Stoicism and the ancient art of memorization


This is an excerpt from my first book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, which explores how people use practices from ancient Greek philosophies in modern life.

James Stockdale was a young fighter pilot flying bombing missions over North Vietnam, when his F-8 airplane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Stockdale ejected out and, as he parachuted down to the village below, he said to himself: “I’m leaving the world of technology, and entering the world of Epictetus.”

When his parachute landed, angry villagers attacked him and broke his leg so badly he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He was then taken to Hoa Lo prison, where he spent the next seven years of his life. As the senior Naval officer in the prison, he was in charge of organising the other inmates, their tactics and their escape bids. He was also first in line for torture, and was tortured 15 times, put in solitary confinement for over four years, and kept in leg irons for two years.

Within this extreme and disorientating environment, the teachings of Epictetus came back to him. He had come across Epictetus when he was studying philosophy at Stanford University, and his philosophy professor had handed him a copy of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, or Handbook. Stockdale had felt an immediate kinship with Stoic philosophy, and kept the Handbook, and Epictetus’ Discourses, on his bedside throughout his three seven-month tours on aircraft carriers off the coast of Vietnam.

Because he had read and memorised certain key passages of Epictetus, he had them “at hand” to deal with life in the POW prison. He remembered many of the “attitude-shaping remarks” (as he puts it) that Epictetus had said, and they helped him cope with his adverse circumstances.

He remembered, above all, the first sentence of the Handbook: “Some things are up to us, and others are not.” Like Viktor Frankl and Rhonda Cornum, he used this basic insight to work out how to survive his incarceration. He accepted that most of his life was out of his control, but that his own character, dignity and self-respect was in his control, and no one could take it away from him.

He also remembered the Stoic maxim that if you are attached to externals, which are not in our control, then you will necessarily be subject to others. He remembered the lines said by Epictetus:

A man’s master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others, else he must necessarily become a slave.

These lines, he later said, “constitute the real core of what a person needs in order to understand the POW situation”. He refused to show fear before his torturers: “I would chant under my breath on the way to interrogation…’Your eyes must show no fear, they must show no guilt’.” He refused to show his torturers that he was afraid of dying, because if they saw that he was, then they would have power over him, and he would be their slave: “Their threats had no meaning unless you felt fear.”

He remembered the retort that Epictetus made to a student who complained that he had no choice in a situation: “That’s not right. You had a choice and you made it.” Or as Epictetus put it elsewhere: “The robber of your free will does not exist.” The POWs had choices, even in such a constrained and coercive environment. They could choose how they bore their confinement, they could choose to “play well the given part”, as Epictetus put it. Or they could choose to hand over their dignity and self-respect to their interrogators.

He remembered the Stoic saying: “Difficulties are what show men’s characters.” And he resolved to use the situation of his incarceration to show what he was made of.

Through his memory of Epictetus’ insights, Stockdale was able to maintain his sense of autonomy and dignity. He was not broken by fear, or shame, or guilt, as his North Vietnamese interrogators were hoping he would be. He refused ever to bow to his guards, or to be paraded to foreign visitors to show how well POWs were treated, or to go on Vietnamese state TV saying he accepted the principles of Marxist-Leninism. He declared and maintained his spiritual independence.

The art of memory

Ancient Greek philosophy was designed to be remembered, so that it could be “at hand” when we were confronted with tumultuous situations like the one Stockdale found himself in. The teachings of Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics and Platonists were often contained in short, pithy maxims which were easily remembered, and which would therefore come to mind when you were out in the field.

Many of these maxims have come down to us today: “Know thyself”, “life is but what you deem it”; “nothing to excess”; “it’s not events, but our opinions about them, that cause us suffering”; “be the captain of your soul”; “no one can harm you without your permission”; “difficulties are what show men’s characters”, and so on.

The student memorises these sayings, writes them down in their journal, repeats them to themselves, and carries them around — that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand”.

We repeat the maxims until “through daily meditation [we] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord”, as Seneca put it. We assimilate them into our inner dialogue, and make them a “part of oneself”. The teachings become merged with our “tissue and blood”, part of our “body”. We become the Logos made flesh.

Plutarch writes:

You must learn the principles in such a constant way that whenever your desires, appetites and fears awake like barking dogs, the Logos will speak like the voice of the master who silences his dogs with a single cry.

These short principles, maxims or persuasive arguments can be marshalled at an instant, like the “weapons in an armoury”, as the neo-Stoic Justius Lipsius puts it, or like the doctors’ scalpel kept “handy for emergencies”, as Aurelius says.

Epicureans likewise used short, pithy maxims, like the tetrapharmakos, or four-fold remedy which they repeated to themselves as a mantra:

There is no need to fear God,
Nor worry about death.
What is good is readily attainable,
And what is bad is easily endured.

And the Pythagoreans would repeat certain phrases, or visualise certain images to themselves, in order to bring to mind complex ideas in a simple way — for example, they would repeat the precept “poke not the fire with a sword”, which was a proverb meaning don’t provoke an angry person with further criticism; or they would say to themselves “eat not the heart”, which meant don’t wallow in self-pity.

The trainee surrounds himself or herself with these maxims. They write them down in notebooks. They carve them into the wall. They write them on post-its and stick them to their computer. They frame them and hang them up. They remind themselves of them as often as possible, so that the teachings become a part of their inner dialogue.

Similar techniques of memorization and auto-suggestion have often been used by other spiritual traditions: eastern religions and philosophies use the mantra, for example, which is repeated for hours until the trainee is in a trance state. The repetition of the mantra imprints the principles of a religion or philosophy onto the trainee’s mind, and also supposedly creates certain energies through its noise and vibration.

In Judaism, we see a similar use of short, easily-remembered phrases — the Ten Commandments, of course, but also the Book of Proverbs, which is full of memorable sayings like ‘a man who is kind benefits himself, while a cruel man harms himself’, or ‘a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls’.

Again and again, the author(s) of Proverbs tells the reader to pay heed, to listen, to remember, until the teachings become inscribed on our mind and absorbed into our body:

My son, keep my words
And treasure up my commandments with you;
Keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
Bind them to your fingers
Write them on the tablet of your heart.

Similar techniques of memorisation and repetition were used by the early Christian monks. Dorotheus of Gaza, for example, tells his students: “If you wish to possess these sayings at the opportune moment, meditate on them constantly.” And modern Christianity, particularly in the US, still practises memorization techniques, indeed, in some faith schools, memorizing large passages from the Bible has become something of a competitive sport.

Meanwhile, the ancient Greek techniques of repetition and auto-suggestion have had a rather colourful history in the modern self-help movement.

The ancient techniques were ‘re-discovered’ by Emile Coué, a French psychologist working at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, around the same time as Freud, who made his own discoveries and theories about hypnosis and auto-suggestion.

Coué declared that the mind could make whatever it thought into a reality — it could think itself into health, wealth and happiness, or think itself into misery, sickness and destitution, simply through whatever it repeated to itself. This secret, he said, had been discovered by the ancient Greeks:

is it not clear that by means of thought we are the absolute masters of our physical organism and that, as the Ancients showed centuries ago, thought — or suggestion — can and does produce diseases or cure it? Pythagoras taught the principle of auto-suggestion to his disciples…The Ancients well knew the power — often the terrible power — contained in the repetition of a phrase or formula. The secret of the undeniable influence they exercised through the old Oracles resided probably, may, certainly, in the force of suggestion.

Therefore, in order to make oneself happy, healthy and rich, it is only necessary to endlessly repeat to oneself positive affirmations. So Coué suggested we repeat to ourselves, each morning: “Every day, and in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

Coué’s ideas had a big impact on something called the New Thought movement, which blossomed in the US in the 1910s and 1920s, and which shared the idea that thoughts and words make reality. If you want to be successful, just think and repeat successful self-affirming statements. You can do or be anything you want to be, the New Thought movement insisted. Just say the magic words, and it will be so.

And, in keeping with the boom years that preceded the Great Crash of 1929, the dominant thought of the New Thought movement was how to become rich. One of its most famous publications was The Science Of Getting Rich, published in 1910 by Wallace D. Wattles. The book begins with the wonderfully brash opening: “Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich.”

And the way to be rich is simply to think rich, to feel rich, to repeat self-affirming statements of richness until the money magically rolls in. For “a thought produces the thing that is imaged by the thought”. So one simply has to repeat statements like “I am successful in whatever I do” or “Everything is getting better every day” until one really believes them, and, abracadabra, it will be so.

So the New Thought movement adapted ancient techniques designed to know God, in order to acquire wealth and power. Wattles declares, in a twisted parody of the ancients: “You must dwell upon this until it is fixed in your mind, and has become your habitual thought. Read this creed over and over again, fix every word upon your memory and meditate upon them until you firmly believe them.”

The New Thought movement enjoyed a huge renaissance in the years since the 1980s, fittingly enough, when the economy once again boomed, when the stock market once again turned into an enormous speculative bubble, and it once again appeared to the credulous masses that you only had to think positive thoughts and you would be rich.

Self-help and motivational teachers like Anthony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne, Neale Donald Walsch, Zig Ziglar and others, helped create a hundred-million-dollar industry based on the idea that by repeating certain affirmation statements to ourselves, or playing them over and over to ourselves on CDs or MP3s, we can do whatever we want to do and magically attract wealth and success to ourselves. We can be a winner:

Listen to this motivational CD every time you get in a car, when you get up in the morning, and before going to bed at night. Tell yourself: ‘I am a top-producing, successful salesperson.’

The universe, in this vision of existence, becomes a giant supermarket, and all we have to do is place our order. Marketing guru Joe Vitali, who features prominently in Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book and movie, The Secret, sums it up well:

It is like having the Universe as your catalogue. You flip through it and say, ‘I’d like to have this experience and I’d like to have that product, and I’d like to have a person like that.’ It is you placing your order with the Universe. It’s really that easy.

Now this school of thought has been rightly criticised as peddling vapid, self-deluding positivity. It is clearly the product of a society grown intoxicated with affluence and consumerism, a spoilt, infantile society, that thinks it can get whatever it wants, without limits. The sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich has gone so far as to blame this cult of positive thinking for the Credit Crunch, and while this might be a bit extreme, it is perhaps no accident that the New Thought movement has typically prospered shortly before spectacular stock market crashes.

Similar criticisms have also been levelled at CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, whose founders were directly influenced by Stoicism). The British psychologist Oliver James says CBT creates “rose-tinted bubbles of positive illusions”. He says: “The CBT patient is taught to tell themselves a story, a relentlessly positive one.”

The psychoanalyst Darian Leader likewise accuses CBT of being superficial, consumerist, quick-fix, and has even gone so far as to accuse the British government of Maoist-style brainwashing through its support for CBT, because (he says) CBT makes the mentally ill repeat positive statements until they are conditioned into zombie-like acceptance of their ant-like status in the modern capitalist state.

Are these criticisms of CBT fair?

It is true that CBT also draws on the ancient philosophical exercises of repetition, memorisation and auto-suggestion, in order to replace negative and irrational habits with more philosophical habits. It uses hand-outs, coping statements, power phrases, and also advocates the use of tapes, MP3s, and handbooks that one carries around so that the therapeutic ideas are always ‘at hand’.

Indeed, Lord Layard, the British government adviser who secured over £100mn in government funding for CBT, tells the following anecdote:

The most striking experience I’ve had in the last few years was when the chief executive of a mental health trust … said his life had been saved by CBT … He said he is a fully fledged bipolar case but he has not had a day off work for the last 15 years. He has a little book, which he carries around and whenever he has funny thoughts coming into his mind, he turns to the relevant page, according to what kind of thought it is or if he has a mood attack, and he does exactly what it says on the page. Now, you could say that’s mechanical. I say that it’s brilliant and not so different, you know, from what Jesus or any other great healer did for people.

This sort of repetition of phrases and quotes strikes some commentators as brain-washing. Darian Leader commented:

Mao would perhaps have liked this story, and hoped that the little book was his own. And indeed, cognitive therapy was perhaps used most widely in the Cultural Revolution in China, where people were taught that depression was just wrong thinking. The world should be thought about in a different way, and happiness and enthusiasm replace despair and despondency.

But the technique does not come from consumerist America, nor from communist China. It comes from ancient Greece. Indeed, it was Marcus Aurelius who first suggested we could brainwash ourselves through repetition. He wrote:

Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thought as, for example: ‘Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible.’ [my italics]

The Stoics believed there was no point in repeating affirmations that were unrealistic or untrue. There’s no point brainwashing yourself to believe you can do whatever you want to do. In fact, the Stoics are very clear that we don’t have full control over things that happen in the outside world. All our external projects are prey to fortune, and fortune is fickle. People die. Houses burn down. Cities fall. Stock markets crash. Shit happens.

The only thing we have full control over is our own thoughts and how we interpret the outside world. Realising this, and taking responsibility for our thoughts, means we have a better chance of success in our external projects than we might previously have had, simply because we are no longer sabotaging ourselves with our own beliefs. But it doesn’t mean we will suddenly and magically become rich and famous.

The idea, peddled by Rhonda Byrne, that the likes of Plato, Socrates, Seneca and others could think themselves to fabulous external success is stupid. And so is the idea that bad events only happen to people who have bad thoughts (this is another popular New Thought concept).

If that was the case, why was Socrates forced to kill himself, or Seneca, or Cicero? Why was Jesus crucified? Why was Boethius executed? Why was the Dalai Lama forced to live in exile? Why was Viktor Frankl sent to Auschwitz? Why was James Stockdale tortured for seven years? Adverse events happen to good and wise people.

Even the founder of CBT had a pretty rough life. Albert Ellis grew up in the Depression, had a bipolar mother, a string of failed early careers, two failed marriages, and at the end of his life, in his nineties, the other board members of the Albert Ellis Institute, in which he placed all his earnings, voted to kick him off the board, refused to pay his medical bills, and even refused to let Ellis teach at his own Institute or to set up another institute using his name.

Was he enraged by this treatment of him? Did it break his spirit? No, because he realised that other people were out of his control, and that the members of his institute’s board were “fucked up, fallible people, just like everyone else”. He didn’t think that he was deprived of his home, his wealth, even his name, because he hadn’t thought positively enough. He thought it was one of those adverse situations that occasionally arise in this fucked-up world.

The world, the Stoics insisted, is a rough, violent place, where most people are crazy, and bad people often come into positions of power, but they also insisted that only we can truly harm ourselves, and we can take care of ourselves, even amid adversity, by remembering the teachings and putting them into practice. It’s not what happens to you, as one Stoic maxim puts it. It’s how you bear it.

The universe, the Stoics believed, is not an IKEA catalogue. It is a wrestling teacher, and it sends you shit to deal with. That, perhaps, is why the worst things sometimes happen to the best people — because the universe says, OK, you think you’re wise and tough, try this.

You memorise the teachings and keep them at hand, so that you can withstand adversity, because shit happens, and you can’t always wish it away. That is not the same as positive thinking. Stockdale was once asked who didn’t make it out of the prison camp in Vietnam. He replied:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The idea that these memorisation techniques are ‘brainwashing’ in the sense of making you a passive zombie of governments is crazy. In fact, Stockdale used these techniques to withstand the Viet Cong’s attempts to brainwash him. And his example is still taught today, in the Green Berets’ academy at Fort Bragg, as part of its course in how to withstand interrogation.

Likewise, Stoicism was constantly used by its practitioners to resist the powerful, to give its students the strength and courage to resist Julius Caeser, or Nero, or Alexander, or whichever despot was in power. Stoics were incredibly brave, defiant, freedom-loving people, and about as far from passive zombies as one could imagine.

But they believed that there was more to life than discovering the ‘real you’ or nurturing the ‘unique snowflake’ of your personality. They believed there were impersonal laws by which one could live life, and by following the Logos, one discovered the ‘real you’ — which is God. The idea of following and absorbing these impersonal laws seems like brainwashing to us, because we are so addicted to the Romantic notion of the self as a unique snowflake.

You can never forcefully impose Stoic or CBT techniques onto others, can never ‘brainwash’ them, because the success of the therapy depends on someone rationally understanding and accepting the ideas behind the maxims and coping statements, and then working hard to put them into practice. If you don’t understand them, if you don’t accept that they are actually realistic, they will have little lasting effect.

Only you can take responsibility for yourself, so it’s pointless to try and brainwash other people into responsibility. Unless you genuinely want to change, and are prepared to work very hard, you won’t really change. That’s why Stoics never made attempts at mass conditioning, even when they were emperors.

Aurelius wrote: “Do not expect Plato’s ideal commonwealth…For who can hope to alter men’s convictions; and without change of conviction what can there be but grudging subjection and feigned assent?” Which is really all the communists in China, Korea or North Vietnam succeeded in creating through their attempts to ‘brainwash’ prisoners — “grudging subjection and feigned assent”.

It is equally unfair to accuse CBT of brainwashing people to be vacuously positive. Albert Ellis said:

Many people think that rational therapy is closely related to Emile Coué’s auto-suggestion…but it is actually just the reverse of these techniques in many ways. It is true that clients become emotionally disturbed largely because of their own negative thinking or auto-suggestion, and that is why they sometimes snap out of their depressions and anxieties quite quickly — if temporarily — when they are induced to do some kind of positive thinking or auto-suggestion.

But accentuating the positive is itself a false system of belief, since there is no scientific truth to the statements that ‘Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better’. In fact, this kind of Pollyannaism can be as pernicious as the negative claptrap which clients tell themselves to bring about neurotic conditions…

In other words, CBT and Stoicism don’t suggest only using auto-suggestion or coping statements to overcome emotional problems — they won’t work unless, firstly, the coping statements make rational sense; secondly, the patient understands and accepts the theory behind the coping statements; and thirdly, the patient puts their new beliefs to the test, via fieldwork, or behavioural exercises (which we examine in the next chapter).

CBT never tells its students to tell themselves ‘I am a winner, I can do anything I want, I can be rich, successful and famous’. That is promising some external outcome, and neither Stoicism nor CBT ever does that. But CBT may suggest that students repeat such coping statements as: ‘It’s great to succeed, but I can fully accept myself as a person even when I fail’. Or ‘It is not the end of the world if someone doesn’t like me. So what? Big deal.’

Don’t repeat endlessly to yourself: ‘I will achieve my goal, everything will turn out the way I want it to.’ Instead, say to yourself: ‘I will try my best, and God willing, things will work out like I want them to. But if they don’t, I can handle it.’ Both CBT and Stoicism try to build up an inner core of resilience which endures even when things don’t go our way.

I myself, when I was recovering from social anxiety, repeated CBT hand-outs, listened to CBT MP3s, and even carried around a little dog-eared CBT handbook in which I wrote key coping statements, power phrases and so on. And I felt like a real nerd, I can tell you, when I repeated these hand-outs to myself. I felt like a cheesy American salesman pumping myself up before a big sales conference.

But it worked. It wasn’t that I became an incredible go-getting winner who appeared on Oprah and made a fortune on the stock market. But I did become more accepting of failures, more able to shrug. The most powerful coping statement I learnt was ‘so what?’ These two words helped me feel less ashamed when I got a negative reaction from others or felt I hadn’t done well in some task. Because I felt less shame, I began to open up to the world, to be less defensive, to take more chances, and to feel happier with myself.

Barbara Ehrenreich writes: “What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, ‘shit happens’, including sometimes very, very bad stuff.” She’s absolutely right: we need the bumper stickers, because otherwise we keep forgetting, and keep getting rudely awakened.