Maxims for a focused, conscious life

You cannot correct that which you do not know you’re doing incorrectly. You must catch your mistake before you can fix it. — Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Letter 28.10


The alarm rings! BZZZZZZZZZ!!!

Time to wake up.

Your brain fog clears. The cognitive gears begin to grind and mesh together. The brain loads memories; the first email pings onto your mobile phone. Another day starts. The demands on your attention begin. Time to grab a coffee and get going, or is it?


The Benefits of Premeditation

Instead of rushing headlong into the next 16 hours think about how you can approach the challenges of the day in a stoic way. Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included:

  • logic,
  • self-dialogue,
  • contemplation of death,
  • training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation),
  • and, daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions.

Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…

The practices of spiritual exercises have parallels between Stoic spiritual exercises and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy have been detailed at length in Donald Robertson’s, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

One of the most powerful is called a morning reflection or perhaps a premeditation.

This article describes how philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci uses this technique:

A Stoic’s day begins with a morning meditation. “I pick a quiet spot and start to go over the list of possible challenges during the day, things that might create problems,” says Pigliucci. For instance, Pigliucci visualizes a person on the subway blasting music from his earphones. “And then I remind myself of which of the fundamental virtues might be necessary to deal with (the problems).” The idea is to prepare yourself mentally for whatever you might face during the day. (By the way, the Stoic virtues are courage, self-control, practical wisdom, and justice or equanimity.)

And Starting Out with Stoicism suggests the following:

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.

Using Maxims defines a maxim as follows:

an expression of a general truth or principle….

As part of my premeditation I consider the meaning of a handful of stoic maxims. I keep these “right at hand” (procheiron) and by reviewing them daily I apply these rules of life (kanon) throughout the day.

Jules Evans suggests how these can be used:

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.

Evans continues in a similar vein in an article published in the Telegraph newspaper:

One technique is the maxim, which is the condensation of an idea into a short, memorisable phrase, like “everything in moderation”, “know thyself”, or “the robber of your free will does not exist”. Greek philosophy was designed to be memorised. Students would repeat these maxims over and over, even sing them, until they became neural habits. They’d also write maxims into little handbooks (enchiridia), which they carried around so they were always armed against their old bad habits.

Stoics were all for trying to change character (ethos) and soul (psuche). This leads to a beneficial change in your way of life (bios). For example:

As surgeons keep their lancets and scalpels always at hand for the sudden demands of their craft, so keep your principles constantly in readiness for the understanding of things both human and divine… — Marcus Aurelius 3:13


I do not doubt, too, that they may confer much to those who are novices and are still unskilled, for single maxims sink in more easily in the way a catchy tune does. — Seneca Ep 33

Of course, it is still important to read and understand the texts the maxims came from. But even by themselves maxims act as a reminder of how to lead a life of virtue.

10 Phenomenal Maxims

These are the maxims which I have found to be most powerful, and short enough to commit to memory.

  1. Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars & see yourself running with them -Marcus Aurelius
  2. Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact -Marcus Aurelius
  3. Regard [a friend] as loyal & you will make him loyal -Seneca
  4. Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones -Seneca
  5. You have power over your mind, not outside events -Marcus Aurelius
  6. The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts -Marcus Aurelius
  7. If you’re distressed by anything external, the pain is due to your estimate of it -Marcus Aurelius
  8. Even the least of our activities ought to have some end in view -Marcus Aurelius
  9. Misfortune nobly born is good fortune -Marcus Aurelius
  10. It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable -Seneca

One of the facets to a life of virtue is fostering good habits. And one way to create good habits is to repeat your favourite Stoic maxims over time. Choose maxims which deeply resonate with you. They should provide a degree of meaning to you and the situations you find yourself in each day.

By forming this habit then every problematic situation becomes an opportunity for using them; training your resilience just as a bodybuilder trains their muscles. The more you use them, the more powerful your mind becomes.

What are your favourite maxims? How do you use them?

Photos by Duy Pham on Unsplash and by Daniela Holzer on Unsplash




Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.

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Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson

Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.

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