Augustine On Blood Sports: "Sipping Animality"
Towards the end of last year I put up an article exploring the ethics surrounding human blood sports, particularly boxing and MMA. I argued that blood sports have created a socially acceptable context for us to celebrate real world human violence. Quite remarkably, for many Christians, professional blood sports has become a space where they don’t merely tolerate people hurting each other, but actually cheer them on.
That article built on two previous offerings on blood sports. The first likened them to animal fighting, suggesting that they aren’t as different as fans might claim. In the second I attempted to show that though professional athletes consent to fight each other, consent is not the sole consideration when it comes to what we watch—we need only think of ethically sourced pornography and suicide tapes.
Underlying those posts was the well established case that says the media we consume affects what we become (I’ve argued this here, here, and here). What we put before our eyes seeps into and shapes our hearts. Writing in the 4th century, Augustine knew this well. So in the sixth book of Confessions, he recounts a friend’s visit to the gladiatorial games—and the deforming power of watching violence for entertainment.
Alypius Goes to the Gladiatorial Games
Not ready to abandon the earthly path into which his parents had cajoled him, Alypius preceded me to Rome for the study of law. There he was bewildered again by the bewildering lure of the games. Though he had showed a revulsion to such things, and denounced them, some of his friends and fellow students, chancing to go from dinner to the open circus, dragged him along with a joshing compulsion, despite his strong refusals and resistance, to enter the amphitheater at the time of its most savage and cruel displays.
He protested that even if they forced his body inside, and held it there, they could not fix his eyes and attention on what was occurring. He would be there as if he were not there, and would rise above them and the show. This made them no less eager to hurry him inside. In fact, it sharpened their curiosity to see if he could stick to his determination. When they were inside and had found what seats they could, everything was a frenzy of extravagant excess. He shut his eyes to seal his soul against evil—if only his ears had been closed as tight. For then the fight took a dramatic turn, a huge roar from the crowd crashed over him. Yielding to curiosity—though determined to scorn and reject what he saw, no matter its nature—he opened his eyes.
The wound given to the gladiator he now wished to see was nothing to the wound inflicted on his soul. His fall was sadder than the fighter’s, at which the crowd was cheering. That shout, entering his ears, made his eyes fly open. The mind thus buffeted and overthrown was more rash than steady, and all the weaker for reliance on itself rather than on you. The minute he saw blood, he was sipping animality, and turned no more away. With eyes glued to the spectacle, he absentmindedly gulped down its frenzies. He took a complicit joy in the fighting, and was drunk with delight at the cruelty.
No longer the person he was when he entered into the crowd, at one with those who forced him there. More—he stared, he shouted, he burned, he took away the madness he had found there and followed it back again, not only with those who had first drawn him, but dragging them and others on his own.
There is No Neutral Viewing
Not unlike modern day blood sports, Augustine describes the gladiatorial games as “a frenzy of extravagant excess,” with crowds cheering as humans hurt. Thus Augustine writes, “The minute Alypius saw blood, he was sipping animality.” And far from a momentary or fleeting delight, when Alypius emerged from the amphitheater he was “no longer the person he was when he entered.” “He took away the madness he had found there.”