Petronius, gluttony, and the Internet

Another example of how classical literature can help us think through contemporary issues.  Rob Goodman writes about the information overload that the internet can give us in terms of Petronius:

For those of us left numb by the Internet, it might help to consider the ways in which gorging on information parallels (and has, for many of us, replaced) gorging on sensual pleasures. And if we want to take that comparison seriously, there is no better guide than the pioneering Roman novelist of decadence, Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Few have ever described—or lived—the attractions and exhaustions of overindulgence more vividly.

In the court of the Emperor Nero—his friend, partner in excess, and the man ultimately responsible for his death—Petronius was employed as the official “arbiter of elegance.” In short, he was a style consultant to the Roman elite. The historian Tacitus describes him as an expert “in the science of pleasure.” Unmatched in his day as a trendsetter, Petronius is best known in ours as the probable author of one of the earliest surviving novels, the Satyricon. And out of this picaresque story, which has come down to us in fragments, the most outrageous figure by far is Trimalchio: the nouveau-riche ex-slave whose wildly gluttonous banquet forms the Satyricon’s centerpiece. . .

Trimalchio—if only he would stop shooting dice, or loudly discussing his constipation problem—could be a master entertainer. He is a man of abundant means and an almost-pitiful eagerness to please, but his party turns into a feast of steadily diminishing returns. Good food isn’t enough for Trimalchio’s table: Nothing can be served if it isn’t in disguise. Visual jokes were a fashion among Roman chefs, but in Trimalchio’s household they are taken to absurd heights: olives disguised as rocks; sausages “roasting” over pomegranate seeds disguised as coals; pastry eggs hiding roast songbirds; a pig prestuffed with sausages; fruit filled with saffron perfume; more pastry birds, and fruit stuck with thorns to resemble sea-urchins; goose, fish, and game all made out of a pig; oysters in the water pitchers; a whole roast boar surrounded by suckling sweetmeat “piglets,” stuffed with live birds, complete with droppings that turn out to be fresh dates. The boar is also wearing a hat.

One of these courses might have been a surprise; two or three or four might have been marvelous. But after our narrator is bludgeoned by hours of course after dressed-up course, all of which have to be applauded and swallowed, his only thought is for the exit—which he can no longer find.

Is the host, at least, enjoying himself? It’s hard to see any real pleasure in a man who announces how many pounds of jewelry he’s wearing and then demands a scale to prove it—a host who tops off the evening’s entertainment by ordering the guests to “make believe I’m dead” and who then ends up weeping as they act out his funeral.

If Petronius had been a Christian moralist—an ancient John Bunyan, maybe—Trimalchio’s feast might have been marshaled against the sin of gluttony. But Petronius doesn’t criticize the monster he’s created from a standpoint of better morals. He criticizes Trimalchio from a standpoint of better taste: Petronius’ attitude to Trimalchio is equal parts fascination and snobbery. The author was every bit as decadent as his character—he was simply, effortlessly, better at it. . . .

Under decadent circumstances, such as Trimalchio’s feast or Nero’s court, pleasure becomes cheap. It must, at first, be exhilarating to find exquisite versions of the things we most want—food, sleep, sex—right at hand. But then comes the revelation that even with unlimited means, our capacity to take pleasure is itself limited. The usual enjoyments become repetitious and dull, until we can barely taste them at all, or remember how they once tasted. . . .

And there’s the key to understanding the often anesthetic effect of the Internet. Decadence doesn’t demand great wealth: Decadence is a useful way to understand any situation in which an existing pleasure becomes cheap, and it takes the ingenuity of a Petronius to fight off the boredom. That is now the case with information—the small burst of satisfaction that comes from a refilled inbox or a new text, from connecting with friends, or sharing the meme of the day. Millions of us are now richer in these pleasures than our parents’ generation could ever imagine. But our capacity for enjoyment is still finite: We’ve built up a tolerance to the pleasures of information, just as Trimalchio built up a tolerance to the pleasures of food. Those who experience our constant connectivity as dulling should be able to identify closely with his guests.

via Gluttony Goes Viral – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Do you agree that we can become “gluttons” of information?  That the internet can have an “anesthetic” effect?  That it can make us “decadent”?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Yes. Especially trivial information. It can stem from an idolization of information/knowledge, that a person who has more intelligence and can pull more off the top of his head in information is automatically assumed to be an “expert” (I dread that word now).

    Look at the modern politician: the more he can spout off without a teleprompter, the more people believe he knows everything about everything. And the sad thing is, the politician starts believing it himself. How many of them come across as being proficient and competent in legislating over things just because they read a graph detailing statistics concerning a given topic? We have woefully confused information acquisition and remembrance with intelligence and wisdom, and as a result education and information is cheapened.

    Did that make sense?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Yes. Especially trivial information. It can stem from an idolization of information/knowledge, that a person who has more intelligence and can pull more off the top of his head in information is automatically assumed to be an “expert” (I dread that word now).

    Look at the modern politician: the more he can spout off without a teleprompter, the more people believe he knows everything about everything. And the sad thing is, the politician starts believing it himself. How many of them come across as being proficient and competent in legislating over things just because they read a graph detailing statistics concerning a given topic? We have woefully confused information acquisition and remembrance with intelligence and wisdom, and as a result education and information is cheapened.

    Did that make sense?

  • Tom Hering

    Three topics a day at Cranach has left me feeling dulled – at least when it comes to discussions of Mitt, Newt, Rick, and Ron. (Not that I don’t feel Dr. Veith’s pain.) :-D

  • Tom Hering

    Three topics a day at Cranach has left me feeling dulled – at least when it comes to discussions of Mitt, Newt, Rick, and Ron. (Not that I don’t feel Dr. Veith’s pain.) :-D

  • SKPeterson

    So, sounds like it’s time to recapitulate the Epicureans v. the Stoics argument over the internet.

  • SKPeterson

    So, sounds like it’s time to recapitulate the Epicureans v. the Stoics argument over the internet.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It’s lamentable that this topic has not seen more discussion. I’m tempted to suggest that the post is too long, the referents too arcane, and the question too deep — for modern consumers of information, that is. The payoff’s not worth it.

    Which I suppose gives away my answer to Veith’s questions. I know from personal experience that, yes, we can become gluttons of information. It’s something I struggle with.

    Of course, for me, it’s not so much information, as such, but rather interaction. Or maybe validation. I enjoy seeing new comments on threads I’m following, but I particularly love seeing replies to things I’ve said. Facebook is particularly geared towards pressing this button of mine; it’s tempting to check in every few minutes to see if anyone has replied to something I posted or said, or at least “liked” it. More than a few people have commented about the vicious cycle of: check Facebook, check email, check Twitter, check Words With Friends, and then hope that by the time you get back to Facebook, there’s something new. And there’s definitely a diminishing return to the thrill one gets from each new tidbit that pops up.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It’s lamentable that this topic has not seen more discussion. I’m tempted to suggest that the post is too long, the referents too arcane, and the question too deep — for modern consumers of information, that is. The payoff’s not worth it.

    Which I suppose gives away my answer to Veith’s questions. I know from personal experience that, yes, we can become gluttons of information. It’s something I struggle with.

    Of course, for me, it’s not so much information, as such, but rather interaction. Or maybe validation. I enjoy seeing new comments on threads I’m following, but I particularly love seeing replies to things I’ve said. Facebook is particularly geared towards pressing this button of mine; it’s tempting to check in every few minutes to see if anyone has replied to something I posted or said, or at least “liked” it. More than a few people have commented about the vicious cycle of: check Facebook, check email, check Twitter, check Words With Friends, and then hope that by the time you get back to Facebook, there’s something new. And there’s definitely a diminishing return to the thrill one gets from each new tidbit that pops up.

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD: Abandon Facebook as I have! A colleague has gone so far as to eliminate the internet from his home entirely–yes, entirely; he only checks email, etc. when he is in the office (which, since he is an academic, is comparatively rarely). If only!

    Nice new avatar photograph, by the way.

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD: Abandon Facebook as I have! A colleague has gone so far as to eliminate the internet from his home entirely–yes, entirely; he only checks email, etc. when he is in the office (which, since he is an academic, is comparatively rarely). If only!

    Nice new avatar photograph, by the way.

  • SKPeterson

    I have to agree Todd. I often have to log off Cranach and Facebook in order to avoid being sucked into conversations and actually get some productive work done during the day. Then I come home, get a glass of wine, and repeat, “Oh! I wish I had said that!” or “I wish I was on earlier so I could’ve responded to that comment.” I have limited my internet information venues though as a means of providing some check on my consumption: Cranach, Pastoral Meanderings, Jack Kilcrease’s Theologia Crucis, Father Hollywood, and the YouTube postings of Rev. Fisk at Worldview Everlasting. The rest of my information comes from radio (usually WFAE-Charlotte’s jazz station with NPR or newspaper – the WSJ or the Tennessean out of Nashville. Also, I have an RSS on Google Reader that I comb through on occasion. And the news feed from ORNL, plus being bombarded by FB notifications.

    I feel like I just went through some sort of Twelve Step personal revelation, there. I’m not an addict. I can quit any time I choose.

  • SKPeterson

    I have to agree Todd. I often have to log off Cranach and Facebook in order to avoid being sucked into conversations and actually get some productive work done during the day. Then I come home, get a glass of wine, and repeat, “Oh! I wish I had said that!” or “I wish I was on earlier so I could’ve responded to that comment.” I have limited my internet information venues though as a means of providing some check on my consumption: Cranach, Pastoral Meanderings, Jack Kilcrease’s Theologia Crucis, Father Hollywood, and the YouTube postings of Rev. Fisk at Worldview Everlasting. The rest of my information comes from radio (usually WFAE-Charlotte’s jazz station with NPR or newspaper – the WSJ or the Tennessean out of Nashville. Also, I have an RSS on Google Reader that I comb through on occasion. And the news feed from ORNL, plus being bombarded by FB notifications.

    I feel like I just went through some sort of Twelve Step personal revelation, there. I’m not an addict. I can quit any time I choose.


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