Towards a Stoic ‘Ritual Life’
by Michel Daw
The importance of ritual in the formation and stability in personal, familial and social life has been well examined and documented over the years. Mounds of research into the uses and abuses of ritual, and its impact, have been created at the hands of the faithful, the philosopher, the sociologist, the anthropologist and the psychologist. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to why we seem to need ritual in our lives.
Stoicism, if it is to be adopted as ‘Rule of Life’, or as the ancient Stoics actually termed it, an ‘Art of Living’, needs to be both deeply studied and broadly applied. It is in the latter that the greatest challenges arise for the modern adherent. The study of Stoicism is well populated with such luminaries as Julia Annas, Susanne Bobzien, Jacques Brunschwig, Brad Inwood, and Malcolm Schofield, to name only a few. Some authors have even delved into ancient Stoic practice, including John Sellars, Pierre Hadot, A.A. Long, and Margaret Graver. A very few, such as Lawrence Becker, William Irvine and Keith Seddon, have attempted to extend that into a modern practice.
The challenge remains however. With all of the theory, and even the advice, that is available to us how does one actually incorporate these practices into daily living? So much is lost to us from the ancient school. The practice of Stoicism which once swayed an empire and provided the foundation to one of the most powerful religions on the planet, has been reduced to fragments and a handful of books. We are left with a few tantalizing hints of its training and practice however. Marcus Aurelius would suggest a regular practice such as “When you rise in the morning…” Seneca was fond of his “Evening reflection.” Even Arrian’s Handbook of the teaching of Epictetus give a strong indication of a ‘mantra’ like study and reflection of Stoic themes. But there isn’t any system to it. We have lists of curriculum topics (physics, logic, ethics), but not the curriculum. We have evidence of a Stoic program, but not the program itself. For modern Stoics, there is no “Stoic Bible.” As moderns, there is not even a central Stoic voice that speaks for all Stoics and provides interpretation and application of the texts that remain to us.
And nor do I think there should be. Stoicism is not a prescriptive religion, if it falls into the definition of religion at all. The way we are considering it, it is not even a practice. It is an Art. As any art, it is in many ways free flowing, adaptable to circumstance and situation, growing to fill the space in one’s life that is made available to it. And like any art, it isn’t mere chaos either. It is comprised of a set of principles and practices, any one of which can be selected at a particular time to respond to a specific set of circumstances, as the painter selects medium and brush, or a choreographer chooses a dancer and the steps they will perform, or a composer the key, rhythm and instruments. This is what being a Stoic is like. It is choosing from one’s palette of learned disciplines and applying it to a given situation.
It is in learning the disciplines, and in their application, that the ritual aspect of Stoicism can be brought forward. The principle of Stoic Mindfulness can be developed through the practice of self-reflective Journalling. The principle of the Stoic’s awareness and acceptance of the rightness of their mortality can be developed through the practice of the Memento Mori. The Stoic principle of seeing via universal perspective can be developed through the Fourfold Meditation. Even the Stoic philosophy as a whole can be captured and internalized through the development and recitation of the Stoic Mneme.
To that end, I have begun a project, an attempt to capture a range of practices for Stoics, in order to provide for myself, and eventually for others, a palette from which I can choose. The rites and rituals captured in the slowly evolving “Meditations, Celebrations and Solemn Occasions” are meant to be guidelines, suggestions, and spring boards to further reflection. They aren’t meant to be prescriptive. But for me, like my personal Mneme, they will lead me to greater depths of experience, greater heights of understanding and a greater breadth of life than a mere random set of actions and reactions could ever hope to.
We are all, already, slaves to ritual and habit. As Og Mandino once said, “If I must be a slave to habit, let me be a slave to good habits.” And, I would add, to habits of my own choosing, established by rituals of my own design.
Originally appearing at Living the Stoic Life.