Have you ever heard of the practice of negative visualization? This is the modern-day name for an ancient concept– premeditatio malorum. In this article, we’ll look at the premeditatio malorum definition as well as the history and benefits of the practice.
In brief, premeditatio malorum is Latin for “the premeditation of evil” or “pre-studying bad future.” Essentially, this is a practice where you take time to imagine when could go wrong in relation to real-life scenarios. Though it might sound like a bummer and a recipe for an anxiety attack, this practice can actually help reduce anxiety and fear and allow you to prepare for whatever life could throw your way.
Premeditatio malorum is a Latin phrase that translates to “the premeditation of evil.” It can also be translated as “pre-studying bad future.”
In the modern day, this concept is known as negative visualization.
“Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.”
– Seneca the Younger
This is a method of meditative practice that involves visualizing all of the things that could go wrong. The Cyreanic philosophers are thought to have originated this practice, and the Stoic philosophers later adopted premeditatio malorum. The technique of visualizing the worst-case scenario was made popular with the publication of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, a work by Seneca the Younger that is also known as the Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic.
It is believed that premeditatio malorum was one of the most common spiritual exercises practiced by the ancient Stoics.
When you practice premeditatio malorum, you are contemplating the potential negative outcomes from the actual scenarios of your life. The point isn’t to make you impossibly anxious– on the contrary, the point is to help you achieve the psychological fitness necessary to be prepared for the types of things that can occur in life. When you take some time to engage with the things that can go wrong, it can desensitize you to the negative emotions associated with unpleasant events and real-life losses.
What this practice can also do is help to produce feelings of gratitude for the way that things really are in your life. When you imagine what could go wrong, it helps you realize what you already have to be grateful for.
Premeditatio malorum is something that you can use for the little, mundane things in life as well as a bigger picture view of your experience.
For example, you can use premeditatio malorum to help you stay on top of the ball in your life.
Before you drive to work in the morning, you might think, “what could go wrong?” There might be a crash on the highway that makes you late for work, and you might have a more difficult time parking than usual, etc. Recognizing these real-life possibilities allows you to determine a course of action that helps you avoid the likelihood of being impacted by such occurrences. In this situation, for instance, you could choose to allow an extra fifteen or twenty minutes for your commute to ensure that you get to work on time.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can use the practice to fully immerse yourself in an imagined scenario where the absolute worst of the worst has happened– the loss of your job, your home, your relationship, or a loved one– in order to prepare yourself for the types of calamities that are possible in life.
"How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life."
– Marcus Aurelius
Another meditative practice that the Stoics used is known as memento mori. This is essentially a form of premeditatio malorum, where you meditate on the fact that you and the people you love are going to die.
Though this might sound morbid at first, the truth is that tapping into the mortality of living beings and the impermanent nature of things can help you grab hold of the time you do have in life to take actions that drive you toward your goals and purposes. At the same time, it can help you appreciate the moments and focus on the present, as none of us know when we’re going to take our last breath.
You’ll commonly hear people talking about the importance of positive visualization (also referred to as creative visualization.) A number of studies have shown, for example, that positive visualization can help athletes reach a higher state of mental awareness, which in turn boosts their overall well-being, confidence, and performance ability.
Positive visualization isn’t just discussed in relation to achieving success in sports, though– you’ll also find ample conversation about the technique in New Age texts (you’ve likely come across people that swear by affirmations) and famous self-help books like Think and Grow Rich.
Negative visualization or premeditatio malorum focuses on the potential negative outcomes of their life scenarios rather than producing positive imagery in order to induce a positive physiologic and psychological response.
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”
– Seneca the Younger
Both of these practices have their place, but it’s all too easy for creative visualization to become a way for people to try and wish their lives to be a certain way rather than getting to work and making their lives what they want. This is, of course, not an inherent outcome of positive visualization, but if you dip your toes into the world of affirmations, you’ll certainly find that some practitioners have abdicated their sense of responsibility for the things that are in their control.
Though premeditatio malorum is most commonly discussed in relation to the Stoic philosophers, who certainly embraced the practice, it was the Cyrenaics who are given credit for the creation of negative visualization.
"The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The Cyrenaics were a Greek school of philosophy that was founded all the way back in the 4th century BC. This was a sensual hedonistic philosophy that taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure. Considered to be one of the earliest Socratic schools, the Cyrenaics believed that this notion of the good included positively enjoyable sensations. This is in contrast to Epicurus and Epicureanism, who more often stressed the meaning of the absence of pain.
The Cyrenaics believed that physical pleasure was more intense and more desirable than the pleasures of the mind. These philosophers seized upon the fact that Socrates, who held that virtue was the only human good, also accepted that pleasure could be a secondary goal resulting from moral action. They perceived the sole purpose in life to be the pursuit of pleasure in life and denied any intrinsic value to virtue.
You might wonder how these hedonists would have incorporated premeditatio malorum into their practice. After all, it’s certainly not very pleasurable to imagine all of the things that can go wrong in life.
According to The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life by Kurt Lampe, the Cyrenaics created and embraced this practice because of a belief that “distress is caused by ‘an unexpected and unanticipated bad thing.’” By focusing on the things that could go wrong, they are preparing themselves and acquiring mental foresight that could help them avoid distress in the future.
The Stoics picked up the practice of premeditatio malorum, with Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic popularizing premediatio malorum. This is a practice encouraged by contemporary Stoics as well, with many suggesting that negative visualization be made a part of a morning or evening routine.
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
– Marcus Aurelius
This is such a beautiful and useful sentiment. Marcus Aurelius is at once reminding himself to be realistic about the type of people he will likely encounter throughout the day while also providing himself a bird’s eye view of the reality of humanity and the human condition. He is setting himself up to not be disappointed or distressed by the events of the day but also to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
A similar exercise is used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a popular type of psychological treatment used for a wide variety of mental health issues– anxiety disorders, depression, drug use, eating disorders, and more.
According to Donald Robertson, an academic that focuses on both Stoicism and CBT states that:
“Recent psychological research tends to show that people who are able to accept unpleasant thoughts and feelings, without being overwhelmed by them, are more resilient than people who try to distract themselves or avoid such experiences, through strategies such as positive thinking.”
– Donald Robertson
Essentially, we are preparing ourselves to deal with the adversity that will likely meet us in life when we incorporate this practice into our lives. If we only allow ourselves to visualize the future positively, we will likely be ill-prepared when something unpleasant befalls us.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why you might want to incorporate premeditatio malorum into your daily routine. Though it might not sound like a pleasant way to spend your time, you might just find that the practice helps you build wisdom and courage as you walk through life.
Learning about Stoicism will teach you that there are many things out of your control, but also a few key things that are in your control. Identifying what is and what isn’t in your control is essential for knowing how to think about situations and how to act in life.
“It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
You don’t always have to be reacting to the events of life. You can begin to practice the advice of Epictetus, who says that we should “make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.”
We can waste countless precious hours being distraught by things we could have been more prepared for. The more we are willing to engage with the potential that life might not go the way we expect (because, spoiler alert, it most likely won’t,) the less shocked we will be when something occurs that we were completely ill-prepared for.
"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…”
– Seneca the Younger
Sometimes we simply expect things that really aren’t that probable. Maybe there is a secret thought in the back of your mind that you will win the lottery one day or that the girl you’ve been pining for will all of a sudden look your way. Though these aren’t impossibilities, of course, premeditatio malorum can help you break free from wishful thinking and an overly optimistic view of the future.
For example, maybe you expect that you will become wealthy beyond belief, but you haven’t taken any steps to start a business or get a high-paying career. When you practice negative visualization, it can help ground you to the way that life really is and help illustrate that you’ll need to take action if you really want to hike the mountain toward your lofty goals.
Another benefit of negative visualization is that it can help you identify actions that you could take to prepare yourself for the future that you’d previously missed. Not everything is in our control in life, but if we focus our energies on the things we can control, we find our experiences much more pleasant.
Marcus Aurelius explains the importance of staying mentally prepared for anything in the following quote:
"A healthy pair of eyes should see everything that can be seen and not say, “No! Too bright!” (which is a symptom of ophthalmia). A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent; a healthy stomach should have the same reaction to all foods, as a mill to what it grinds. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. The one that keeps saying, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” is like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush."
– Marcus Aurelius
He is, in a way, advocating for achieving mental flexibility in one’s life by imagining as many possible outcomes as possible. The more potential occurrences we imagine, the more fit we are to be mental participants in life.
If you find yourself reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re pretty familiar with Stoic philosophy. As a quick overview, though, one of the central concepts of Stoicism is that virtue is the only good.
There are four cardinal virtues in Stoicism: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Living virtuously is considered to be both necessary and sufficient to living a good life. As a practical philosophy, the idea is that these virtues aren’t just ideas that bop around in your head– they are concepts that you apply to your daily life.
"Today it is you who threaten me with these terrors; but I have always threatened myself with them, and have prepared myself as a man to meet man's destiny. If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives "comes in a new and sudden form," and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance."
– Seneca the Younger
Seneca tells us about the fact that we become more and more accustomed to negative experiences the more we deal with them, which allows us to have greater courage when facing them. When something bad happens to you, you’ll be much braver if you have contemplated its potential beforehand or gone through similar experiences before.
“When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, represent to yourself the incidents usual in the bath—some persons pouring out, others pushing in, others scolding, others pilfering. And thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go to bathe and keep my own will in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action.”
In the above quote, Epictetus advises us that we can imagine what will happen even when partaking in everyday tasks. This can help us stay centered “in harmony with nature” and give us the wisdom and courage necessary to stay focused on behaving virtuously in every action.
One of the criticisms of premeditatio malorum is that the practice requires that one sits in a chair every morning and has a panic attack about all of the things that could go wrong. This is simply not the case.
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
There is a difference between being anxious about the future and preparing ourselves mentally. When we do the former, we are “suffering more in imagination than reality,” as Seneca says. When we do the latter, we can actually reduce fear and anxiety because we have readied ourselves for the unexpected.
It’s easy in our lives to get bounced around by external events. We can distract ourselves from the reality of our lives using an infinite number of available methods and never take the time to really tap into our inner selves.
“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance revert at once to yourself and don't lose the rhythm more than you can help. You'll have a better grasp of harmony if you keep going back to it.”
– Marcus Aurelius
At the same time, it’s easy to get confused about who “we” exactly are, associating ourselves with our reputation, our career, our wealth, and our stuff. When we meditate on the potentially negative outcomes of the future, we realize that those things aren’t us at all. We could lose all of those things and remain “us.”
This means that, with practice, you can be better able to “revert at once to yourself” when dealing with adversity and “maintain a better grasp of harmony.” Essentially, we can stay more grounded and centered when dealing with difficulty– whether mundane or severe.
Another major benefit of premeditatio malorum is that it can help to keep you humble. It is easy to let your head swell up when everything is going well– you’re making money, you’ve got a great house, you’re popular, etc. It’s important to retain your humility and remember the impermanence of life, though, or else you’ll likely learn what is meant by “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
"It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs."
– Seneca the Younger
In the above quote, Seneca reminds us that we should always prepare ourselves for adversity– particularly when things are going well.
“Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always to take full note of fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.”
– Seneca the Younger
That’s right. Never trust prosperity, and always keep your eyes open. The more prepared you are, the less surprised you’ll be when an external event tries to knock you off your feet.
Premediatio malorum also helps you build resilience in your life. In his book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Donald J. Robertson summarizes “The Boar and the Fox,” one of Aesop’s fables that teaches us about the importance of preparing for difficulty even when things are going well.
"Aesop’s fable “The Boar and the Fox” is all about building resilience. One day a fox was walking through the woods when he spotted a wild boar sharpening his tusks against the stump of a tree. The fox found this hilarious and made fun of the boar for worrying about nothing. When he finally stopped laughing, he asked, “Why are you being so fretful, you fool? There’s nobody here for you to fight!” The boar smiled and said, “True, but when one day I do hear the huntsmen coming, it will be too late then to prepare for battle.” The moral is that in times of peace, we should prepare for war if we want to be ready to defend ourselves. The Stoics likewise used moments of leisure to prepare themselves to remain calm in the face of adversity."
– Donald J. Robertson
Resilience is what helps you thrive when facing hard times. It’s what allows you to pull your shoulders back and stand up straight when an obstacle rises up in your path. Meditating on the things that can go wrong will help you build resilience day in and day out, so you will be ready if fortune chooses to turn against you one day.
This practice, when done right, isn’t anxiety-producing. What it does produce, though, is gratitude.
When you consider all of the things that could happen in the future, you start looking at your current circumstance with a different lens. Things that you might have complained about in the past all of a sudden become blessings. You recognize that while you might not be able to enjoy your current circumstances forever, you’ll be sure to appreciate them while you do.
There are so many opportunities in the modern world to never really try to improve ourselves. We can fulfill a minimum number of duties and otherwise collapse into video games, movies, craft beer, or whatever your particular flavor your escapism takes.
"Let Fate find us prepared and active. Here is the great soul—the one who surrenders to Fate. The opposite is the weak and degenerate one, who struggles with and has a poor regard for the order of the world, and seeks to correct the faults of the gods rather than their own.”
– Seneca the Younger
When you practice premeditatio malorum, it helps you stay on your toes. It keeps you vigilant. It helps you recognize the full extent of your own control in life and encourages you to be “prepared and active” with the full knowledge that fate could turn its eyes toward us someday soon.
Finally, spending some time thinking about what could go wrong can simply help you appreciate the moment.
“Every man's life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Many people think that premeditatio malorum exists in contradiction to some of the other ideas of the Stoics– that we “suffer more in imagination than reality” and that we should focus our attention on the present moment.
The truth is, though, these ideas can all exist in harmony. As Marcus Aurelius says, the future is uncertain. However, the more we exercise our mental ability to imagine what could be possible, the less likely we’ll be to get knocked off our horse by, in the words of the great Roman emperor, what “the looms of fate may weave” for us.
Stoicism is a philosophy that can truly change your life, and premeditatio malorum is only one of the useful practices associated with the Stoic school of thought. If you’re looking for more insight and inspiration to lead a good, virtuous life, check out our Stoic quotes blog.