Learning from the Stoics: Premeditatio malorum

Written by David Hall | Posted in Article Sunday, September 18th, 2022

I am currently reading ‘Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine’ by Derren Brown. I’m finding it a thought-provoking book not least because it has opened my mind to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. These teachings and meditations from Greek and Roman thinkers still have so much to teach us today.

The modern ‘self-help’ culture focuses so much on positive thinking, visualising success and endeavouring to imbue ourselves with a confidence to achieve whatever we want. I’m not saying this doesn’t have its place, but it can come with a degree of risk. We can feel a sense of failure if we don’t achieve our goals, especially if our expectations were unrealistic in the first place. We may not feel as well prepared to deal with the inevitable trials and setbacks that life throws at us.

So why not try negative visualisation instead? Is it not better to imagine the worst that can happen? My initial reaction to this was one of surprise. That’s not what we’re supposed to do or think if we are in the business of self-improvement. These were my first thoughts until I understood a bit more about the Stoics.

The Stoic exercise known as ‘Premeditatio malorum‘ which literally means ‘the premeditation of evils’ is an example of negative visualisation:

Imagine that you are about to undertake an activity, like giving a presentation at work or a speech for an important occasion. Rather than reciting positive affirmations about being a confident person, try imagining everything that could possibly go wrong, all the possible ‘worst-case scenarios’ and catastrophes that might befall you at any point and then…

For every possible disaster think through and rehearse to yourself how you would deal with it. What steps could you take if everything was to go horribly wrong? Carefully considering how you would address any possible misfortune can give you greater confidence to manage potential setbacks.

You are prepared for every eventuality – good or ill.

The truth is that more often not the worst rarely happens, which means you can enjoy being grateful for all the positive stuff that does.

“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events… Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”  — Seneca