The Stoics have always been known for their commitment to preparation.
Think of Cato immunizing himself against future hardship by inviting insults and leaving his home barefoot, or Seneca advising Lucilius that “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress.”
The old saying “sweat more in peace, bleed less in war” is apt to convey their mindset.
There is also the story of Admiral James Stockdale, the fighter pilot who studied Stoicism for years before his plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965.
“Five years down there, at least,” he said to himself as he parachuted down to the reality of what would become a seven-year ordeal as a prisoner of war. “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
Stockdale later revealed that his knowledge of the Stoic principles, and his adherence to them, were key in his leadership of his fellow captives. Following his release, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Like these great examples that have gone before us, we can’t hope to benefit from Stoic principles if we don’t practice them. They can’t help us make decisions if we don’t prepare.
We need to regularly remind ourselves what the Stoics said so that their advice comes to us automatically when it is needed:
The character of those things you often think about will be the character of your understanding, for the mind is dyed by its thoughts. Dip it, therefore, in a succession of thoughts such as these: for instance, that where it is possible to live, it is also possible to live well.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.16
Through this constant revision we gain the Stoic virtue of wisdom – the knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent:
It is clear to you, Lucilius, I know, that no one can live happily or even tolerably without the study of wisdom. Wisdom, when achieved, produces a happy life; wisdom only begun still makes life bearable. But this idea must be strengthened and driven deeper by daily study; it is harder to stick to the resolutions you have already made than to make noble new ones.Seneca, Epistles 16.1
It’s obvious that regularly reading and re-reading books on Stoicism will help us absorb the teachings, but what other practical ways are there to get wisdom to sink in?
Here are some ideas.
Good maxims, if you keep them often in mind, will be just as beneficial as good examples. Pythagoras says that our minds are altered when we enter a temple, see the images of the gods close at hand, and await the utterance of some oracle. And who will deny that even the most ignorant may be powerfully struck by certain sayings? Statements such as these, concise but weighty: “Nothing to excess.” “No wealth can satisfy the covetous.” “You must expect others to treat you as you treat them.”Seneca, Epistles 94.42–43
Just as Seneca wrote above, a short quote or maxim is often as effective as a long passage or story in understanding and remembering an idea.
With this in mind, we can collect important Stoic ideas through our favorite quotes and then make an effort to internalize them with some simple daily reminders.
The conservative estimate is that you’ll unlock your phone about 80 times today. If it takes you 3-4 seconds to pick up and unlock your phone, that’s about 5 minutes a day just looking at the static lock screen.
Rather than looking at a default wallpaper each time, you could use a Stoic one to keep reminding yourself of a particular principle.
And the good news is there are loads you can download for free here!
Another way to use your phone is to set up reminder notifications. Just enter the text you want to be reminded of and it’ll pop up on your screen at your chosen time.
You can make these recur daily or even have multiple different reminders for specific days.
If you’re into digital minimalism you might not use your phone enough to get the benefit of a Stoic wallpaper or reminder notification.
Hats off to you if you’ve mastered that addiction!
What you could do instead is go old school. Write the quote or maxim you want to be reminded of on a post-it note and stick it somewhere you’ll keep seeing it as you go about your day.
If you try these ideas out you’ll soon find yourself remembering key Stoic principles that you might not have done before. Like the Stoics, like James Stockdale, through your preparation you’ll be able to call upon this wisdom almost automatically when it comes time to make difficult decisions.
This kind of assistance in decision-making, this self-knowledge of what our principles are, is the benefit of having a “philosophy of life.”
If you try to live without a philosophy of life, you will find yourself extemporizing your way through your days. As a result, your daily efforts are likely to be haphazard, and your life is likely to be misspent. What a waste!William B Irvine, The Stoic Challenge