Coming at Stoicism from the CBT and mental health angle, I quickly came up against some pretty startling ideas. Visualising negative outcomes (premeditatio malorum) and considering ones own death or that of a loved one. Ideas that, on the face of it, could send anyone prone to catastrophizing into the very existential crisis they would like to avoid.

However, dig a little deeper and I find that these ideas have a much more positive basis. In the context of the philosophy as a whole they make more sense and differ from the negative thoughts the anxious mind is prone to. For me, catastrophizing is ‘all these bad things could happen, probably will happen, are happening, oh shit, I am going to die or, at the very least, publicly make a complete arse of myself’.

I came across this in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations; > it is folly to ruminate on evils to come, or such as, perhaps, never may come: every evil is disagreeable enough when it does come; but he who is constantly considering that some evil may befall him is loading himself with a perpetual evil; and even should such evil never light on him, he voluntarily takes upon himself unnecessary misery, so that he is under constant uneasiness, whether he actually suffers any evil, or only thinks of it.

I think that sums up catastrophizing perfectly, ‘ruminate’ and ‘constantly considering’ being the key to what makes it a destructive process. On the other hand, my understanding of negative visualisation is that it is the rational process of considering the possible adverse outcomes, with the emphasis firmly on rational, so that we can be mentally prepared should a bad thing happen. The idea then is one of ‘how do I respond should that scenario happen?’

This is in direct opposition to the avoidant behaviour of those of us with anxiety. The anxious habit of running over and over terrible scenarios is all about avoiding them, a negative feedback loop that you can never escape, that always ends in ‘but what if…?’ Negative visualisation is about facing reality head on, accepting possibilities and considering what the rational and ‘virtuous’ response is. It is about learning to value what we have in the here and now.

I still have questions about the apparent bias towards the negative. It is very easy to see it as pessimism. But this might be as much about how the idea is portrayed as the concept itself, given it is antithetic to modern positive thinking. To my mind, a life philosophy cannot be reduced to a quotable axiom or two, otherwise it is not worth the paper it’s written on; it is only within its context that I think a principal can be fully understood. I will continue to read and learn more, particularly around how premeditatio malorum fits within the wider Stoic philosophy.

Stephen James

Minding the gaps

© Stephen James 2021

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