Journaling for self-improvement is popular today but it builds on a tradition of moral self-examination that goes all the back to ancient Greece and Rome. This article describes a simple method of daily reflection, which was well-known in antiquity. It was first described in a poem called The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, based upon the doctrines of the famous 6th century BC philosopher. However, it was later assimilated into Stoicism, as we’ll see.
Arrian and Stoicism
The most famous Stoic teacher of all, Epictetus, wrote nothing. His words were transcribed and edited by a Roman citizen, called Arrian of Nicomedia, the capital city of Bithynia (in the northwest of modern-day Turkey). Arrian attended Epictetus’ lectures at Nicopolis in Greece, around 120 AD. He was later appointed senator, and reached the rank of consul, under the Emperor Hadrian, with whom he was most likely good friends.
Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.
Later, around 131 AD, Hadrian appointed Arrian the governor of Cappadocia (in the northeast of modern-day Turkey). As such, he assumed command of a provincial army, consisting of two legions, Legio XII Fulminata and Legio XV Apollinaris, numbering approximately 20,000 men in total, including auxiliaries. Arrian was, indeed, a highly-accomplished Roman statesman and general, an expert on cavalry training and tactics. Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.
Arrian became known as the second “Xenophon”, after a famous Athenian general and author who lived five centuries earlier. Xenophon was part of Socrates’ circle of friends and students, and left a collection of Socrates’ dialogues known as the Memorabilia Socratis. Arrian was also a prolific, erudite, and talented writer, who was clearly very interested in Epictetus’ philosophy. The relationship between him and Epictetus was like that between Xenophon and Socrates. Having transcribed eight volumes of the master’s discourses — only half of which survive — he acquired a very thorough understanding of Stoic teachings. Arrian also reputedly wrote twelve volumes of conversations with Epictetus and possibly even a biography of the philosopher, which are lost today.
In the Discourses, Arrian portrays Epictetus teaching a specific daily routine, which clearly lends itself to journaling (Discourses, 4.6). It’s a Stoic version of the method described in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras.