Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a series of writings by Roman Emperor and philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (famously portrayed by the incomparable Richard Harris in Gladiator). Essentially his nightly diary, Meditations is an incredibly introspective look into both his personal and political lives. Through his relationships with colleagues, subjects, family, friends, and teachers, we see an honest, humble depiction of the often mythic Aurelius: he was a simple man, a lifelong learner, and a Stoic who just so happened to be the leader of the entire Western world.

These private notes–never meant for publication–are mostly centered on the Stoic philosophy (made famous by Socrates), which sees happiness as the acceptance of every moment as it happens. The goal of a Stoic is to stop being ruled by his/her desire for pleasure and fear of pain. It is about treating others fairly and working together in pursuit of justice.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

In Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, he describes social media as “the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform.” So the market said, here, perform everything all the time for no reason. “It’s prison,” he says. In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the market is New York’s high society in the 1870s, and it’s fitting that the novel opens to a performance at an opera house because this is a story about people performing, and watching others perform, constantly.

The prison is society’s strict adherence to (arguably outdated) decorum: protocol, customs, etiquette, formalities, whatever you want to call them. This prison governs who people can marry, where and how they spend their time, what they wear, how they think, and whether or not their dreams are worth anything at all. These rules are strangling people, programming them, and as a result they live in a world where appearances are everything.

If they refuse to perform up to the claustrophobic norms of the day, they risk expulsion. No money from the patriarchy, no connections from the matriarchy, no respect whatsoever. Performance, then, becomes religion.

“Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

Every time I read a classic I inevitably ask myself the same question: “Has this book finished saying what it has to say?” If it’s become out of touch then it isn’t a classic, because classics endure; they reinvent themselves. We continue to find value in classics well past their point of origin.

The Age of Innocence is a nearly 100-year-old book about a society of fake, self-centred, and anxious people in 19th century New York and all I can think about after reading it is Facebook. If that’s not the definition of a classic in 2018 I don’t know what is.

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