I recently listened to the Triggernometry interview Stoicism: How to Get Better at Life featuring Massimo Pigliucci.
In this interview, the topic turned to the question of how one can practice the 4 cardinal Stoic virtues: justice, temperance, courage, and practical wisdom. The first three of these virtues present fairly straightforward training protocols. For example:
- Justice = Learn to act with more fairness, speak the truth, and do to others as you would do to yourself.
- Temperance = Practical voluntary hardship, abstinence, and moderate indulgences.
- Courage = Develop a lifestyle where you lean into your fears, step outside of your comfort zone, and do the "right thing" even when you are anxious.
But the path to practicing and gamifying practical wisdom, the interviewer noted, is less obvious.
Below I'll reveal the steps Massimo listed, with quotes from him, for how we can level up our practical wisdom.
The Philosophical Journal
The question about practical wisdom is a good one. There is a fundamental technique in Stoicism that is also adopted by modern cognitive behavioral therapists. And the Stoics referred to it as philosophical journalling. The CBT practitioners probably used some other term for it. But it's the same basic idea.
So this is a notion that goes back at least 2,000 years. A good example of it is Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a roman emperor and a Stoic philosopher, and he wrote this book The Meditations, which is essentially a personal diary, a philosophical diary where he keeps track of his progress and he asks himself what you should do and so on.
In fact, it was not meant for publication. It was his personal thing that eventually somebody got hold of it and published it.
So here's the basic idea. There are many ways of doing philosophical journalling, but the one that is most common, arguably, is this...
🖊️ Step 1/ Find a Quiet Space
Every night before going to bed, take about 5-10 minutes. Get yourself into an area of your house that is quiet, if you live with someone ask for 5-10 minutes of peace and open up your laptop, your tablet, or Zeus forbid, your actual diary where you're going to write in handwriting.
🤔 Step 2/ Review Your Day
For the day, think about anything that happened that might have been problematic or ethically salient where might have made a mistake or you might have done better, etc. And ask yourself 3 questions and answer them in writing.
✋ Step 3/ Ask Yourself: "What did I do wrong?"
Here's the point: asking yourself why what you did is wrong is not about self-flagellation and regret and all that. Because the Stoics thought that whatever you did is in the past, and you cannot change it, it's out of your control, so it's done.
But you do want to learn from your mistakes, and writing done thinking/reflecting critically about your mistakes and writing them down, helps with fixing them, literally on paper and in your mind. It's like okay, I need to pay attention to this.
✅ Step 4/ Ask Yourself: "What did I do right?"
You also want conversely to write about what you did right, why because now you've established two points of reference. What you want to get away from (your mistakes) and what you're going to work toward more (the stuff that you've done right).
📆 Step 5/ Ask Yourself: "What could I do better, if something like this happens again?"
And then the third question in my mind is the most crucial one actually. What is it that I could do better the next time around if something like this happens? We tend to think of our lives or perhaps some people think of their lives as incredibly varied. The same thing is never going to happen again. But in fact, we get up in the morning during the week and see the same people and do the same things and come home and see the same people and do the same things. Then on the weekend, we see friends, etc.
Our lives are far more stable typically than we might necessarily think. So the notion is that therefore, whatever situation you made a mistake in today, let's say one of your colleagues did something you got really upset about. You got angry in a disproportionate fashion. You overreacted or something like that. Or your partner or your children made you react. Whatever it is. That's likely going to happen again.
And so what you write in your diary is okay, here was this situation, now let me think. The next time around I'm going to be better prepared because I know the symptoms. I know what's coming. I have an idea of what might happen and therefore I know how I need to react. That doesn't mean you are going to be doing it perfectly the second time around, but again it's about paying attention. It's about mindfulness in that sense.
💪 Step 6/ Develop This Process into a Consistent Habit
And so there is fairly good evidence from cognitive behavioral therapy and similar approaches to psychotherapy that this thing really does work. But of course, you have to do it regularly. I do it every night. But at least several times a week and you have to do it over a prolonged period of time.
It's like going to the gym. You don't just go there, look around the machines and weights, pick up a couple and then say okay I'm done and then you're ready for the Olympics. It doesn't work that way.