Is Memorization Underrated Today?

Internalizing ancient wisdom

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Knowledge isn’t merely verbal. To know something, it’s not enough to be able to look it up. Instead, we must be able to exemplify our knowledge through action. The Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus said that philosophy itself was nothing more than the practice of noble behavior.

It may be surprising then that one of the most common Stoic practices was the memorization of maxims. Ancient Stoics regularly meditated on philosophical principles, committing them to memory, to live well.

The goal was not to recite Stoic lines to show off. In his works, Epictetus is always railing against his students for wasting their time in showy theoretical discussions. Marcus Aurelius tells himself to throw away his books. The Stoics are laser-focused on crafting excellent characters. Everything else must be a part of that project.

The ability to memorize Stoic principles helps us embody their wisdom. By internalizing them and returning to the philosophy, we shape ourselves in the Stoic fashion. Of course, the path to virtue doesn’t lie in memorizing Epictetus’s Handbook. But possessing the Stoic principles in such a way that you can naturally access them with ease guides and defines who you are.

Stoics aim to apply Stoic ideas in their decisions and judgments. This is the path toward mental mastery, calm, and resilience. If you’re able to recall the clarity of Stoic ideas like the fact that others cannot harm you and that death is indifferent, imagine how powerful that would be. You can only do this with practice. Part of this practice involves the memorization of maxims. When you're in the grips of passion, you won’t have time or mind to pull out the Handbook. Crystalize the Stoic principles that matter. Commit them to memory. And then, amongst the storm, pause and remember Stoic wisdom.

Indeed, ancient Stoics composed hymns for this very purpose. Epictetus and Seneca both cited the Hymn of Cleanthes, which Seneca immortalized in the line:

The willing soul fate leads, but the unwilling it drags along.

Seneca, Moral Letters 107

A soul that keeps thoughts like these in mind, turning to them when needed, moves forward on the Stoic path.

🎯 Action

Pause and bring to mind one Stoic principle or maxim today.

🔗 Resources

🎧️ In this conversation, Brittany Polat and I touch on how monks in the medieval ages would use memory as a part of spiritual practice. Interestingly, they may have been influenced by Greek philosophers to do so.

📖 Epictetus cites the following from the Hymn of Cleanthes in The Handbook:

Lead me, Zeus, both you and Destiny,

Wheresoe’r you have ordained for me,

And I shall gladly follow.

And if I am unwilling Out of wickedness, still I shall follow.

Epictetus, Handbook 53

He also notes the following from one of Euripedes’ plays:

Whoever complies nobly with necessity

We count as wise and expert in the ways of the gods.

Epictetus, Handbook 53

Fittingly, perhaps, the play itself is now lost forever and only exists in fragments. Both quotes above are translated by Robin Waterfield.

🥁 We’ll be opening our live course Stoicism Applied soon. Join the waitlist hear exactly when and learn more.

💰️ I have an upcoming conversation with Alexandra Hudson, founder of Civic Renaissance, on her upcoming book The Soul of Civility. She’s running a great deal for anyone who preorders: you'll get an ebook, course, toolkit, membership to monthly calls, and a free 1-year subscription to Civic Renaissance. Check out the book, and if it looks like something you’d like, put in the order and take advantage of the deal. Or, perhaps, check out the course and Civic Renaissance, and if you'd like to join either of them, buy the book instead (it's cheaper!).

🏛️ Another way to remember quotes is to meditate on them. To that end, the Stoa app includes a series of Stoic Principles. In this course, you’re given some of the best quotes to listen to, contemplate, and memorize in your own words to become more Stoic.

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