Stoic Memory Verses

Anna over at A Stoic Remedy has written a lovely post on habits and practices that newcomers to Stoicism can engage in—like reading the ancient texts, looking back over passages that you’ve highlighted as powerful to you, and finding a meaningful method of meditation.

I want to add just one idea to her list: memory verses.  I’ve already written about how I find certain passages from Seneca and Epictetus helpful for battling procrastination and self-doubt.  I’ve recently taken this a step further, by starting to memorize passages that I find morally powerful, as a kind of (secular) spiritual exercise.

Exercise (askesis) is more than a metaphor in ancient philosophy—we form the soul into something good in much the same way that we strengthen the body.

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I like to do both at once: exercise the body while meditating on virtue.  The two kinds of exercise reinforce each other.

Memorizing sacred texts is something most of us left behind with our religious youth groups—but memorization need not be a strictly religious activity.  Memorization can in some way be more powerful than other kinds of study and meditation.

The ancients took memorizing maxims very seriously: it was viewed as a first-rate spiritual exercise for moving principles into one’s character.  The Epicureans, for instance, boiled down their entire philosophy into the famous fourfold remedy, which students could easily recall whenever they were faced with difficult situations:

The gods are not to be feared,
Death is not to be dreaded,
What is good is easy to acquire,
What is bad is easy to bear.

Now that I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading Stoic books, I’ve decided that memorizing a few encouraging maxims is the best way for me to take my practice to the next level.  Because mindfulness and virtuous action are the most interesting parts of Stoicism to me personally, here’s the one I’ve chosen to get started:

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live.  The inescapable is hanging over your head; while you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

 

A text like this, I think, is especially powerful as a morning meditation: it’s motivational, it inspires me to think about what virtues I will need to practice today, and to throw myself into them full force.

It’s also a great one to recite out loud while exercising physically!  It spurs me to action, but also turns physical exercise into a symbolic ritual: I should attend to my mind and character in the same way that I attend to my body.

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3 thoughts on “Stoic Memory Verses”

  1. Wow, thanks for the shout-out 🙂 Great idea, memorizing! Morning rituals are so nice, but difficult to stick with. I like Marcus 2.1–after a cynical opening (“the people I meet today will be meddling, ungrateful, surly, etc….” I definitely do not have it memorized) it becomes so beautiful. It prepares you for the reality of other people and strengthens your resolve to rise above their behavior because you have “seen the beauty of good.” Actually, the whole thing is kind of cynical, ha ha, I need a slightly more positive one like what you quoted. Something to take the edge off of mornings. I like the mind-body-connection angle too; I was thinking of tackling that at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! 2.1 is delightful! I briefly considered memorizing it. It does end on a positive note, one of many places where Marcus refers to cosmopolitan love. I’d love to memorize at least the tail end of it at some point, as a reminder I can use to avoid “assenting” to anger. Luckily, though, I don’t encounter exasperating people as often as someone in Marcus’ line of work!

      5.1, of course, is the obvious candidate to “take the edge off of mornings!” “Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand…”

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