The Stoic philosophers used a practice called negative visualization, or premeditatio malorum (literally “pre-meditation of evils”), to help them prepare for the future. This practice is a reflection on the possible woes waiting just around the corner, from harmful people to catastrophic shifts of fate, including illness, fire, even death. The goal of the reflection is to imagine every possible misfortune that could befall you so you are prepared in the event that one should strike. This is a powerful and worthwhile practice, as it clarifies and separates who one truly is (oneself, one’s character, one’s actions and attitudes) from the things that one simply has (possessions, status, even love), and thus stands to lose at any time.
This feeds into the idea that the Stoics are a gloomy bunch, constantly focusing on what could go wrong and freeing themselves of attachments. In the modern day, it is easy to forget the stakes that each catastrophe held to Greeks and Romans at this time; war and pestilence ravaged ordinary people and the safety nets we have in place today to deal with such crises were non-existent.
War and fire and savage pandemics still harm a great number of people, with humbling reminders in recent weeks and years but, often, from a Western perspective, there is a disconnect between these hardships and their impact on day-to-day life. The last war on American soil was approximately 150 years ago; Marcus Aurelius spent his reign at war. The COVID-19 pandemic had a vaccine in less than a year’s time; the Antonine Plague lasted for 15 years. Thanks to industrialization and technological advancements, the Western world, and the United States in particular, is a very different place than Rome was 2000 years ago.
For many of us, then, the challenges exist more in our mental health, our conceptual well-being, our identity and sense of self rather than in our physical realities. Premeditatio malorum, in that case, can ride a dangerous line between preparation for the future and ruminating on anxieties. It is not helpful for a person to become consumed with the bad that could come; even a good and healthy practice runs the risk of becoming too extreme, giving way to the very anxieties it is supposed to help prevent.
It seems that the modern Stoic movement emphasizes this practice as a means of fortifying the inner citadel, the fortress of our soul, against the twist and turns of fate, but the emphasis is unbalanced. Stoic advisor Seneca says “our minds should be sent out in advance to all things and we shouldn’t just consider the normal course of things, but what could actually happen” (translation from The Daily Stoic, 9/24). He is detailing the practice of premeditatio malorum, and while the context for the quote speaks exclusively of disaster, there is more truth here than even Seneca indicated. We should be preparing for all things, including good ones and turns of fortune.
This is the balance, especially for the modern practitioner. The mind has the ability to predict both bad and good, and the only way to adequately take action on opportunities is to prepare for fortune to strike. If things break in a good direction, and we are not prepared, we may fail to utilize the moment to its fullest extent. If we meditate on what could go right, we are preparing to take action when the opportunity arises. Further, this breaks a rumination pattern that can easily grip us when the bad comes so clearly and exclusively into focus.
Fortification against the negative of life is important and should not be understated. But there is important balance; we must also have a practice of premeditatio bonorum, pre-meditation of good. We practice this when we think “what if everything works outs?” “What if my needs are met?” “What if I succeed?”
Visualizing progress, growth, and good fortune are just as vital as imagining the things that can go wrong, that can take away peace and prosperity. By sending your thoughts forward and anticipating goodness, you can find balance on the path you are on in the present moment.
Only in a balanced approach can the excesses of both practices be resisted and true preparation be achieved. There is no need to ruminate and spiral about the evils that could be, and there is no expectation of exclusively goodness, ease, and harmony.
Truth is found in the balance.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry