How should a human be?

I’ve managed to arrange my life so that I work really hard for a couple of months and then take a month off. Having just finished a big assignment I didn’t have much of a plan of how to spend my time off. It’s not the best time of the year to be free and at loose ends. It’s still winter in New York, apart from a few crocuses here or there, and walking’s a bit bleak. Instead I’ve had a sudden and urgent need to feast on classical concerts, history books and museums. They’re an infusion of beauty but also inspire me to think and explore.

I’ve always been fascinated by how other cultures and other ages are dealing with the questions we’re all dealing with every day. How to be a good person. How to be healthy. What physical and mental ideal to aspire to.

I used to subscribe to dozens of health and fitness blogs and websites to a point where it became a deranged echo chamber. I’ve pretty much stopped all that stuff cold turkey last September because I was losing sight of the bigger picture.

One the continuous themes off which so many of these blogs feed is the idea that The Media/Marketers/The Diet and Fitness Industry/FitSpo Memes/Society/The Man is creating an unrealistic health and beauty and diet ideal to which we are forced to conform. This is such a prevailing theme that marketing itself has begun to recycle it. And it’s a theme I grew a bit tired of. As a one-time observation it seems fine, as a prism for looking at life it seems just not very useful or substantive.

Having wandered the halls of the Met Museum and the Brooklyn Museum and poring over various books, I’m once again reminded that this supposed media-fed frenzy isn’t such a new thing. Check out these Fitspiration images:


Mosaics from the Villa Roman del Casale, 4th Century AD


Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530


These images represent some pretty entrenched beauty norms. And not only did they have fairly normative ideas on beauty, Greeks and Romans, for example, spent a lot of time thinking about the right way to eat. The dominant debate was whether to eat simply, with an eye on health, or whether to abandon oneself to the delicious creations of the culinary arts. This was part of the larger tension between austerity and decadence.

Refined cuisine could be moralized as a sign of either civilized progress or decadent decline. The early Imperial historian Tacitus contrasted the indulgent luxuries of the Roman table in his day with the simplicity of the Germanic diet of fresh wild meat, foraged fruit, and cheese, unadulterated by imported seasonings and elaborate sauces.”

“Produce—cereals, legumes, vegetables, and fruit—[were] considered a more civilized form of food than meat.”

“Some philosophers and Christians resisted the demands of the body and the pleasures of food, and adopted fasting as an ideal. As an urban lifestyle came to be associated with decadence, the Church formally discouraged gluttony, and hunting and pastoralism were seen as simple but virtuous ways of life.”

Plus ça change. Insert discussions around veganism, farm-to-table artisanal food, intermittent fasting, and so on.

It seems to me that narrow beauty norms, and moralizing and agonizing over what foods to eat are perhaps not as old as mankind but they’re considerably older than our mass media, social media, blogs, Photoshop or fashion mags. The idea of a golden age when people didn’t worry about their appearance or didn’t obsess over their food might be more fantasy than reality. These things have likely always been socially, morally or religiously charged.

But the ancients have also bequeathed us a set of coping tools. We can get angry about cultural norms, prescriptive diets and and “lifestyles”, climb into the trenches and lob grenades in that never-ending battle.

Or we could spend our energy elsewhere. Stoic thinking is a brilliant way of not worrying so much about what other people think, and not obsess over what are ultimately trivial.

“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.”
– Marcus Aurelius

In other words, get better at not caring.

“Display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?”

And focus your energy on the virtues you would like to cultivate.