It’s not for posterity that the Stoics sat with their journals. It wasn’t whiney self-indulgence either. They weren’t cataloging their achievements or pouring out their fantasies. They were doing important work.
Many years ago in a fascinating essay the philosopher Michel Foucault described journaling as a “weapon in spiritual combat.” Quoting Seneca and Epictetus as examples, he explains that “writing constitutes a test and a kind of touchstone: by bringing to light impulses of thought, it dispels the darkness where the enemy’s plot are hatched.”
For the Stoics, philosophy wasn’t just this thing you read. Nor, given the immense difficulty of the Stoic ideals, was it something that one magically lived up to in moments of stress and strain. No, it required a lot of active training and practice–the most effective form of which was done as Marcus Aurelius did in the pages of Meditations, meditating on the ideas over and over again until he absorbed them.
As Foucualt writes of this process, we begin by going from philosophical “meditation to the activity of writing and from there to…training and trial in a real situation—a labor of thought, a labor through writing, a labor in reality.” Reading, writing, and experiencing life become a kind of feedback loop where, “the meditation precedes the notes which enable the rereading which in turn reinitiates the meditation.”
It’s quite beautiful. You read (The Daily Stoic or Meditations). You struggle. You journal about the struggle (in the Daily Stoic Journal). You apply what you’ve journaled about to your struggle. You reread your journaling and it teaches you new lessons to journal about and use in future struggles. It’s a truly virtuous cycle.
But of course, this process can only happen if you do the work. If you make time for the journaling and the writing, if you submit to the cycle. Too often, we are unwilling to do that. We claim we don’t have time. We are too self-conscious. We don’t have the right materials.
Nonsense. Start. Today. Now.