Hypomnema: the importance of keeping a notebook

The ancient Greeks had a knack for words that encapsulated complex and nuanced meanings, and that are essentially untranslatable, or only very roughly translatable, in English. Take, for instance, eudaimonia, which refers to the goal toward which every human being who wishes to live a good life ought to strive. It is often translated as "happiness," but that won't do, because it has little to do with temporary feelings of elation. A better translation is "flourishing," though this slants things in favor of the specific Aristotelian view of eudaimonia, while every Hellenistic school of philosophy had its own version -- indeed, one could argue that what distinguished the Stoics from the Epicureans, or the Skeptics from the Cyrenaics, was precisely how they cashed out the concept of eudaimonia. My favorite translation, which is more neutral with respect to the views of the various schools, is "the life worth living."

Or take paideia, which refers to the type of education that an ideal citizen of a polis should receive. It is far more encompassing than our modern word "education," because it included not only training in the liberal arts (poetry, music, rhetoric) and the sciences (mathematics, medicine), but also physical training (e.g., wrestling), training in social intercourse, and of course how to practice the art of life (i.e., practical philosophy). The idea being that a nation thrives only if its citizens are "educated" in the broadest possible sense of the word.

Or, again, consider Stoic-specific terms, like prohairesis, sometimes translated (inaccurately) as "mindfulness," but really meaning that we should be focused on the here and now, paying attention especially to the ethical dimension of everything we do. Because nothing ever got improved by not paying attention to it.

But this essay is about a different word that caught my attention recently: hypomnema, variously (and, again, very approximately) translated as reminder, note, record, commentary, or draft. 

The idea is present in Plato, who first recognized the power of the then relatively new instrument of writing (unlike, famously, his mentor, Socrates, who emphasized the traditional mode of oral discourse). In the Meno and the Phaedo, Plato develops his theory of anamnesis, the notion that human beings possess innate knowledge, and that in a sense learning really consists in a process of recollecting what we already know. Writing things down, then, becomes a major aid for the process of anamnesis. In fact, Plato developed hypomnesic principles to aid his students at the Academy. 

The modern author who has paid most attention to the concept of hypomnemata is Michel Foucault. In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, he writes:

"The hypomnemata constituted a material memory of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering these as an accumulated treasure for rereading and later meditation. They also formed a raw material for the writing of more systematic treatises in which were given arguments and means by which to struggle against some defect (such as anger, envy, gossip, flattery) or to overcome some difficult circumstance (a mourning, an exile, downfall, disgrace)."

Does that sound familiar? It's the written version of the evening meditation, a crucial tool of Stoicism, as described by Seneca:

"The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: 'What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?' Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? how sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, 'I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.' A good person delights in receiving advice: all the worst people are the most impatient of guidance." (On Anger, III.36)

Epictetus, too, makes a similar suggestion:

"We should have each judgement ready at the moment when it is needed: judgements on dinner at dinner-time, on the bath at bathing-time, on bed at bedtime. Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids 'till you have reckoned up each deed of the day -- How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad." (Discourses III, 10)

And of course, the entire Meditations by Marcus Aurelius can be seen as an extended exercise in composing an hypomnema. Referring specifically to Seneca, Foucault says:

"In [that] period there was a culture of what could be called personal writing: taking notes on the reading, conversations, and reflections that one hears or engages in oneself; keeping kinds of notebooks on important subjects (what the Greeks call 'hypomnemata'), which must be reread from time to time so as to reactualize their contents." (The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982)

I make extensive use of hypomnemata, both in terms of my personal philosophical diary and by noting and commenting on much of what I read. Which in turns leads to much of what I write, because decent writing is impossible without properly digesting lots of readings. Here are some practical suggestions, if you wish to try this out:

  • Personal journaling: I use DayOne, which allows me to tag entries for later comparisons, as well as prompts me to take a look at what I wrote years earlier on the same date. Very useful to spot trends or recurring patterns in your thinking. It requires an annual subscription, but it's well worth it. If you don't want to pay for it, there are a number of free journaling apps, or you can simply use your word processor (and a well organized folders system!).
  • Highlighting and commenting on articles from magazines, newspapers, etc.: Instapaper. In my mind significantly better than its popular competitor, Pocket, because it allows you to write comments (not just highlighting text) and to organize your entries into folders for easy retrieval.
  • Highlighting and commenting on books: I normally read my books on a Kindle or similar e-reader. There is a little known trick you can use to export small chunks of text into another app to use for permanent highlighting and commenting. It works like this: use a Kindle app on your phone, tablet, or laptop (not the Kindle device itself). Highlight the text you wish to save. Tap on the highlighted text and click the search icon. Click on the Google search option. This will open up a window in your browser with the full highlighted text in the search box. Copy and paste. Into what? 
  • You could use a word processor (again, be mindful of your folders system, so you can find stuff more easily), but I recommend the Notebook app (free!). It allows you to create different notebooks for different projects, and even to change their cover image with personalized ones (I use screenshots of the cover of the book from which the highlights came in the first place).

Any way you do it, revive the ancient art of working on hypomnemata. As a result, your meanderings through life will be more thoughtful and meaningful.

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