How the Ancient Romans Dealt with Anxiety

December 30, 2018

The New Year is a time when people look to start afresh, improve themselves, and take stock of their lives. Keeping a diary has always been a popular resolution but this year journaling is all the rage.

Seemingly out of nowhere, wellness and lifestyle coaches are promoting journaling to their clients as a form of self-care. The marketplace is cluttered with products for the perpetually busy, fitness fanatics, and gratitude seekers. Diaries aren’t just for keeping track of the events of one’s day anymore, but why do we do it? Why journal? Is it just a record of the things we achieved or does it do something more profound?

As it turns out, journaling is an ancient practice. There are, of course, different kinds of diaries, even thousands of years ago. There were travelogues like that written by early Christian female pilgrim Egeria. There were prison memoirs, like the one the Christian martyr Perpetua kept before her execution in the arena in Carthage in 203 CE. And there were ‘wellness journals,’ like the dream journal / medical tourism diary that the orator Aelius Aristides kept in his Sacred Tales.

Texts like this were highly unusual: it was rare for people to commit their inner journey and personal experiences to paper and in solitude. More regularly the process of reviewing one’s day and taking stock of one’s actions took place via dialogue, through letter writing with a friend, and in mental review. It’s a recognizable practice as early as Plato, who wrote that we should examine ourselves with great attention and that before we can become valuable members of society (as politicians, for example) we must, “before all else…attend to ourselves.”

The practice really took off among Roman Stoics in the first and second century CE. The emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic philosopher Seneca were ardent believers in the examination of self. Before bedtime Seneca would review his day and everything that happened and ask himself how he had behaved and whether he could have responded to events that happened differently. Marcus Aurelius did the same kind of thing when he wrote his Meditations. Apparently Seneca’s habit was so entrenched that his wife knew not to disturb him as he performed it.

The goal of withdrawing into oneself and examining one’s motivations is to improve the self by fashioning it into the kind of person that one wants to be. Marcus Aurelius says that “your inner guide becomes impregnable when it withdraws into oneself” and that by ‘revering’ what is highest in ourselves (reason) we can achieve control of our passions (what we might call reckless emotions). Once we have done that we will no longer grow anxious about everyday affairs or be conflicted about the best course of action.

Inner dialogue is just one of a whole set of practices that ancient philosophers used to fashion and curate their selves. The French philosopher Michel Foucault called them “technologies of the self” and these technologies often included hiring a mentor who would advise the individual on the problematic aspects of their behavior. The mentor would be able to point out when someone lost their cool too easily, or was too self-indulgent. Once the aspiring philosopher had more self-control, the individual could begin to examine their behavior themselves through self-reflective writing and thought.

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