On Ritualized Daily Stoic Practice


My academic background is anthropology and linguistics.  Although my current job is pretty far from these, that perspective is still one lens through which I view culture and societies.  To my knowledge, no culture exists without rituals.

For most folks, the term ritual evokes the image of religion (which is a borderline four-letter word on some sites and blogs these days).  While it’s true that religions generally have rituals, we have many secular ones as well.  Getting a driver’s license tends to have ritual significance as a coming of age rite, graduations are heavily and careful prescribed activities (even with ritual garments, gestures, talismans, and music).  Weddings, even at the court house, and on and on.  The story of human life is punctuated with ritual.

There are several reasons why a modern Stoic should consider ritualizing his or her practice.  Ritual and symbolism speak to the human mind in a way that overt, language-based impressions do not.  Rituals build a sense of seriousness and solemnity to activities; like the Japanese Tea Ceremony.  Rituals help make sure that we are doing complex things in a prescribed manner.  How many of us learned to tie our shoes and cross the street with ritualistic formalism?   Maybe even a parable about a rabbit?

When we undertake certain things with a ritual mindset, we learn it in a way that fossilizes the thing acquired.  In doing “philosophy as a way of life” we are endeavoring to untrain and retrain certain reactions which we have spent decades reinforcing.  No small thing, that.

Ritualizing our daily practices will build regularity, seriousness, and competence in our chosen endeavors.  Just like we train in a gym or a dojo in a specific manner before we’re expected to use those skills in a more serious context, rituals will help us prepare in the relative security of the philosophical school before we go out into the world to test what we’ve learned.

If we want to learn to box, we start in a gym; we don’t go pick a fight with Ronda Rousey.

Epictetus advises us to “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake in little things, and thence proceed to greater.

Ritualizing our practice is one way to do that.

It’s not my intent to lay out an entire scheme of things to ritualize, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty work most folks would rather do on their own.  But everything from clothing, meals, scholarly activities, etc. can be imbued with that special quality and signification of the ritual.

One of the biggest challenges for me, is figuring out how to inculcate Stoic practice, and effectively “automate” their use.  When it occurs to me use a Stoic technique, I’m pretty successful at using it.  The hard part, is gaining that little bit of time to remember to do the thing!  Ritual helps with that.

Musonius was big on habits.  It’s fair to say that Musonius believe that building good habits was the foundation of virtuous living.  While the classical Stoics all agreed that virtue was a sort of episteme or knowledge; building that justified belief into real actions is also important.  For Musonius, that was habits, hands down.

Ritualizing our practice builds habits.

As many a coach has said, “perfect practice makes perfect, practice just makes permanent.”  By building specific and prescribed rituals we will be doing the former, and hopefully the latter.

Do you already have something akin to “Stoic rituals” in your daily practice?  If so, what are they?  If not, what are some fertile grounds for that particular seed?

3 thoughts on “On Ritualized Daily Stoic Practice

  1. The other advantage to ritual is that it fosters attention: typically, when people carry out a ritual, they are paying close attention to what they are doing. This may have been one of the reasons that Confucius emphasized ritual so heavily. A life of rituals is a life of careful, intentional activity.

    “It’s not my intent to lay out an entire scheme of things to ritualize, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty work most folks would rather do on their own.”

    Maybe. Maybe not. Rituals seem to take on more significance if they are shared. There is something particularly inspiring about carrying out a ritual that one knows that is shared with people in other places and over a long period of time. In any case, I’m not sure we all have the knack for developing rituals, so I hope you’ll consider sharing some examples from your own life as teaching aids.

  2. I bookend my days with morning and evening Stoic rituals. Every morning, during rests between my morning physical exercise, I read a selection from Marcus’ “Meditations.” While taking the bus to the school where I work, I repeat the things that aren’t “up to me” and rehearse the things that are “up to me.” As a teacher, I also find this to be a good time to engage in some premeditatio malorum about what could happen in my classrooms and how I could respond in as Stoic a way as possible.

    At the end of the day, I write in two journals: the first is where I go through Seneca’s exercise of “What illness have I cured? What failing have I resisted? and What needs improvement?” The second is more like my own “Meditations,” wherein I attempt to reinforce some Stoic ideal through meditating on a particular event from my day, after re-reading the same selection from Marcus I’d read in the morning.

  3. I do what Ross does. Start the day by picking a praecept that I “refresh” during the day. I also do the New Stoa stick exercises for heath and mindfulness. I add a quick contemplation of the malorum nature and I go over my daily schedule and tasks, baking reserve clauses into the major meetings. I do all this in an electronic form (e.g. OneNote or Evernote) so I can access it during the day and refresh my memory.
    That is the hardest part, not to forget what you resolved to in the morning, but keep it fresh. For that purpose I created a few triggers. They are not perfect but they work. I would love to hear what others have to say. One trigger is the hourly chime on my digital watch. So on the top of the hour it chimes – I rehease the praecept for the day. I then added two “refresher” section. At lunch (Hora Sponde) I reread what I wrote in the morning. I do this on my smartphone, This is where synching between a PC and a smartphone pays of quickly. I also do a similar review right after work on my way home (Hora Hesperides).
    In addition, I use a playlist on my phone or computer. Ever few tunes I have a baroque piece. I associate baroque music with its mathematical determinism somehow with the sympathetic order of the stoic cosmos. So when the baroque music comes up, my praecept is “at hand”.
    In the evening I review the day the same way Ross does, a pretty standard stoic techne.

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