“Everything is broken,” repeated the chorus of a Bob Dylan song from his 1989 album Oh Mercy—strings (guitar, presumably), heads, hearts, vows, laws, and idols. The nation suffered from social and spiritual crisis: family breakups, community breakdowns; ecological disaster, school shootings; suicides, addictions. Private self-interest flooded the public realm. Corporate greed bombed us back to the Gilded Age. The glitz of the super-rich hid the cost to jobs, democracy, and well-being.
But if things seemed broken then—before 9/11, before the pandemic, before January 6th—what does that make things now? Is there anything beyond broken? And among all of this, how are we supposed to live?
Some have sought comfort, enlightenment and meaning in a therapeutic ethos—that familiar modern-day fare of mantras, nostrums, and retail therapy that caters to self-focused impulses and ends up expanding perceived needs rather than sating modest desires. But since the changing of the millennium, more and more are looking for answers in older approaches, mining ancient philosophies of the art of living—from the Stoics to the Epicureans to the Cynics—to transcend modern woes.
The quest appears in scholarship and in popular culture. The movie Gladiator, for instance, draws on the ideas of the ancient Greek practice of Stoicism, which taught emotional restraint so that individuals could focus solely on what was actually in their control. In telling the story of Roman general Maximus (played by Russell Crowe), who reined in wrathful vengeance for vicious wrongs he had endured, the film posits the possibility of a New Stoicism as a guide to living under demanding circumstances. Driven by the credo “strength and honor,” a fictional Maximus followed in the footsteps of real Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by Richard Harris). Instead of wallowing in the weakness wrought by a culture of pampering, the New Stoicism asks, in part, what would happen if we raised the inner bar for ourselves?
And then, today, there’s Bridgerton: a voguish Netflix show that also carries strong resonances from the philosophical past. The show, like other contemporary cultural offerings, doesn’t always—or even often—make its wisdom and arguments clear. But tuning in to the frequency of these resonances, it reminds us that we still try to seek answers, however inchoate, to the ancient question—one we cannot outrun even if we try—of how to live.
It is no wonder that Bridgerton has broad appeal: It would be difficult to find a starker contrast to the grim tableau of suffering and turmoil facing the nation and world today. Bridgerton is unabashed romantic fantasy, a story of intrigue and courtship that serves up its melodrama with a feast for the senses. Scene after scene brings color and light, fabric and food, architecture and art. Dresses rustle, whisper, drape, and float alongside topcoats that caress with velvet a strong arm outstretched and a muscular back rigid with good posture. In the modulation of voices, the arrangements of furniture and flowers and melodies, and just about everything else, pleasing reigns supreme.
It is worth asking to what end. Is this just fluff and escapism, dainties and distraction? Might something else come along with this frolic in opulence, besides the 7,500 costume pieces delivered, according to Vogue magazine, for the first eight episodes alone?
Suggestions of a tie-in to the ancients are obvious. Bridgerton’s time stamp places it in the Regency Era, between 1811 and 1820—part of the longer Georgian period, which was marked by a revival of interest in classicism. Viewers of the show can observe this in the symmetry and balance of the architecture, which drew in spirit and specific design elements from Greek and Roman styles. From architect John Nash’s neoclassicism to Jane Austen’s Aristotelian examination of the ancient moral virtues in novels such as 1813’s Pride and Prejudice, the era of Bridgerton was steeped in classicism in nearly every realm.
Bridgerton is an interesting case because it alludes to ancient schools of thought, but unlike great works like Austen’s—which explore competing moral philosophies with heft, putting them in dialogue with one another to contemplate how one should approach life in all of its aspects—it does not explore these ideas in much depth. The initial scenes of the show assume the familiar postmodern ironic tone—a kind of ironism, so different from irony, that evades the glare of committed judgment. This pose stands in tension with the show’s views of race and women, just as its views of race and women often stand in tension with themselves. (We are to believe that women are at once oppressed and calling all the shots.) Bridgerton walks a fine line between nostalgia for innocence and obligatory self-mockery. It seems to veer off-script from its establishing scenes, sometimes toward earnestness and sometimes quite the opposite. Its intent has not been worked out.
Its references to deeper philosophical themes, too, can seem accidental, unconscious, or indirect. For instance, the frowning demeanor of the romantic hero (or anti-hero?) Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, (played by Regé-Jean Page), offers glimmers of Stoicism, as though he is all about emotional control. But Hastings’ reserve is explained less as result of deliberate decision than as residue of a difficult past—an attribute of personality rather than character. This better fits the modern therapeutic culture’s tendency to see such behavior as the result of psychological influences beyond a person’s control, rather than an inner leap toward self-determination and resilience in the face of outside challenges.
More obviously, Bridgerton reflects a renewed embrace of Epicureanism, the pleasure-focused philosophy par excellence, which posited that life was best led as the pursuit of pleasure. This ancient school of thought placed the senses at the center of what made for a good life. In place of the common tendency to spend one’s life dreading what might happen in the future, such as death, inevitable in any case, Epicureans focused on life’s enjoyments, such as a good meal, long conversations, and the company of friends. Lingering over the leisured class’s immersion in just such activities, the show’s cinematography pays ample attention to this side of life. But here, too, Bridgerton may miss the mark. Ancient Epicureanism taught moderation and simplicity. Its founder Epicurus, who lived from 341 to 270 BC, was said to prefer a simple supper of bread and water—as a way to ensure that a measured pleasure could be sustained over the course of a lifetime. Bridgerton is more about excess: of fabric, of food, of drink, of music, of drama, of all the senses and emotions.
So, as a model for the good life, does a superficial free-for-all like Bridgerton, which so clearly emanates from the dominant culture, offer hope or harm? If its guilty pleasures save even one person from desperation in the dark night of the soul, in this time of plague and distress, it sits on the right side of the scale.
Still, it is worth looking at cultural expressions and the philosophy of life they inevitably express, knowingly or not. The omnipresence of advertising today, not only for consumer goods and services, but for politicians and everything else, has made manipulative speech and imagery expected modes of human interaction, eroding trust and fostering isolation, disconnection and loneliness. This manipulative mode is one of the costs of the therapeutic culture: When individual needs or wants are the measure of all things, common ground for agreement falls out from under us. Self-focus divides us, rendering other people mere stepping stones on the quest for satisfaction. In the absence of a shared moral framework, critics such as sociologist Philip Rieff and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre have observed, determining how to live falls to the individual’s emotional preferences, which defines social relations as all about manipulating others to get what we want and think we need.
Emotional manipulation in the service of fantasy satisfactions, the calling card of our therapeutic consumer culture, appears here too. For those not imbued with a love of the romance genre, Bridgerton’s protracted bedroom scenes alone detract from aspects that edge it just the slightest bit toward a semi-serious drama confronting lived experience—a particularly inspired bit of acting, perhaps, or another precision of detail.
Some of the show’s so-called steamy scenes can be ignored, but others cannot. For our purposes here, we might see them as signs of a different ancient school creeping in: a thwarted expression of a new Cynicism. The ancient Cynics followed Diogenes “the Dog,” who lived in a wine barrel shamelessly performing all of his bodily functions in the public square, believing in baring it all literally and figuratively as a way of truth-telling against the hypocrisy of the social conventions of the rich and powerful. Today’s cynicism emphasizes base motives yet, lacking the ancients’ ethical grounding, can veer toward acceptance of such manipulations as a realistic description of the way things are.
Cynical touches appear in Bridgerton when, in separate scenes, both the Duke and his new Duchess (Daphne Bridgerton, played by Phoebe Dynevor) viciously use sex as a weapon against the other. It is difficult to know what to think of these characters. Simon (the Duke) is initially cast as a superior—stone-hearted hard-to-get cad one minute, and desirable catch the next. His sparring partner, Daphne, appears to be an innocent, criticized by her more liberated sister for naïve acquiescence to the marriage market. Any sense of her intrinsic sweetness evaporates in a disturbing scene in which she seduces the Duke—they are now married yet all but estranged—to trick him into making her pregnant.
Everything is smoothed over with the aid of terms from the therapeutic culture. Once Daphne learns Simon’s fear of fatherhood stems from childhood trauma and not lack of desire for her, her self-esteem is restored, and all is well. For anyone glimpsing the potential for a genuine alternative in a new popular classicism—a path to ways of thinking and living that resist the me-first mentality, and the manipulative social relations it fosters—Bridgerton’s scenes of manipulation at the most intimate level are sure to disappoint. It eschews the moral clarity of any of the ancient schools for paparazzi-like attention to the machinations of the royal self-as-celebrity.
Even if renewed interest in ancient philosophies of living has reappeared on the horizon, this does not mean new references or allusions resemble anything more than bits and pieces, no longer recognizably related to a conversation about how to live a morally good life. While Bridgerton, like many other expressions of all kinds, might refer vaguely to Epicureanism, anyone reading the ancient texts, or about them, will see the difference.
Given the pervasive problem of manipulation as a mode of social interaction today, do signs of renewed interest in ancient philosophies of life suggest any kind of meaningful alternative? In the case of Bridgerton, the jury is still out. Most of its resonances from the ancient schools seem to miss the most important value at their core: moral goodness. The Platonist school of thought, which inspired all the others, deemed it sacred. After his teacher Socrates, Plato envisioned beauty as an inner quality of the soul and real love and friendship as deeply spiritual. So far Bridgerton prefers surface dwelling.
But one never knows what the next season might bring—and shows like Bridgerton do offer hope of a certain kind, and not only because they provide a few moments of pleasant distraction. They provide glimmers of an ancient conversation whose snippets and sounds have not faded out altogether, a conversation that takes as its very starting point that humans must find a way to live in a world in which not everything, perhaps, but a great deal at any given time, is, when not actually broken, at risk of breaking.
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