Ancient philosophy was characterized by the philosopher’s burden to help individuals and city-states overcome their slavery to the passions through mental and physical exercises designed to strengthen the will’s resolve and aim it in the direction of the good.
To Philosophers like Musonius Rufus, Philo of Alexandria, Epicurus, or Clement of Alexandria, a spiritual exercise was some thought process, physical habit, or specific activity that was designed to aim the practitioner in the appropriate life direction, either by changing bad ideas, removing bad habits, or adding good habits.
Read in this light, the Old Testament is full of such exercises, like memorizing Scripture, reciting Scripture in the morning and evening, designating meal times for prayer, or negative visualization (imagining the loss of everything as in Ecclesiastes). One such exercise I’ve been using is a combination of material from the Old Testament and the Stoics. Solomon recommends memorizing brief sayings of the wise and mulling them over to obtain wisdom, and the Stoics speak highly of this practice as well, though Seneca says it can go too far and recommends making your own maxims as you grow in maturity.
My version of the maxim practice is to just pick four maxims per month to focus your attention. Some could be from Scripture, from a favorite author, or even your own devising to help you measure up to the circumstances that you face.
For this March 2020, I chose:
- Squat every day.
- Daily office daily. (I don’t quite read it every day, but the point is to remind myself daily)
- Write it then do it. (to temper my tendency to be overly ambitious for the day and also my job requires that I be hyper available, so it can be easy to prioritize all the petty urgencies of the day over more important tasks)
- Be efficient. (Think Ephesians 5:15-16)
What maxims would help you this month?