A Stoic Self-Dedication
In Stoicism, the attitude of mindfulness is fundamental. Musonius Rufus even went to so far as to say that “to relax the mind is to lose it." Specifically, a vigilance regarding how we select pursuits, make resolutions, give assent to impressions, even how we handle desires and aversions, is in fact what it means to be a Stoic. Having a clear idea of how to evaluate all of these choices rationally is the challenge of living a Stoic life. From ancient times, therefore, Stoic teachers have provided their students with exercises in the formulation of rules of life which could then be kept 'close at hand'.
In this way Stoics could practice their Art of Living on a constant basis by applying the key Stoic principles to everyday circumstances. In this way they could “[engage] in a process of transforming [their] character (êthos) and soul (psuchê), a transformation that would itself transform [their] way of life (bios).” This is essentially the transformation of Stoic theory into knowledge through experience, the central tenet of Stoic philosophy as an Art. With so much depending on correct practice, attention and evaluation, it was critical that what they 'had at hand' were correct and easily understood principles. Enter the Stoic Mneme.
The Mneme (pronounced neemee) is a powerful reminder of what it means to be a Stoic. It is an encapsulated, summarized distillation of Stoic teachings and practices. That being said, the Mneme is not the first thing one attempts to create when learning the Art of the Stoic Life. It is a more advanced exercise, one undertaken by a student who has already understood the fundamentals of Stoic practice. The Mneme is created, or more properly drawn from, the student's experience and knowledge of Stoic Teachings. The true purpose of the Mneme is to bring back to mind all of the Stoic principles and teachings the student has absorbed to date, especially with a view to increasing their practice in the student's life.
The usefulness of the Mneme is to place our daily experiences in the context of Stoic principles and practices. This memorization and meditation exercise is intended to provide us with a readjustment, a course correction if you will, that will allow us to maintain our equanimity, or if lost, to regain it quickly.
The Mneme in Ancient Stoicism
While there is no exercise in ancient Stoic literature that is explicitly referred to as 'The Stoic Mneme', there is quite a bit of evidence to support its use in modern Stoic practice. Mneme (Μνήμη) is actually the name of the Greek Muse of Memory, and the word has come to be synonymous with memory itself. It is related to the Latin word for reminder 'memento.' The Stoic Mneme is an admonition to remember.
Xenophon, one of Socrates' biographers, wrote that it was the constant practice of philosophical principles that kept alive the influence of the teacher. In the same way, Stoics derived some of their own practices from continuous consideration of how the Sage would behave in various circumstances. In this way, Stoics could concentrate their attention and memory on specific principles, and would serve as a substitute for actually having a role model or Sage at hand.
Epictetus constantly reminds his students to commit Stoic teachings to memory, bringing these continually to mind in order to apply them in their day to day lives.
"Having these thoughts always at hand, and engrossing yourself in them when you are by yourself, and making them ready for use, you will never need any one to comfort and strengthen you." (Discourses, 3.24.115).
Marcus Aurelius repeats formulas and mental images to himself throughout his Meditations in an effort to apply them to his daily experiences. Both Epictetus and Seneca speak of digestion to emphasize the repetitive nature of internalizing and expressing the Stoic precepts. Even Arrian's Handbook, itself an example of a collection of such formulas, warns us that we should not claim to be 'philosophers' but instead prove what we are by our actions.
"For sheep do not bring their fodder to the shepherds to show how much they have eaten, but digest their food internally, and produce wool and milk externally. And so you likewise should not display your principles to laymen, but rather show them the actions that result from these principles once they have been digested." (Handbook, 46)
The Stoic Mneme is not meant to be merely a verbal formulation of Stoic precepts. It is intended to be memorized and internalized, but more importantly, it is meant to be manifested as a change in our behaviour and in our choices. It is therefore very important that as practicing Stoics we have extremely clear and simple reminders of our central precepts in an easily remembered form, precisely so that it is easily accessible and can be applied frequently in order to develop the sureness and constancy of a reflex.
Support in Modern Psychology
“The psychology of memorization, among other things, requires that we utilize (positive) rhetoric in the service of philosophy, and employ our imaginations in as vivid and concrete a manner as possible, turning what might seem at first to be an abstract intellectual principle into a fully-fledged "visualization technique" of the kind found in modern psychotherapy.”
The memorization of Stoic precepts requires constant practice and repetition, like memorizing the lyrics to a song, or lines from a poem. It is actually in the intentional and focused repetition of the Mneme, and in its application to real life experiences, that the practice of mindfulness finds its full fruition. Like the affirmations and rational statements of belief of modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the Mneme is repeated and rehearsed until it is integrated into the student's very character, and it can easily recalled in the face of adversity.
We need to formulate our Mneme in a powerful way in order to make it something that moves us when we remember it. It cannot be allowed to fall into a mere routine repetition of pretty words. The rhythm of metrical poetry, the striking sound of concise and powerful words, the succinct paraphrasing of vast concepts, all of these and more besides offer both intellectual and aesthetic hooks to encourage us to remember. When we do this successfully, we keep our daily experiences "before our eyes," while at the same time seeing them in the light of the core Stoic principles.
It is important to remember, however, that the Mneme is not the culmination of Stoic practice. This exercise requires constant input. The principles and practices that form the basis of the Mneme must be kept fresh, and even built upon. It is therefore very important to continue Stoic studies throughout the student’s life, through reading and re-reading philosophical texts, the practice of Stoic meditations and mental exercises, and even to the adoption of the physical regimen that the Stoics recommended. The Mneme itself will need to be refreshed as rewritten as the student grows and experiences new insights in the Stoic Art of Life.
* The Stoic Mneme exercise was first introduced to me by Erik Weigardt of the College of Stoic Philosophers. It constitutes one of the final exercises in the Stoic Essentials Studies course, which comes highly recommended to those who have a continuing interest in Stoic practice. My thanks to Erik for this and any more insights and practical applications of the Stoic Art of Living.
1 John Sellars, The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, Ond edition, OMMV), OP.
2 Arnold I. Davidson, Spiritual Exercises and Ancient Philosophy: An Introduction to Pierre Hadot, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 3. (Spring, 1990), p. 477.
3 Donald Robertson, The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy(London: Karnac Books, September 2010)