How to Remember Stoic Maxims

On the forgotten art of memory

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

Every song, poem, philosophy, and fact is available on the internet. But it is not truly ours unless we can recall it at will.

It’s been said that in order to truly know a poem, one must commit to memory. The phrase to know something by heart captures the idea that once we memorize something, it’s written in us.

For these reasons and others, the ancient Stoics encouraged memorizing maxims. They instructed their students to have Stoic principles “ready at hand” to deploy to weather stressful situations, think carefully, and make better decisions.

We agree. However, we don’t teach the art of memory like we used to.

To that end, here are 5 ways you can remember the best Stoic quotes and ideas.

Every song, poem, philosophy, and fact is available on the internet. But it is not truly ours unless we can recall it at will.

✍️ Writing

If you want to memorize a maxim, such as Seneca’s:

Hold fast to this thought, and grip it close: yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity; keep before your eyes the full scope of Fortune's power, as if she would surely do whatever is in her power to do.

Seneca, Moral Letters 78

Simply read it and then write it down. Then, write as much as you can from memory. Next, break it down into parts. Write the first rule by memory. Once you’ve got that, write the first and second rules together. Finally, finish by writing down the complete maxim.

I’ve memorized poems this way. Writing what is to be memorized renders it concrete.

🏰 The Method of Loci

The Roman philosopher and statesman, Cicero tells a story about the Greek poet Simonides, who was able to memorize the names of his banquet guests by bringing to mind where they sat. The insight? Space and image are key aids to memory.

Think of Seneca’s maxim again, it has three simple ideas:

  • Do not give in to adversity

  • Do not be complacent in prosperity

  • Prepare for misfortune

Think of objects that resemble each of these (memorable and fantastic ones) and put them in a specific place – perhaps a closet in your house. Open your closet, there they are and there’s the maxim.

This method is especially useful for remembering lists. Remembering 3 items with it is trivial. It’s not as useful for remembering poems verbatim, but that’s not important for us here. It’s more important to remember the ideas so that we can use them, not recall and recite them for a performance.

🚶 Walking

This method takes advantage of the fact that space and memory are linked. This time, instead of visualizing an imaginary place, simply try to memorize whatever you’d like while walking.

If you can go to a novel place, that may work better. Hence, when you’re thinking of a line from Marcus Aurelius that is at the tip of your tongue, you can bring to mind that park nearby and find it.

🌌 Spaced Repetition

Once you’ve committed something to memory with a technique like the above, now don’t forget it! Spaced repetition is one of the best ways to achieve this.

Hence, the best way to remember something is to get a reminder before we’d typically forget it. What spaced repetition systems do is let you create flashcards and then systematically test your memory overtime. You’ll see cards more frequently as you’re learning them, then less frequently in order to avoid losing them. I use Anki every day for lines that are important, poetry, and language learning.

You may also regularly return to the most important maxims you want to commit to memory while journaling or meditating.

♻️ Integration

The Stoics didn’t advise memorizing things for their own sake. What is remembered, must be applied.

Hence, as you build the ability to recall what you’d like, share it in conversation with yourself or others. But most importantly, utilize them in your judgments and decisions.

Sheep don’t produce grass to show their shepherds how much they’ve eaten, but they digest their food inwardly, and produce wool and milk outwardly. You too, then, shouldn’t flaunt your theoretical views to nonphilosophers, but show them only the actions that result from those theories once they’ve been digested.

Epictetus, Handbook 46

🎯 Action

Bring to mind a Stoic maxim during your day. Apply it.

🎺 Stoicism Applied – The Course

Michael Tremblay and I are running a course this Oct-Nov!

Over 3 weeks, you'll learn the foundations of Stoic theory and practice.

Each module is grounded in the ancient texts and our practical experience teaching thousands of other people how to be more Stoic. We'll follow Epictetus's three-part structure for teaching Stoicism by focusing on the disciplines of desire, judgment, and action.

I hope to see you there – it’s an excellent opportunity to learn from us and fellow participants seriously walking the Stoic path.

Join the waitlist here. We’ll be opening enrollments soon.

🔗 Resources

📝 If you want to go deep into memorizing Stoic works, Kevin Vost wrote a systematic treatise helpfully titled Memorize the Stoics! It offers a strict learning program for remembering key sections of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Seneca’s Moral Letters, and Epictetus’s Handbook.

📖 Read the rest of Seneca’s letter On The Healing Power of The Mind.

💬 If you’re looking for a list of quotes, here are the most popular ones on the Stoic app.

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