow Christians that pagan entertainment (the circus, the theater, the amphitheater, etc.) was morally reprehensible and not glorifying to God.
Moderns would likely agree that much of Roman entertainment was morally reprehensible. Gladiator fights were gory and inhumane and wild-animal matches led to so many animal deaths that they noticeably affected wild populations. But Romans took for granted that their entertainment was acceptable. Gladiators were usually criminals, and animals were, well, animals.
One of the more significant works of early Christian criticism was Tertullian’s De spectaculis (Regarding the spectacles). He condemned most aspects of Roman entertainment, even those that would seem perfectly harmless to us. He pointed to the inconsistencies of Roman morality, arguing the following:
“Nowhere and never is it permissible [to do] what is not always and everywhere allowable. This is the integrity of truth…not to change its opinion nor to alter its judgment [based on the circumstances].”
“But if all impurity must be detested by us, why should it be permitted to hear what it is not permitted to say, when we actually know that crass behavior and every empty word is judged by God? Equally, why should it be permitted to see what it is sinful to do?”
Tertullian thought it wrong to enjoy watching death, when one should never murder, and he thought it inappropriate to enjoy listening to crass humor and language, when one would never behave that way himself. In short, if it is wrong somewhere, it is wrong everywhere.
Tertullian’s arguments are as applicable to our own entertainment industry as they were to that of the Romans. Hollywood, authors and artists alike seem to enjoy pushing the envelope whenever they can, forgetting that there are consequences to what we fill our minds with.
For example, in January 2006, Eli Roth’s horror flick Hostel was released nationwide to mixed reviews. The review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes condensed critical opinion into one little blurb: “Featuring lots of guts and gore, Hostel is a wildly entertaining corpse-filled journey – assuming one is entertained by corpses, guts, and gore, that is.”
Fifty Shades of Grey hit bookshelves in 2011, and despite criticisms of its literary merit (Sir Salman Rushdie claims that it makes Twilight look like War and Peace), it quickly became wildly popular. One presumes that its popularity is due in part to its sexual promiscuity and daring depiction of BDSM.
I need not mention Hollywood’s most recent bacchanalia.
What constitutes a culture’s and an individual’s entertainment is revealing. Thankfully, gladiator fights are not included in American entertainment. But the difference between gladiator fights and movies like Hostel might be subtler than we’d care to admit—a difference in degree, and not in kind.
The nonchalance toward entertainment is understandable, but Tertullian’s seemingly radical remarks serve as an important reminder that what constitutes entertainment should never be taken for granted. The next time Hollywood has a wolf rampage on Wall Street or a psychopath brutally murder a group of scantily clad teenagers, we should ask ourselves, “Why am I entertained by this?” and proceed with caution.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8
—Ryan Slauer is a senior studying economics and Latin
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