“Premeditatio malorum” can be roughly translated from Latin as “the premeditation of evils.”

I know this can sound pretty grim, but bear with me.

As we learn more and more about Stoicism and begin to practice our own Stoic philosophy, it’s essential to look more deeply into its practices to understand if we can adopt them into our own routine.

As we’ll come to learn, despite its dark translation, Premeditatio Malorum can help us prepare for potential hardship and allow us to remain calm and resilient in the face of adversity.

By the end of your reading, I hope you’ll have a powerful tool to add to your Stoic practice.

What is Premeditatio Malorum?

This practice is a mental exercise that has us imagine or visualize hardships before they occur. This can be:

  • The loss of a possession, a relationship, or a loved one

  • Financial trouble

  • Conflicts with people in your personal life or at work

  • Hard decisions that need to be made in the future

The goal of the practice isn’t to prematurely or unnecessarily make us feel pain or sadness; it’s to put ourselves in positions of hardship so that we can better react to them when, or if, they do occur.

Where did Premeditatio Malorum originate?

The practice seems to have taken root in the work of Roman Stoic philosophers.

The three most prominent Stoics—Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus—all advocate for the visualization of potential hardship as a method of building emotional resilience and mental fortitude.

Seneca himself wrote:

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. 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, Letters From A Stoic, Letter XCI

We can see here that Seneca is writing to his friend Lucilius, explaining that hardship, when experienced as a surprise, is more damaging to us than when it is expected.

Therefore, we should “project our thoughts ahead of us” and pre-meditate hardship so that we are better able to manage it when it comes.

From the work of Epictetus, in chapter 5 of the discourses, we find:

Is he [a wise and good man] surprised at anything which happens, and does it appear new to him?  Does he not expect that which comes from the bad to be worse and more grievous than what actually befalls him? And does he not reckon as pure gain whatever (the bad) may do which falls short of extreme wickedness? Such a person has reviled me. Great thanks to him for not having struck you.  But he has struck me also.  Great thanks that he did not kill you.  

He goes on to say:

For when did he learn or in what school that man is a tame animal, that men love another, that an act of injustice is a great harm to those who does it.  Since then he has not learned this and is not convinced of it, why shall he not follow that which seems to be for his own interest?

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How to Practice Premeditatio Malorum

There are a number of ways we can add the practice into our own lives, whether it’s included in a Stoic journal or a sitting meditation.

For this example, I’ll use sitting meditation because it’s what I do and I find it the most useful way to add it to a daily Stoic routine. However, if you prefer to write or think and walk, this can be modified to fit your preference.

The process:

  1. Find a Quiet Spot: Choose a space where you can relax without distractions for around 5-10 minutes.

  2. Deep Breathing: Close your eyes and take a handful of deep breaths, paying close attention to the feeling of air flowing in and out. This will help center you in the practice and get rid of any stress and racing thoughts.

  3. Visualize the Day Ahead: Have a think about what you’ll encounter during the day and anticipate any potential challenges. This could be a meeting with the boss, a project, or a personal commitment.

  4. Envision Adversities: Imagine things not going as planned. The project faces hurdles, the meeting gets tense, or you get some unexpected bad news.

  5. See Yourself Responding Calmly: This is crucial. Picture yourself handling each adversity with grace, patience, and wisdom. Reflect on what personal attributes you want to project and which ones you want to avoid.

  6. End with Gratitude: Reflect on the things you have, take the time to appreciate it, and remind yourself that external events don’t have to define your internal peace.

Expanding the practice:

Once we’ve learned the basics, we can expand Premeditatio Malorum to cover

  1. Personal Relationships:

    • Visualize potential misunderstandings or conflicts in our relationships.

    • Imagine understanding the other person’s perspective and responding with empathy, understanding, and compassion.

  2. Physical Health:

    • Think about potential health issues.

    • Imagine adopting healthier habits and being grateful for the state of health you currently enjoy.

  3. Our Career:

    • Imagine facing professional challenges like being rejected after an interview or facing criticism over our work.

    • Visualize constructive responses, like seeking feedback or refining our skillset.

  4. Financial Well-being:

    • Consider possible financial hardship, such as unexpected bills, home repairs, tax issues, or a loved one in need.

    • Visualize proactive action, like an emergency fund or listening to an ebook on financial management (as a side note, How to Own the World by Andrew Craig is fantastic).

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Practicing Premeditatio Malorum isn’t about deliberately making ourselves feel bad by visualizing negativity in our lives; it’s about preparing ourselves for the uncertainties of life and preventing surprise hardships from destabilizing our peace of mind.

When we confront our fears and worries head-on, we take away their mystery and some of the unknown. Over time, the practice can help shift our mindset from one of avoiding difficulty to one of accepting it when it comes and facing it constructively.

Remember, the aim isn’t to anticipate every twist and turn of life (an impossible task), but to develop a resilient mindset that can handle life’s inevitable challenges.

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