Why You Should Learn to Journal Like the Stoics

Moral self-examination can lead to self-improvement

Journaling for self-improvement is nothing new. Daily reflection as moral self-examination goes all the back to ancient Greece and Rome. It was first described in a poem called The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, based on the doctrines of the famous sixth century BCE philosopher. The famous Stoic thinker Seneca wrote:

I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself. When the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done. I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing. — From On Anger

And then there’s the most famous Stoic text of all, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in which we have the philosopher-emperor’s own personal notebook — the product of similar reflections on his own character and actions. This is the great-grandaddy of most subsequent self-help and psychotherapy literature.

Galen, the famous court physician of Marcus Aurelius, also describes this technique in a little-known book about philosophical therapeutics called On the Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul’s Passions. Galen recommends that each morning, we should prepare for the day ahead by imagining the contrast between acting in accord with wisdom and self-discipline on the one hand and being led by our irrational passions and desires on the other. What difference would it make if we followed the wiser path rather than simply going down the easier one? Planning our day ahead in this way can help us review how we’ve done later, before retiring to sleep.

The most famous Stoic teacher of all, Epictetus, wrote nothing. His words were transcribed and edited by a Roman citizen called Arrian of Nicomedia, who attended Epictetus’ lectures in Greece around 120 CE. Arrian was later appointed governor of Cappadocia (in modern-day Turkey) and assumed command of a provincial army. Arrian was, in other words, a highly accomplished Roman statesman and general, an expert on cavalry training and tactics. Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.

Arrian was also a prolific, erudite, and talented writer who was clearly very interested in Epictetus’ philosophy. Having transcribed eight volumes of the master’s discourses — only half of which survive — he acquired a very thorough understanding of Stoic teachings. In the Discourses, Arrian portrays Epictetus teaching a specific daily routine that clearly lends itself to journaling (Discourses, 4.6). It’s a Stoic version of the method described in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras.

Each morning Epictetus’ students, including Arrian, were to prepare for the day ahead by asking themselves what they need to do in order to further master their own fears and unruly desires and free themselves from any traces of unwarranted distress. They were asked to consider what steps they must take to fulfill their potential for living wisely and in accord with virtues such as justice, courage, and temperance.

Each evening they were supposed to review their progress by asking themselves three questions, which I paraphrase as follows:

  1. What have I done well today, with regard to self-improvement and fulfilling my potential in life?
  2. Where did I go wrong, in this regard?
  3. What did I omit that I could do next time?

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous contains a remarkably similar daily strategy. Step 11 of the 12-Step Program describes the following retrospective meditation technique:

When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others.

The authors add that after making this review they ask God for forgiveness before contemplating “what corrective measures should be taken.”

The next morning, they continue with the following prospective meditation:

On awakening let us think about the twenty-four hours ahead. We consider our plans for the day. Before we begin, we ask God to direct our thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives. Under these conditions we can employ our mental faculties with assurance, for after all God gave us brains to use. Our thought-life will be placed on a much higher plane when our thinking is cleared of wrong motives.

This method obviously resembles that of Galen and the Stoics, though couched in somewhat more religious language.

I described how this technique could be combined with modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in my recent book on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, providing a simple framework for Stoic practice. In this way, you can enter into a daily cycle of learning with a beginning, middle, and end.

In the morning you prepare for the day ahead; throughout the day you try to live consistently in accord with your values; and in the evening you review your progress and prepare to repeat the cycle again the next day. … Having a daily routine like this makes it much easier to be consistent in your practice.

When we journal in the morning and again at night, we are walking in the footsteps of Arrian, who doubtless discussed similar ideas with his officers on the battlefields of Asia Minor during his campaign against the Alani. We know Emperor Marcus Aurelius was keeping notes of a similar kind while stationed with the Roman army on the Danube frontier during the Marcomannic Wars.

The personal challenges you face today may seem quite different from these, but deep down, there are probably a lot of similarities: We all have to make decisions every day and think both about our own lives and priorities and the larger picture. The same capacity for careful reflection and moral or psychological self-examination will, fate willing, serve you just as well as it did Arrian and Marcus Aurelius.

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

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