Epictetus the former slave. Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Seneca the statesman and playwright. These three radically different men led radically different lives, but they seemed to have one habit in common: journaling.
In one form or another, each of them did it. It was Epictetus who would admonish his students that philosophy was something they should “write down day by day,” and that this writing was how they “should exercise themselves.” Seneca’s favorite time to journal was in the evenings. When darkness had fallen and his wife had gone to sleep, he explained to a friend, “I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” Then he would go to bed, finding that “the sleep which follows this self-examination” was particularly sweet. And Aurelius was the most prodigious of journal-keepers, and we are lucky enough that his writings survive to us, appropriately titled, Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, Ta eis heauton, or “to himself.”
They were not the only ones to practice the habit of writing. Foucault observed of this era of history that all the great minds practiced journaling: “In this period there was a culture of what could be called personal writing: taking notes on the reading, conversations and reflections that one hears or engages in oneself; keeping kinds of notebooks on important subjects (what the Greeks called hypomnemata), which must be reread from time to time so as to reactualize their contents.”
And of course, many people—stoic or otherwise—have fallen in love with and dedicated themselves to morning or evening journaling in the centuries since. And for good reason: It works. It clarifies the mind, provides room for quiet, private reflection and gives one a record of their thoughts over time.
But in Stoicism, the art of journaling is more than simply keeping a diary. This daily practice is the philosophy. Preparing for the day ahead. Reflecting on the day that has passed. Reminding oneself of the wisdom we have learned from our teachers, from our reading, from our own experiences. It’s not enough to simply hear these lessons once. Instead, one practices them over and over again, turns them over in their mind, and most importantly, writes them down and feels them flowing through their fingers while doing so.
In this way, journaling is Stoicism. It’s almost impossible to have one without the other.
Whatever form you find is most conducive for you is the one to use. Some like to write or jot notes down on paper. Some like to pull up an empty document on their computer and record thoughts. But it is the process that counts, and its value compounds over time. One cannot expect wisdom and self-mastery to simply arrive via epiphany. No, those states are acquired, little by little, practice by practice. The sooner you start, the better.
This article was published in November 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Vergani_Fotografia/IStock