Life is full of surprises that can affect us strongly and emotionally. These surprises can trigger both positive or negative responses; however, the impact of negative reactions can be devastating for our existence.
We are often caught unprepared and only have time to reflect with a cool head afterwards, but the damage may have already been done. Things that can upset our mind are also those things that aren’t in our control, so the first logical step is to return to ourselves and see what can be controlled (which is our own thoughts and actions).
Premeditatio malorum is one of the methods Stoics implemented when practicing such self-control and reflection. But first, we should explain what this phrase means. Premeditatio malorum comes from Latin and is translated as “the premeditation of evils”. In other words, it means to think or meditate about possible evils before we encounter them. This technique is similar to the Stoic technique of negative visualization; however, this technique can be voluntary or non-voluntary.
Non-voluntary negative visualization is triggered by an extreme emotional state, and hence it does not stem from thinking or meditation. Stoics would emphasize the avoidance of this form of negative visualization and to instead use intended and sober thought to consider possible negative situations.
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”Seneca
Because of our ability to imagine or expect certain events before they happen, we are able to deal with them more effectively. We don’t panic if it starts raining so long as we carry an umbrella, but if caught unprepared in a sudden downpour, we will not react as calming. Stoics thought that every external occasion is like this example. You are either prepared for it, or you are not prepared.
We brought an umbrella with us because we checked the weather forecast, or perhaps we saw clouds gathering in the sky. Expectation allows for preparation in this case. However, there are some events we can’t predict because they are hidden from our rational sight. This is where premeditatio malorum shows its value. Although there may be no signs of a negative event in future, we should be able to imagine it nonetheless.
There are many scenarios of suffering and there are many things that can go wrong. We may suffer losses, setbacks, injustice, humiliation, misunderstandings, a breakup, a fight, etc. Those are all situations that can happen unexpectedly. Psychologically, we must prepare ourselves for these potential events and their negative outcomes.
“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
It may sound disturbing to imagine losing your job or the death of a loved one, but the purpose of premeditatio malorum is not to dwell on those thoughts daily. It is just the opposite; we should keep those events in mind as possibilities and prepare for them, without lingering on them. The point is to accept transience and to prepare for obstacles, not to cause you anxiety or fear. Practicing premeditatio malorum can also help us value others more, because we know they won’t be here forever.
The point of premeditatio malorum is to help you build up a psychological resistance. There will be occasions where we feel powerless and where we blame ourselves, as if we could stop something from happening. But these events are outside of our control. We can’t stop something from happening, but we can control how we react to it. This technique can help you prepare for these events and your reaction will be based on reason and preparedness, rather than potentially harmful emotions.