For the ancient Greeks, philopsophy was not just about pursuing knowledge for its own sake but about leading a better life. Perhaps more than anyone else, Pierre Hadot has documented that to choose a philosophy in ancient times was to choose a “way of life”. Philosophical practice involved a programme of “spiritual exercises” that aimed to transform a person’s vision of the world and their place in it. The exercises varied from school to school but included focussing on the present moment, deliberate experiences of privation, imagining oneself in bad situations to minimise worries about the future, and viewing things from a “cosmic” perpsective. Thus ancient philosophy seems to have been closer to a kind of secular religion (like the more philosophical aspects of Buddhism) than to the detached, technical subject typically studied nowadays in universities.
I’ve been attracted to Stoic thought ever since I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations twenty years ago. The Stoics taught that by dealing rationally with things within our control, and evaluating correctly things out of our control, we could be both happier and better people. Since discovering the Meditations, I’d dipped into other ancient authors over the years, such as Seneca and Epictetus. But it was reading Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy (Qu’est-ce que la Philosophie Antique?) in summmer 2011, that really impressed on me the importance of keeping Stoic principles fresh and alive with regular spiritual exercises. As always Seneca puts it well: philosophy “is not a thing to be followed at odd times, but a subject for daily practice” (letter 53); and “of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live” ( from On the Shortness of Life).
This “daily” blog is my attempt to discipline myself to return regularly to the timeless Stoic texts, pluck out a pearl of wisdom each time and reflect on what I have found. Each “spiritual exercise” that I record may be based on a random page of the Meditations or on a more structured reading of a chapter in Epictetus or one of Seneca’s letters. It seems not to matter. The ancient texts are so rich that I always find something of value, and I’m using the wonders of the modern blog to impose some semblance of order by categorising and tagging common themes in the posts. As well as being a source of satisfaction to me, I hope this collection of ancient Stoic insights will be of value to others.