The Stoics were all about routine and repetition. It wasn’t just about knowing what the right thing was, it was about doing it daily. Fueling the habit bonfire, they said. It was about creating muscle memory.
They would have agreed with Aristotle—that we are what we repeatedly do, what we do in practice is how we play when it’s gametime. We become what we repeatedly study and focus on.
Epictetus said that philosophy was something that should be kept at hand every day and night. Indeed, the title of his book Enchiridion actually means “small thing in hand,” or handbook. Seneca, for his part, talked about repeatedly diving back into the great texts of history—rather than chasing every new or exciting thing published. We quoted him on that exact idea last week. “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works,” he said, “if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”
One of the reasons we wrote The Daily Stoic was to help accomplish just that. We thought it was pretty remarkable that despite more than two thousand years of popularity, no one had ever put the best of the Stoics in one book—let alone one that was easy to carry, read and study. It’s been pretty incredible to see the success it’s had since its release in 2016, having now sold well over a half million copies in more than a dozen languages. The book has spent more weeks on the bestseller list than any other book about Stoicism ever. In celebration of that—to help encourage another year of Stoicism for you and everyone you know, the ebook is $1.99 in the US (and on sale in the UK) for the next week if you haven’t picked one up yet!
Of course, the success of the book is a reflection of the power of Stoic teachings more than anything else. But it’s also a testament to the power of combining the right idea with the right medium. Marcus Aurelius was a brilliant mind and a beautiful writer, but his Meditations is not organized in any coherent way. While Marcus acknowledges many other Stoics, including Epictetus, neither Marcus nor Epictetus acknowledge Seneca in the writings they left, even though Epictetus was also in proximity to Nero’s court at the same time. What we have from Epictetus is really a collection of quotes and highlights from his lectures jotted down by his student Arrian, and what we have of Arrian’s work is only half of what originally existed. Just ploughing straight through those writings is, for many, not the best way to digest the philosophy—it’s almost un-Stoic in its disorderliness.
Good practice is not random. It is organized.
Stoicism is designed to be a practice and a routine. It’s not a philosophy you read once and magically understand at the soul-level. No, it’s a lifelong pursuit that requires diligence and repetition and concentration. (Pierre Hadot called it spiritual exercising). That’s one of the benefits of the page-a-day (with monthly themes) format we organized the Stoics into (and the weekly themes in The Daily Stoic Journal). It’s putting one important thing up for you to review—to have at hand—and to fully digest. Not in passing. Not sporadically. But every single day over the course of a year, and preferably year in and year out. And if Epictetus is right, it’s something you’re supposed to keep within reach at all times—which is why a collection of the greatest hits, presented daily, was so appealing to us.
So here we are, beginning 2020, and we hope you’ll give The Daily Stoic a chance, in print or with this discounted ebook. And that you’ll pick up journaling with The Daily Stoic Journal or some other notebook. Or make your own greatest hits and your own study plan of the Stoics that you keep and carry with you wherever you go this year.
Because if 2020 is anything like 2019, you’re going to need it.
In Greek mythology, the god Apollo curses the Trojan princess, Cassandra, with the power of accurate prophecy that will always be ignored. In Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, Cassandra is brought back to Greece after the capture of Troy as one of the great spoils of war. Unlike Agamemnon, who is happy to be home, Cassandra predicts ominous deaths for both herself and her new master.
“I know that odor,” she says, “I smell the open grave.” She warns him that death is near, but he won’t listen. Agamemnon ignores the obvious signs and walks right into a trap—taking her with him. Soon enough, they are both murdered by Clytemnestra, his jealous, cheating wife.
Cassandra might not be real, but the essential truth of her warning to Agamemnon is real enough: Memento mori. The grave is dug and waiting for each us. We know this, it was prophesied to us at birth—that one day we would die—and yet we go around living as if that isn’t true. We spend our time as if we have an infinite amount of it, as if someone isn’t waiting to steal our kingdom like Clytemnestra.
A new year sits before us, but how many of us are holding our noses? Plugging our ears? Closing our eyes? Pretending as if we know for certain that we have plenty more left. Blithely acting as if nothing threatens us, as if we can afford to be entitled and unprepared. As Marcus said, we could leave life right now. We could leave life this week, this year, this morning. Are you ready? Have you been living with that in mind? ? Or have you been in denial?
Do not wait for the doctor to deliver the prophecy to you a second time: You have cancer. You have leukemia. We’re not able to stop the bleeding. It will be too late when you hear these words. You’ll never get back what you wasted.
Don’t ignore Cassandra’s warning. Do not doom yourself to a rude awakening—or rather a very rude and sudden sleep. Be ready. Be prepared. Listen. Live. While you still can.