Evening Review

Compared with the morning preview, we have more detail from the ancient texts about the evening review in Stoicism. Seneca gives quite a full account of his evening routine:

All our senses should be educated into strength: they are naturally able to endure much, provided that the spirit forbears to spoil them. The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? what vice have you checked? in what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? how sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? how calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.” A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance. (Seneca, On Anger, 3.36)

Sextius Quintus referred to above, was a 1st century BC philosopher who espoused a combination of Stoicism and Pythagoreanism – so again we have a link to Pythagoras. Seneca’s evening routine seems to have served a number of functions: correction of future mistakes (“see that you never do that anymore”); prevention of anger (“Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat”; and improvement of sleep quality (“how sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination”). As we saw above, the Pythagoreans also thought the evening review improved memory functioning.

Furthermore the evening routine was perhaps more important to Seneca than the morning preview. At the very least, reviewing past actions is a prerequisite for planning future ones:

I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past. (Seneca, letter 83.1)

In the passage partly quoted in my post on the morning preview, Epictetus also refers the evening review, again how not to do it and then how to do it:

The saying of Pythagoras

Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes

he transfers to these things. “Where have I failed in the matters pertaining to flattery?” “What have I done?” Anything like a free man, anything like a noble-minded man? And if he finds anything of the kind, he blames and accuses himself: “Why did you say this? Was it not in your power to lie? Even the philosophers say that nothing hinders us from telling a lie.” … [Instead] reflect on your acts. “Where have I omitted the things which conduce to happiness? What have I done which is either unfriendly or unsocial? what have I not done as to these things which I ought to have done?” (Epictetus, 4.6.32-36)

The three basic questions — what did I do wrong? what did I do? what didn’t I do? — are from the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which Epictetus quotes elsewhere:

When the need of each opinion comes, we ought to have it in readiness: on the occasion of breakfast, such as relate to breakfast; in the bath, those that concern the bath; in bed, those that concern bed.

Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes
Before each daily action thou hast scann’d;
What’s done amiss, what done, what left undone;
From first to last examine all, and then
Blame what is wrong in what is right rejoice.

(Epictetus, 3.10.1-3)

Porphyry also quotes the Golden Verses, in the passage quoted in part above:

He advised special regard to two times; that when we go to sleep, and that when we awake. At each of these we should consider our past actions, and those that are to come. We ought to require of ourselves an account of our past deeds, while of the future we should have a providential care. Therefore he advised everybody to repeat to himself the following verses before he fell asleep:

“Nor suffer sleep to close thine eyes
Till thrice thy acts that day thou hast run o’er;
How slipt? What deeds? What duty left undone?”

(Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, 40)

Here they are relevant lines extracted from the full text of the verses given by Wikipedia:

40. Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
41. Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
42. In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
43. If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
44. And if you have done any good, rejoice.

Seneca notes the positive result of a day well lived in one of the letters:

Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say:

I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me
Is finished.

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus. (Seneca, letter 12.9)

And so the cycle begins again!

Here are a couple of other blog posts on the morning and evening meditations.