Stoic Serenity 3.4: Self-examination

For a rational creature, to act according to Nature and to act according to reason is one and the same.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.11)

Consider every word and action that is in line with Reason to be the one you should take. Do not be distracted by the criticism and gossip that may result. If it is the right thing to say or do, then it is the right action for you to take. The rest of the people have their own guiding center; they follow their own impulses. Don’t waste your energy worrying about their opinions. Keep your focus directly on your course; guide yourself with your own nature and follow the Universal Nature, for the two of these share the same path.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.3)

We’re finishing chapter 3 of Stoic Serenity (we will begin the related exercises next) and what it means to “live according to Nature.” Let’s review:

In order to live according to (Human) Nature, a person must:
          — value Virtue as intrinsically good.
          — consider external things as indifferent, and the appropriate ones as “preferred.”
          — seek the preferred indifferents with Virtue.

What are the Virtues for?

The Virtues allow us to:

  1. choose which preferred indifferents are appropriate for our individual selves to pursue.
  2. pursue the preferred indifferents in such a way that what we do is right and honorable.

Our ability to reason allows us to think out how to pursue things with Virtue. Reason also gives us the ability to see that Virtue is the only thing that’s intrinsically good, and even when we set out to pursue the indifferents, securing them is not what is important, but how we go about trying to secure them is the focus. When we pursue indifferents, more importantly than the procurement of the object is that while in pursuit of them, we acted justly toward others, faced hardship with courage, maintained self-restraint at all times, and engaged in affairs and chose our path through life wisely. If we act in ways fitting with this description, then the Stoics say we are moving closer to finding a peace of mind and “a smooth flow of life.”

Ahhh. Isn’t it nice when everything ties together nicely?


The practice of self-examination is central to Stoicism. Self-examination can be done by simply reflecting on your life, perhaps each morning or before you go to sleep. But as we (hopefully!) experienced in the Power Log exercise, writing daily reflections can be an extremely effective method of focusing the mind. Sometimes while even simply intending to write down basic notes of the day’s events, we may suddenly notice a connection or insight that we would not have thought of if we had just gone on our merry way without reflecting.

You cannot correct that which you do not know you’re doing incorrectly. You must catch your mistake before you can fix it.

(Based on Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 28.10)

Reflection and self-examination gives us an opportunity to step outside of ourselves and view our daily situations as an outsider, from a less-biased perspective. It gives us an honest opportunity to evaluate our actions and our character; to consider how we conduct ourselves and how we interact with other people. We need to take time out to step outside and evaluate how we are living, and from there we must counsel ourselves toward improvement, just as a friend might provide advice.

I am beginning to be my own friend.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 6.4)

Seneca also says later on in Letter 6 that if you can be a friend to yourself, then you can be a friend to everyone.

Have you noticed a change in yourself as you study philosophy? This last week, one of my best friends was telling me her frustrations over text message (we’re both introverts and hate talking on the phone, even with best friends, haha). She was basically frustrated with life and feeling discouraged. Normally she is the one giving me advice or words of encouragement. But for whatever reason, I feel like studying philosophy has helped me to even work rationally through other people’s “problems” and harmful thoughts, in addition to my own.

Consider this passage from Seneca’s Essay on Anger:

A person should summon their mind each day to give account of itself. The philosopher Sextius, whom I admired greatly, used to do this. At the end of the day when he had retired for the night, he would ask his mind: “What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?” … Can anything be better than this habit of sifting through the entire day? Think of the quality of sleep that follows the self-examination! How calm, deep, and unimpeded it must be, when the mind has been praised and admonished, and—its own watchman and censor—has taken secret inventory of its own habits.

I use this opportunity, daily pleading my case at my own court. When the lights are turned out and my wife has become silent (she’s aware of my habit), I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said. I keep nothing hidden from myself. I do not pass over anything. I have nothing to fear from my mistakes when I can say:

“Make sure you don’t do this anymore. At this point, I excuse you. In that argument, you spoke to aggressively. In the future, don’t have anything to do with ignorant people—those who have never learned don’t want to learn!”

“You were more blunt than you should have been in reprimanding that person. You did not help him—no, in fact, you only annoyed him. In the future, don’t only consider the truth of what you are saying, but also consider whether the person to whom you are saying it can endure the truth. While good men are glad to be admonished, the worse a man is, the more keenly he resents any guidance.”

(Seneca, On Anger 3.36.1-4)

Seneca makes a good case for self-examination. He makes it sound attractive and really beneficial!

Next, consider this excerpt in Letter 83, “On Drunkenness”:

You’ve requested that I give you an account of each separate day, and of the whole day. So you must have a good opinion of me if you think that in these recounts of my days, that I have nothing to hide. Regardless, we should live as we lived in plain sight of everyone. And our thoughts should be such as if there were someone who could look into our innermost souls. But there is someone who can look into our souls. What does it matter if something is hidden from humans? Nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls, and he enters into the very midst of our thoughts—He enters into them, I say, as one who may at any time depart. Therefore, I shall do as you ask. I shall gladly inform you by letter of what I am doing, and in what order. I shall keep watch over myself continually, and—a most useful habit—shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. We devote our thoughts only to what is immediately in front of us, but yet our future plans always depend on the past.

(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 83 “On Drunkenness” [first paragraph])

When we review each day, the most important thing is that we are honest with ourselves. If we encounter setbacks and frustrations in our day, we need to acknowledge them and then resolve to do better. It is our goal to “deal fairly with others, restrain our passions, face obstacles with patience and pain with courage, and choose our path through life wisely”. This is part of the process of moving toward the peace and tranquility that drew us to philosophy in the first place.

Besides being honestly acknowledging our faults, we must also praise our achievements. If you’re successfully able to keep your focus on the Virtues and your own intentions instead of focusing on the success/failure of a project, then this is a success in itself, and we should acknowledge that.

Our journals are a “photo album” of our progress toward the philosophic life. We can review them at any time to see the progress we have made. And sometimes, the lessons we learned in the past might help prepare us for the future. “The overall point of all this is to become more conscious…of how we are ourselves, how the world is, and how we can best live in this world.”


As a student of philosophy, you are encouraged to keep a journal in a manner fitting to what we just discussed. Choose a place to store your thoughts: it can be a school notebook, a journal-writing app, a pocket-sized memo pad, or a leather-bound splurge. Wherever you want to store your personal insights.

If you participated in the Power Log exercise, you’ve already had a head-start to become familiar with this process. As you write in your journal each day,

  • Write an account of your daily activities. Be honest with yourself.
  • Record how you responded to events; what was your reaction? Did you get angry or feel discouraged? Did you start worrying about what will happen in the future? Be honest with yourself.
  • If you encountered a setback, identify where exactly you strayed off course, and counsel yourself as “your own friend” as to what action you should have taken. Resolve to try harder next time.
  • If you’re feeing disappointed by a lack of progress, imagine what Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius would have advised in your situation. You may even wish to write imaginary conversations such as the Misfortune Exercise we did in Chapter 1.
  • If you were successful in keeping focused on the Virtues and what is in your power, acknowledge your accomplishment.
  • In addition to reviewing your daily affairs, you can also use your journal to store any thoughts, observations, or quotes you encountered. Add your own comments to these if you wish, so that you’ll be able to read back later and remember how the thought particularly affected/applied to you.
  • Seddon also suggests using the back of your journal as a “Stoic Glossary” if you wish, in which you can write your own personal definitions of Stoic concepts such as “virtue,” “indifferents,” and “acting with reservation.”

This journal is to be a resource to you over a long period of time. But your assignment for today is simply to

find a journal and review your first day.


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