Let’s talk about the premeditation of adversity

Premeditatio malorum is Latin for premeditation of adversity, one of the most well known, potentially misunderstood, and very useful of all Stoic techniques. It seems, therefore, like clarifying its scope and use would be a good idea.

In this essay I’m going to do the following: (i) present the concept of premeditatio in modern Stoicism and its roots in ancient Stoicism, as treated by two leading contemporary authors, Don Robertson and Bill Irvine; (ii) discuss a potential tension between the premeditatio and the Stoic advice of focusing on the here and now, ignoring both past and present on the ground that they are not under our control; and (iii) introduce a new way (so far as I know) of actually carrying out the premeditatio, using the technique of concept mapping.

I.1. Don Robertson’s treatment of premeditatio

Don writes extensively about the premeditation of adversity in his Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, particularly in chapter 7 (of the 2013 edition, there is a new edition dated 2018). He begins by quoting Epictetus:

Keep before your eyes day by day death and exile, and everything that seems catastrophic, but most of all death; and then you will never have any abject thought, nor will you crave anything excessively. (Enchiridion, 21)

Don explains that the term comes from Seneca, although unfortunately he does not cite an exact reference (a quick search of my Delphi Complete Works of Seneca did not turn out anything, including from the Latin text). He immediately clarifies an important point, though: while Irvine (see below) calls this technique “negative visualization,” we should keep in mind that for the Stoics external events are not really bad, but (morally) indifferent. Indeed, according to Seneca we should pre-meditate not just about adversity, but also about good fortune, since we will need our virtue (and a prepared mind) to deal with both:

Hold fast to this thought, and grip it close: yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity; keep before your eyes the full scope of Fortune’s power, as if she would surely do whatever is in her power to do. That which has been long expected comes more gently. (Letters LXXVIII.29)

I would add, and I know that Don would agree, that in the context of ancient Stoicism we shouldn’t refer to it as a “visualization,” as there is no hint in the literature that that’s what they meant. Seneca and Epictetus talk about “keeping in mind” the possibility of adversity, but “visualization” has a modern ring, with a closer connection to cognitive behavioral therapy (see below) than Stoicism per se.

Here is Seneca again:

It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace, the soldier carries out manoeuvres, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes, you must give him some training before it comes. (Letters XVIII.6)

And Marcus:

Say to yourself at daybreak: I shall come across the meddling busy-body, the ungrateful, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, and the antisocial. All this has befallen them because they cannot tell good from evil. (Meditations, II.1)

Interestingly, Don also mentions Michael Foucault (a modern philosopher not usually associated with Stoicism) as discussing in detail the premeditatio, and describing it as consisting of three components (p. 152):

1. Rather than imagining the most likely future, the Stoic practises imagining the worst-case scenario, even if it’s unlikely to actually happen. 

2. The Stoic pictures the feared scenario as if happening now, rather than in the future, e.g., not that she will one day be exiled but that she is in exile already. 

3. The primary rationale is for her to rehearse freedom from irrational distress (apatheia), by calmly persuading herself that these external ‘misfortunes’ are really indifferent, to be accepted as merely situations calling on us to exhibit virtue and strength of character. 

Don, who is a CBT practitioner, makes a direct link between the premeditatio and modern techniques, in particular exposure therapy, which is based on a process of habituation to whatever stimulus causes anxiety. He suggests that Stoic premeditation is similar to imaginal exposure, which is the most common strategy in CBT that exploits mental imagery to address anxiety.

Interestingly, in CBT, the notion -- often held by a patient -- that a particular anticipated event is awful is challenged by asking questions like “so what, if it happens, is it going to be the end of the world?” The goal is to “de-catrastrophize,” as Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (a precursor of CBT) put it, by shifting the focus on the development of coping plans aimed at handling the problematic situation.

Again, Seneca:

Since it is invariably unfamiliarity that makes a thing more formidable than it really is, this habit of continual reflection will ensure that no form of adversity finds you a complete beginner. (Letters, CVII.4)

I.2 Bill Irvine’s treatment of premeditatio

Bill’s discussion of the premeditation in chapter 4 of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy actually predates Don’s, but it deviates in a number of respects from Stoicism proper (as do other aspects of his book, for instance his attempt to turn the dichotomy of control into a trichotomy, rightly criticized by Don as destroying Stoicism).

Bill too begins by quoting Seneca:

He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand. (To Marcia, IX.5)

Bill, somewhat surprisingly, connects the premeditatio to the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation studied by psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein. Consider someone who wins the lottery. Initially, the event is greeted with exhilaration, but then people -- studies show -- quickly adapt to the new situation, returning to their previous, more or less “set” point of happiness. Bill, correctly, claims that a key to long lasting happiness is to forestall the process of hedonic adaptation, by acting in a way that prevents us from taking certain things, like hot showers and warm meals, for granted.

This, however, seems to me to have to do more with self-deprivation exercises than with the premeditatio. Consider Seneca:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ (Letters XVIII.5)


I hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. (Letters XX.13)

Even Bill quotes this passage:

We should love all of our dear ones … but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long. (Seneca, To Marcia, IX.2, X.3)

which is not really about premeditating adversity in the sense described in the previous section, that is, in order to be mentally prepared when things go wrong (compare Meditations II.1 above), but is instead an exercise in gratitude and an invitation to focus on the here and now.

Bill goes further afield when he mentions that, if we have trouble visualizing adversity, perhaps it will be easier if we remind ourselves of other people’s adversity, reflecting on the fact that those things could just as easily happen to us. While there is textual evidence for this approach, again it doesn’t really seem to be about preparing oneself for a bad turn of events, but more a way to keep things in perspective and not complain that the universe is after us, specifically. Consider this, from Epictetus:

When somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others. (Enchiridion 26)

Bill, however, is correct when he stresses that there is a difference between contemplating adversity and worrying about it. Contemplation, he continues, is an exercise in detachment, while worrying is an emotional state. I will return to this distinction later.

He also refers to the contemplation of the impermanence of things in the world (“panta rhei,” would say Heraclitus), as in several passages in the Meditations, for instance:

Perhaps the desire of the thing called fame torments you. See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and lack of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of its domain, and be quiet at last. (Meditations IV.3)

But this is again a different exercise, with a different scope, another way to gain perspective and remind ourselves why our apparently mighty struggles are but a moment in time and a speck of dust in space. Not really the same thing, or purpose, as the premeditatio.

II. Why premeditate, if we should focus on the here and now?

But wait a minute, you may have been thinking all along. Isn’t there a bit of a tension between the notion of premeditating about adversity (or, more broadly, as Seneca suggests in Letters LXXVIII.29, any delivery from Fortuna, positive or negative) and the oft-repeated Stoic advice to focus on the here and now, ignoring both the past and the present on the ground that they are not under our control?

Will you not understand that no man should be tormented by the future? ... Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel. (Seneca, Letters LXXIV.34)

And again:

Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet. (Letters LXXVIII.14)

I don’t think there is a contradiction here. Let me explain by way of analogy with another Stoic technique, the evening philosophical diary. Seneca explains how to do it in some detail:

The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?” ... I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself. ... I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore?’ (On Anger, III.36)

This may appear to be in direct contradiction with the two quotes from Seneca’s Letters reported just above, which clearly state that we should not concern ourselves with the past, since it is no longer under our control. But here the obvious, and correct, interpretation is the one given by Irvine above: there is a difference between contemplating adversity and worrying about it. And this goes for both the past and the future.

The idea is that it is irrational to worry about either past or future because, again, they are outside of our control. But it is perfectly rational to contemplate both past and future. In the first case so that we may learn from our own mistakes, in the second case so that we may prepare ourselves mentally for whatever Fortuna is about to hand to us.

III. Concept mapping as a way to do premeditatio

From what we’ve seen so far, the ancient Stoics thought of the premeditatio as an exercise in rational contemplation (Seneca: think of what may happen, so that you will be prepared when it does happen), or in philosophical writing (a lot of Marcus’ Meditations). Modern Stoics, taking a cue from cognitive behavioral therapy, do the premeditation as a visualization exercise, essentially running a movie in one’s mind that plays out the likely scenario, over and over until one is habituated to it and anxiety diminishes.

I’m not that good at visualization exercises, so instead I make heavy use of the technique of the philosophical diary for the premeditatio (though, as I pointed out above, the diary is useful for more than just the premeditation of adversity, since it should be used also to learn from one’s past and generally to reflect on one’s progress).

Recently, however, I have adapted a well known pedagogical technique known as concept mapping to the premeditatio. C-mapping is a very powerful and flexible tool that allows us to organize our thoughts on a particular topic. It is used in teaching from the elementary to the graduate school level, since being able to build a good concept map is a quick check on whether one has really understood the major ideas expressed in, say, a book or essay, as well as how these ideas are connected.

Below is a simple example of premeditation of adversity done by concept mapping:

The specific (hypothetical) example is that of someone facing a job interview the following day. As you can see, the map begins with the two possible outcomes: either I get the job or I don’t. (Notice that the text is phrased in the second person, just as Marcus wrote the Meditations. There is evidence from modern psychological research that this helps making the self-analysis more detached and objective.)

If I get the job, then I should be grateful to Fortuna (i.e., the randomness of the universe) because a number of factors I do not control happened to go my way. It’s a reminder that I shouldn’t get too cocky and overestimate what is in my control.

If I don’t get the job, a number of things follow. First (extreme left side of the diagram) I should remind myself that this isn’t the end of the world. In rational emotive behavior therapy terms, I need to “de-catastrophize.” And of course, there will (likely) be other chances for me to get a similar job. Or a different one.

Second, I should keep in mind that my self worth does not depend on having gotten that particular job (or any other one). Jobs are preferred indifferents, meaning that they do have value (we all need to pay our bills!) but do not, per se, make us better or worse persons, the only thing that matters in Stoic philosophy.

Third (central part of the diagram), I should ask myself whether I did everything that was in my power in order to prepare for the interview. If the answer is no, then I need to do better next time around. If yes, then I need to remind myself that things in life don’t always go my way, even when we I everything right, and that I need to cultivate an attitude of equanimity toward adverse outcomes, in order to keep my serenity (what Epictetus calls our “harmony with the universe”).

The point of the exercise is that the very act of carefully mapping out the possible outcomes and how we should react to them is helpful in calming down and preparing our mind for what is going to happen. The map shown here is a relatively simple example, and it can be made more complex by adding as many layers of details as one feels necessary. Concept maps can be created with simple presentation software (here I used Google Slides, but Apple Keynote, or MS PowerPoint would do as well), or by using special software like the one linked to a few paragraphs above.

Happy premeditatio, everyone!

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