An American television viewer will witness more violence in a single evening than an Athenian would have seen during a lifetime of theatergoing. Acts of violence were virtually prohibited in Greek drama, and Aristotle goes so far as to argue against the use of “mere spectacle” to produce the desired catharsis of pity and fear: “Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy.”

Our modern pursuit of the spectacular as more “monstrous consequences than anything Aristotle could have imagined. The old distinction between the publicly decorous and the obscene (literally “off scene”) has been all but obliterated as journalists learn how to exploit the pornography of grief. Last year a newspaper photographer in Bakersfield, California, eagerly snapped a photograph of a distraught father kneeling beside the body of his drowned child. His editors’ qualms about publishing it quickly gave way to irrepressible hopes of a Pulitzer prize. Even when there is no anguished par ent in the scene, the press dishonors the dead and their relatives by publish ing photos of those who die violently. A modern Antigone would have to bury her dead brother quickly if she wanted to protect his corpse from this sort of dishonor.

Even more omnipresent than the obscurities of violence and death, erotica now regularly violates all the proprieties that once held it in check. The rising tides of pornography have long since crested above the banks of the girly magazines-whose existence was supposed to channel certain , impulses—and are now spilling over into scandalously explicit advertisements, celebrity posters, and prime time soap operas. We should be just as offended by public displays of sex as by those of violence, although the two elicit quite different responses: fear and horror on the one hand, titillation on the other. Relatively few wish to commit or suffer acts of violence, but few of us yearn for celibacy. Still, there are good reasons for keeping lewdness out of the public eye. S.I. Hayakawa struck a note of truth when he argued against pornography not on traditional moral prohibitions (which he did not accept) but on the grounds that some human activities are transformed and coarsened by any public display. Actions that in private could express shared feelings of love must always deteriorate into exhibitionism when performed for others’ viewing.

The psychology of debasement can not explain, however, why the cult of publicity has grown so strong in our day. Part of the problem lies in the greed of advertisers, but we must look more deeply into our culture to find an explanation for the growing impulse to push every human activity into public view. We may take a cue from literary critic J. Hillis Miller, who has detected in the late Victorian era “a movement from the assumption that society and the self are founded on some superhuman power outside them, to a putting in question of this assumption, to the discovery that society now appears to be self-creating and self-supporting, resting on nothing outside itself.”

For centuries, men had understood that events not in public view were still under divine scrutiny and judgment. But when society replaces God as the object of worship (as Emile Durkheim believed that it should), then society must become as all-seeing as Deity. The Supreme Court was merely following the spirit of the age (but not the Constitution) when it ruled in the famous “Fanny Hill” case of 1966 that communities could not ban any obscenity with “redeeming social value.” For a society can “redeem” its claims to omniscience only by permitting, inviting, and even coercing everything of potency and force into public view. But even the optimists of the High Court began to blanch at the consequences of their ruling. In 1973 in Miller v. California, the Supreme Court abandoned its “redeeming social value” standard for obscenity and replaced it with “contemporary community standards.” Because most communities-at least those west of New York and south of Washington—still dimly remember that they are not autonomous or self-generating, this new standard has proved more satisfactory, although seven years of unrestrained smut seriously eroded public standards even in Peoria, Illinois, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

But our cultural weakness for obscenity will not be resolved merely by keeping the sexual, violent, and perverted out of public view—though that would be a splendid start. Unlike the modem entertainers and journalists who turn every human experience—celestial or bestial-into a media event, ancient philosophers and saints understood the need to conceal precious experiences and truths from the mob. In the first book of The Laws, Plato points out that serious political criticisms should be shared only among the wise and not in the public marketplace: “If an older man has any reflections to make, he must impart them to a magistrate of his own age” in “a private conversation” when “none of the younger men are by.” Plato’s refusal to record his dialogue on the Good reflects in part his distrust of all publicity, even writing. Plato under stood that the highest truths emerge in the living conversations of earnest men but that even speech proves inadequate to represent them fully. It is no accident that the cruelest of political ideologies, Communism, has its roots in Hegel, who at a time of rapidly increasing literacy falsely supposed that “A truth cannot lose anything by being written down.” The antireligious bias of Communism grows naturally out of an insistence that while revolutionaries may have to use clandestine means for a time, the triumph of socialism makes truth and meaning as publicly visible as a May Day parade or an editorial in Pravda.

Jesus similarly refused to put every thing on public display. He warned His disciples not to “cast pearls before swine” while repeatedly urging those He healed not to publicize what He had done for them; He cautioned His apostles not to tell others of His identity as the Christ nor to disclose the miracle of the Transfiguration until after His Resurrection.

Jesus shared His sublimest truths orally amid a select group, allowing merely mortal—albeit divinely inspired—disciples to write the public record. Whatever has changed over the millennia, this much has remained constant: those with the most to share will do so discriminately and discreetly. This is not cowardice, although it is true that a reluctance to disclose un popular principles often springs from nothing but expedience. Yet men be tray the sacred and the profound by displaying them too casually, allowing them to be ridiculed, commercialized, and misappropriated. “Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” as Eliot observed. Like sensitive photo graphic film, some truths can be ruined by overexposure. When bishops and philosophers elbow one another trying to get in front of the cameras and microphones, we may take their lack of contemplative reserve or spiritual restraint as evidence that their views are probably not worth hearing. Even discounting the recent PTL scandal, it is hard to give much credibility to wealthy pastors who uncritically em brace television as a fit medium for gospel ministry.

Yet religion may suffer worse harm from clerics who crave an interview on the evening news than from those who turn their sermons into television spectacles. As clergymen devote ever more attention to promoting political agendas of the sort that win media attention, religion loses the doctrinal conviction and spiritual reflection that should define its innerness and integrity. Partly because many clerics have forgotten the New Testament injunction against public displays of charity and piety, moral principle in the main line churches is rapidly dissolving into histrionics. Things might be better if fewer religious leaders took their credentials from Ivy League schools, where ethics has become largely a matter of politically correct posturing. The intellectual historian James Billington recently observed that a disturbing disparity is appearing on the nation’s campuses) as professors lead idealistic political crusades (into the headlines) yet tolerate “complete self. indulgence on immediate, personal is sues.” His point was forcefully illustrated not long ago when organizers of a special antiapartheid fast at Brown University complained that all of the media attention had been diverted to covering the break-up of a co-ed prostitution ring.

In morals and religion, Modern America is trading the innerness of Platonic re-cognition for the glamour of public recognition, with incalculable loss in the exchange. Western culture has repeatedly struggled to keep the antinomian impulse in check, yet with out utterly snuffing out the belief that truth and salvation do finally come to man from God and not from human society. But once our cultural elite could no longer discern the imago dei in the individual, all nonscientific truths came to seem historically contingent and socially mediated. Surely nothing could be learned through personal prayer and fasting or listening for “the still small voice” of the Holy Spirit. No longer a divine gift, nonempirical truth depends for its very existence upon the unceasing, strenuous, and graceless efforts of” consciousness raisers” who can win the public ear. It is no wonder if George Garrett concludes that publicity is “all the truth we have left.” Or as the novelist and theorist of language Umberto Eco puts it: “Even prophets have to be socially accepted in order to be right; if not they are wrong.

Holding the keys to public attention, media celebrities and national journalists become insufferably arrogant. Two and a half centuries ago, when the cult of publicity was just beginning, even Alexander Pope succumbed to a moment of overweening pride in the power the public press gave him: “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see / Men not afraid of God afraid of me.”

In a society of rootless individuals clamoring to establish the reality of their lives by having them publicized, nothing tethers the prying irreverence of the journalist or the towering presumption of celebrities. While corporations, churches, and universities spend huge sums to hold the attention of the media elite, if only for a moment, the rigorous sciences and disciplined arts decline. A distressing number of professors, artists, athletes, and businessmen can now scarcely act at all without the stimulus of public attention. Alasdair MacIntyre has justly warned of the hollowing out of modern arts, sciences, and games, as the cultural emphasis shifts from the satis factions “internal” to their practice, to external recognition and rewards.

With every election, the passion for publicity distorts American political life more. It is not just that a candidate’s political fortunes are increasingly shaped by how much air time he can afford and how good he looks on camera (although that is part of the problem). Even more troubling is the way in which movie stars, television personalities, and glib journalists now exert the kind of political influence once reserved for military heroes, senior statesmen, industrial giants, and accomplished scholars. For no other reason than his part in M*A*S*H, Mike Farrell now receives a more respectful hearing on many campuses for his views on American foreign policy than Jeane Kirkpatrick can find for hers. Just as incredible was the successful media assault that Gregory Peck led against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. A recent article in The New Republic reported that for current Democratic presidential aspirants, winning Hollywood’s approval may be more important than winning Iowa’s or Michigan’s. We rejected monarchy for this?

Predictably, the aristocracy of a publicity-driven culture will preach those doctrines which flatter the largest number of people in the potential viewing audience, fostering a naive faith in human equality at the expense of a sound respect for individuals exceptionally gifted in talent, wisdom, or creative vision. Few can travel the difficult path to genius and accomplishment, but Andy Warhol spoke for the media age when he suggested that everyone deserved to be a celebrity for at least 15 minutes. The media flatter their audiences so persistently that it is hard to understand why Dante put flatterers in the eighth circle in hell although as newsmen and personalities go to their reward, that neighborhood is bound to decline.

As cable television and VCR technology create ever more viewing opportunities, as TV cameras multiply in courtroom and in legislative chamber, as schools create “media literacy” courses, as universities and churches devote ever more resources to public relations-in all these developments, a priceless resource dwindles. Americans are either surrendering or devaluing the private, nonpublicized space where individuals may still commune with their thoughts, with close friends, and with God. In the long run, the fate of the culture depends not on those who “stay on lop of” all the current trends in entertainment, politics, economics, and opinion but upon people who turn off the set and hang up the telephone when a pollster or a journalist calls. As the cult of publicity continues to gain strength in America, meaningful life will still depend upon a personal willingness to pursue the truth in solitary silence rather that to affirm falsehoods amid thunderous applause.