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.
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.