Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Five: A Stoic End to the Day

So we wake up and begin the day as Stoics. We prepare ourselves for the inconveniences of life with a Morning Meditation, we strive to pay attention to our thoughts throughout the day and we divide events into those that we do and do not control...eventually, the sun sets, we get ready to sleep until another day begins. How did we do? Did we succeed at the day we just lived? Did we fail? Most likely we did a bit of both. Should we just go to sleep and leave the past in the past, or should we learn lessons from the day, celebrate our successes and admonish ourselves for our faults? How DOES a Stoic end the day?

Hi. I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions: Is there a Stoic way to go to sleep? And Is it possible to do Stoic exercises incorrectly? And finally, a bonus means of applying today's exercise, this one aimed at parents.

All right, let's get started.

[Crow Caws]

Is there a Stoic way to go to sleep?

Of course there is, those ancient Stoics had opinions about pretty much everything. In the case of preparing to sleep, Stoics call on a practice that predates Stoicism itself. This exercise is often called the Evening Meditation, though I prefer the term Retrospective Mediation. Variations of the Evening Meditation are found in Seneca's works AND in Epictetus's Discourses. In Discourses Book 3, Chapter 10, Line 3, we find Epictetus quoting a Pythagorean practice.

“Do not let sleep fall upon your soft eyes
Before you have gone over each act of your day three times:
Where have I failed? At what have I succeeded? What duty have I omitted?
Begin here , and continue the examination. After this
Find fault with what was badly done, and rejoice in what was good.”

The Retrospective Meditation is meant to assist us in LEARNING from the life we're living. No matter how well we prepare for the day, beginning our Morning with the View from Above and girding our minds like Aurelius recommends in his Mediations, we will stumble. We MAY notice that we've screwed up, but we may be oblivious to it. Perhaps the reason the meeting didn't go well is because I was the obstinate jerk, not my co-worker like I had convinced myself at the time. When do we take the time to learn from our mistakes? because moving on is not the same as learning. If I am put in the same situation again, will I fail again, or will I flourish?

We find Seneca's mention of Retrospective Meditation in his work titled On Anger. I'll quote from the translation used in Elen Buzare's excellent book Stoic Spiritual Exercises.

"[One's mind] should be summoned each day to give account of itself. Sextius used to do this. At the day's end, when he had retired for the night, he would interrogate his mind: 'What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?...

Could anything be finer than this habit of sifting through the whole day? Think of the sleep that follows the self-examination! How calm, deep, unimpeded it must be, when the mind has been praised or admonished and - its own sentinel and censor - has taken stock secretly of its own habits."

I like the promise of better sleep. I've had many an anxious night in my own life, so I appreciate the calm sleep that comes with being at peace with oneself. Now here's the part where I admit that I often skip my Evening Meditation. Which is ridiculous because I CAN attest to the fact that it is a powerful exercise that, at lest for me, truly delivers. It's purely a lack of discipline on my part that has kept me from practicing nightly. That said, working on this episode has gotten me back on track and I'm happy that it has.

In both Retrospective Meditations, we find a series of three questions.

In Epictetus: Where have I failed? At what have I succeeded? What duty have I omitted?

In Seneca: What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?

Each of these sets of questions requires radical honesty with ourselves if they're to be effective. I should hope we can all be bold enough to be that honest, after all, Seneca mentions that our mind takes stock SECRETLY of its own habits. There's no requirement to share anything with the world, other that more compassionate and rational actions as we improve ourselves.

[Crow Caws]

Is it possible to do the Stoic evening meditation, or really, any Stoic meditation, wrong?

Yes. Stoic exercises can be done incorrectly. Improper Stoic practices stem from a Chicken and the Egg problem. In order to exercise Stoicism properly, we have to understand the Stoic worldview, but taking in that worldview requires the practice...and so on and so forth. Many of the ancient Stoics had the benifit of instruction from teachers. Teachers who could check their mental form the same way a trainer can correct the form of an athlete. Modern Stoics have it harder. Many of us pick up a practice here and there, and don't get to see how the practice fits into the whole of Stoic teaching until much later in our journey. This is one of the reasons I harp on the expected outcomes of a Stoic life. Quotes like this one from Seneca,

"No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular."

or definitions like this one from Marcus Aurelius:

"Nothing should be called good that fails to enlarge our humanity."

If we see clearly what the Stoic life is said to be, but can find no way that a certain practice could lead to that place, then either the Stoics are simply wrong, or our thinking is wrong concerning that Stoic practice.

The primary pitfall concerning the Evening or Retrospective Meditation is this: believing that clearly seeing and admonishing ourselves for our failures is the same thing as wallowing in those failures. Stoicism never recommends beating ourselves up for our faults. Stoics seek to overcome our weaknesses, not dwell on them forever.

I will be linking to a Stoicism Today article by Donald Robertson titled "The Evening Meditation: Some Reflections." I recommend reviewing it for more about the Retrospective Meditation. At one point Donald says,

"Seneca describes his self-examination as if it were analogous to a defendant appearing in court.  It’s important not to allow this to turn into a kind of morbid rumination or worry.  I think there’s perhaps just a knack to keeping it constructive that comes with experience.  Another observation I’d make that might help Stoics manage this is that, of course, the events being reviewed, as they are in the past, are all in the domain of things outside of your control and therefore, I assume, “indifferent” in the Stoic sense of the word.  Hence, there’s not much point worrying about them.  The most we can do is learn from them."

He is exactly right. We can't repair our mistakes, but we can fix what ails us so that we don't make that mistake again.

Donald Robertson's quote mentions Seneca's courtroom version of the Evening Meditation. I think it's worth looking at as an example of how to practice this discipline.

"Every day I plead my cause before the bar of myself. When the light has been removed from sight, and my wife, long aware of my habit, has become silent, I scan the whole of my day and retrace all my deeds and words. I conceal nothing from myself, I omit nothing. For why should I shrink from any of my mistakes, when I may commune thus with myself? 'See that you never do that again. I will pardon you this time. In that dispute, you spoke too offensively; after this don't have encounters with ignorant people; those who have never learned do not want to learn. You reproved that man more frankly than you ought, and consequently you have not so much mended him as offended him. In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth. A good man accepts reproof gladly, the worse a man is the more bitterly he resents it."

[Crow Caws]

That's all I have to share concerning the standard use of the Retrospective Meditation, but I want to present an alternative use that I wrote about on some time back.

A few years ago I came across an article on how to properly praise children. The article sited actual child development research it wasn't simply a blog post concerning a parent's gut feelings. I related the research, done by a Professor Dweck, to a variety of Stoic beliefs and at the end I found that the Retrospective Meditation actually paired well with the Professor's recommendations. In the article I read, Professor Dweck said she, "believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all."

As Stoic parents, we can practice this idea and grow in our philosophy while doing so. I suggest that as we gather our family around a meal, where we probably already ask, "what did you do today?" we add the questions, "What did you succeed at and struggle with today?" and "What needs to be done tomorrow?" We can share in the triumphs of our children's day. We can share our own challenges so that our children understand that struggle is to be expected. We can plan together, as a family, our strategies to overcome obstacles big and small. In doing so, we build an understanding of, and appreciation for, the process of learning in our children (and ourselves) and they will be stronger for it. Like the ancient Stoics, we can choose to praise those things that lead to wisdom and, in doing so, we will help our children thrive.

[Crow Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode five. As always, visit for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. Thank you, those of you who already have given reviews.  I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Crow Caws]