The Eternal Battle between the Mob and the Noble

I don't watch many movies because I dislike the entire idea of giving away one's time to entertainment, but recently I went out with some friends to see the movie Gladiator. Apparently the movie was billed as a gore adventure film, which is probably good marketing because from what I could tell few people in the theater were able to understand the real message of the movie, which is especially amusing given the underlying metaphor it employs.

The core of the story revolves around the idea of living with honor and the belief in value. Value here, as in all places, has to do with purpose and meaning, not material valuations or concern for what the mob rates highly or poorly. Though mob tastes tend to dominate when they are asserted, they are empty victories because they mean nothing and contribute nothing, never doing more than blocking meaning from being expressed, shared, and known.

The plot consists of a dying emperor who wishes, as the continuation of his will, to wash away the corruption that has overtaken Rome. To do so he needs an innocent and noble man who can uphold this vision. But as we have all seen, the corrupt take shortcuts, and here too a corrupt man steps in to cut off the efforts of the noble to restore society to its once proud and meaningful state. After seizing power, the corrupt emperor strives to entertain the mob with the method of bread and circuses, meaning that the mob's interests are focused primarily on food and entertainment. With awareness of this, the new emperor attempts to gain the mob's favor by giving them 150 days of entertainment. In one of the spectator events, the beginning ceremony even includes loaves of bread being literally thrown into the frenzied audience.

Though most people thought they were watching an action film about gladiators, the entire movie stood as a metaphor for the meaningless of modern society as a result of the attack on noble values. This in turn leaves society in the hands of the masses where mob values dominate. Today there are no longer noble aspirations or the desire for value; most people even prefer that which has no value so that they can avoid what they consider the burden of meaning. Government has failed us, most adults have given up on life and value, and people's fear keeps them generally either hiding who they are or acting out in an endless chain of reactivity and subjugation to the norms they have been trained to obey that prevents their true personality from emerging.

Throughout the film there were allusions to the actors in our cultural death. The man who "owned" the gladiators was asked about his beliefs and values only to answer cynically that he was an entertainer. You will get similar response from adults who work meaningless jobs to justify their need to "earn a living" as an excuse for being corporate whores who trade their energy and time for material reward and the assurance of dissatisfaction. Justifications are almost exclusively lies; when someone justifies they try to hang their disbelief in value upon the hook of social expectations and mercy, but we need not be fooled.

Instead of 150 days of bread and circuses, today we have junk food and television all year long to pacify people and take their mind off the issue of life that matter. During the day, most people work silly jobs creating capital but little or no positive social or spiritual value, and then they come home seeking entertainment whether from television or other people. Just as the movie portrayed the concern of the cultural fabric coming apart, the same happened in western society over the last 50 years as the ideas of goal and direction have been completely forgotten and replaced with the desire for pleasant distraction.

As the emperor discovered, the mob is fickle and its base tastes revolve around not honor but on who can best entertain it. Though the mob has great size, its lack of ideology and honor also means that it lacks value and the ability to achieve anything substantial. It is surely large, but remains powerless in all meaningful ways. That idea is contrasted in the movie by an army of men who believe in their leader because of his honor and vision. Though their numbers are far smaller than the mass, their unified values are able to achieve a positive result. No one in the mob cares for anything and none would risk their life or anything at all because they desire only the safe path of nothingness. Aspiration is not in them - only the noble dream and seek to make dreams come true, for dreams and value are every time worth risking the whole of one's existence. If one is victorious, he has won great value, or if he has lost, he at least has the respect of those who understand that the pursuit of value was worth dying for.

Life without honor and value, as symbolized by the mob and their approach, is meaningless. Valiant struggle to preserve the value of nobility will always be glorious because it continues to keep alive the possibility of meaning in this world, against all of those who would so quickly forsake it.

May 21, 2000