How the Ancient Romans Dealt with Anxiety
Hint: it's all the rage this year as a New Year's resolution.
New Year's 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—and were 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 A.D. 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 A.D. 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.
The purpose wasn’t just to make one a better person but to avoid what Greek writers called “distress.” Apparently many wealthy, educated Roman men struggled with feelings of anxiety. These were men who were already trying to live what we might call “self-aware” lives: they studied philosophy, they lived in moderation, and they tried to regulate their behaviors. And yet, all the same, they would feel psychic distress. Anxiety, it turns out, is not just a modern phenomenon that only affects “spoiled millennials;” it is actually a millennia-old condition. Roman authors diagnose different reasons for distress (many of which were tied to acquisitiveness) but self-examination through journaling was one of the technologies by which a person could hope to achieve what we might call ‘inner peace.’
Self-examination as practiced by wealthy, well-educated Greeks and Romans did not die out with the rise of Christianity. On the contrary, says Foucault, it was democratized and transformed into the verbal practice we call confession. With Christianity one would review not just one’s actions but even one’s thoughts with a priest. The penitential Christian would confess their sins before a priest by verbalizing, disclosing, and renouncing aspects of themselves and would, ultimately, feel reconnected to God and their own sense of self in the aftermath. The elite practices of examining the conscience we see in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius continued in the popular practices of medieval piety.
The same logic can be found among contemporary wellness gurus who recommend journaling to their audiences. Scientific studies have even suggested that journaling can boost your immune system, and improve the quality of sleep and self-esteem. As a practice, journaling can help organize a person’s sense of an experience and render traumatic senses intelligible. The cathartic effects of writing, even in a disorganized way, is one reason that wellness expert Erin Stutland, author of Mantras in Motion, recommends freehand stream-of-consciousness writing to her followers as a mean of clearing out negative energy and organizing one’s mind.
What many ancient and modern authors hold in common is that self-examination and self-development (sometimes broadly understood in the ancient world as the practice of philosophy) is both therapeutic and habitual. You can’t just work on it for a while and then think you are fixed. It has to be a daily practice of self-scrutiny and self-improvement. As the philosopher Musonius Rufus put it, “one must be under constant treatment if one wants to live a healthy life.” This is one of the things that makes journaling effective: it encourages constant and continual self-analysis and growth.
Even if this sounds arduous, the good news is that there is still time to make a start on the life-long project of become a philosophical sage. As the philosopher Epicurus put it, “We must not hesitate to practice philosophy when we are young or grow weary of it when we are old. It is never too early or too late for taking care of one’s soul.” And now, at New Year, is as good a time as any.