Premeditatio Malorum

Is the third in the "Latin phrases" trinity actually Stoic?

In last week’s edition, we learned that Memento Mori was popularized by Christian ethics and had it roots in pre-Socratic philosophy. No Stoic of antiquity ever uttered the phrase “Memento Mori.”

In the edition before that, we learned that Amor Fati originated in Nietzsche’s writings and had absolutely nothing to do with Stoic orthodoxy.

While both Memento Mori and Amor Fati are not expressly Stoic, we do see a reflection of the same concepts within Stoic ethics – just not by these names. So, while not expressly Stoic, they are, let’s say, Stoicism-compatible.

In this week’s edition, we take on the last in the trinity of “assumed-to-be-Stoic-canon” Latin phrases popularized by contemporary Stoicism influencers on Instagram, TikTok, and in many popular non-academic publications.

Just as is the case with the other sayings, Premeditatio Malorum (as a phrase) doesn’t come from Stoicism. Premeditatio Malorum as a concept is embodied by Stoicism, but predates Stoicism considerably (about 100-years earlier) and was first conceptualized by Aristippus of Cyrene and his Sensual Hedonists!

Bet you never thought the Sensual Hedonists were going to come up in this series, did you? Well, you know what they say…

Before continuing, I’m going to clarify the reason for this three-part series I’ve been writing (in case the reason isn’t clear by now):

Stoicism is an Ancient Greek philosophy. The Greeks didn’t speak Latin, which means Latin Phrases were never part of Stoic orthodoxy.

Yes, both the Greek and Latin languages indeed existed prior to the founding of Stoicism (Greek dating back to ~1500 BCE and Latin to ~700 BCE), and yes Roman philosophers discoursed, and taught (primarily) in Greek, but the Greeks didn’t speak or write in Latin since they (mostly) viewed Latin (and all other languages) as inferior to Greek:

“Greek is the most pleasant language and the most fitting for humans. If you observe the words used by other peoples in their languages, you will see that some closely resemble the wailing of pigs, others the sound of frogs, others the call of the woodpecker.”

Galen of Pergamon

In reflecting on the previous editions in this series, and in reflecting on this one when once you’ve read it, I want you to keep in mind that no Greek philosopher ever coined a Latin phrase.

Stoicism is a Greek philosophy, so none of these popularized Latin phrases can be “Stoic canon.”

As you’ll see, I am cynical (lower-case c) of, and somewhat frustrated by, the reasons these phrases are, today, so popular and so well-tethered to (the pop interpretation of) Stoicism.

It wasn’t until ~300 years after Stoicism’s founding that the philosophy was ported over to Roman Culture. When this happened, its orthodoxy was, in some ways, perverted, and it took on a distinctly Roman flavour.

A (hopefully) helpful food analogy

Imagine you’re from a country called Cuisine-ica, and part of your country’s culture is to attempt to make available to your citizens all other countries’ culinary traditions in as authentic a way as possible.

You take this responsibility seriously, and the foods you create are pretty close to the originals – and you certainly intend to respect these culinary traditions.

Still, if someone from Taco-topia came to your country and tried your tacos, they would be able to identify what wasn’t quite right about your rendition of their cultural staple — and they’d be able to do it pretty easily.

This is how I think about Roman Stoicism and Greek Stoicism.

It’s not that Roman Stoicism is bad, or wrong, but it isn’t Greek Stoicism. It has a different flavor, it prioritizes different things, and it presents Stoicism differently. Importantly, it is also almost entirely devoid of any discussion of Stoic physics — which is a massive piece of Stoic orthodoxy.

90% or more of surviving Stoic texts are from Roman philosophers (Stoics and non-Stoics alike)

We have so few original Greek Stoic texts; next to none.

When trying to understand Greek Stoicism – true “orthodox Stoicism” – a lot of what we rely on are Skeptic texts that critique Stoicism (and thus have to lay its positions and arguments out in great detail), or texts from people like Diogenes Laertius, Galen of Pergamon, Cicero, or Plutarch.

Diogenes and Galen (for example) lived between the first and third centuries AD, so they’re ~500 years away from Stoic orthodoxy. We trust them because we assume (1) that they had access to texts that have since been lost and (2) that they are philosophers of the intellectually honest sort that aren’t going to misrepresent Stoic positions when quoting and/or criticising them.

That we have so little direct content from the Ancient Greek Stoics isn’t the only thing that all but guarantees we don’t have the full picture…

The Roman Empire (and every other powerful government/movement) functionally suppressed Stoicism in the centuries following Marcus Aurelius’s death not because Stoicism was the philosophy of tough soldiers who acted like men, did manly things, oozed masculinity, and believed in unfailing duty and service to the State (the later Ancient Romans would have loved that, after all), but most likely because it was entirely incompatible with both Christianity and authoritarian rule.

The Stoics were, basically, intellectual troublemakers of the first water!

“Zeno’s Republic” (a book written by Zeno of Citium, and of which we have very few surviving fragments) seems to have read like a tree-hugging hippy’s utopian manifesto. Zeno would have been called the Bernie Sanders of Greece if he were alive today:

Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field.– Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander

This isn’t the philosophy of individuals living in and navigating a top-down hierarchical power structure. Instead, it’s the philosophy of brothers and sisters looking after one another because Nature (the Stoic God) is worth emulating through behaviour – and since Nature is harmony, that means peace, love, and cosmopolitanism are more in alignment with Stoicism than is this hyper-masculine nonsense we see on the internet everywhere we look when searching for information about Stoicism.

This is the point of this series, to help you to understand what you might believe to be core Stoic concepts or ideas, aren’t exactly that. Also, that not understanding this might be obscuring the deeper more important parts of the actual (orthodox) philosophy (that we know or that we can reasonably infer) you could be benefiting greatly from understanding.

Now, let’s talk about Premeditatio Malorum

At this point, you already know the phrase itself isn’t Stoic orthodoxy. It’s Latin, so it can’t be.

Still you might be hoping for a happy ending to this series.

You might be hoping to discover that Premeditatio Malorum is, actually, Stoic canon – but your hope is being hoped in vain.

My condolences…

In the 21st century, inspired by English translations of Seneca's Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, several Anglophone Stoics coined the expression "negative visualization" and gave it the Dog-Latin expression "premeditatio malorum", often without providing citations.

-Wikipedia entry on Negative Visualization. Source here (includes multiple other sources)

“In the 21st Century” – the 21st Century! That’s fewer than 25 years ago!

Peddlers of “Stoic” swag and paraphernalia the world over step into the quagmire of tenuous relevancy no more deeply, firmly, or confidently than when they slap “Premeditatio Malorum” on a $30 t-shirt and tell you to “embody your inner Stoic” in the sales copy they attach to it!

This is akin to the corporate interests that print your nation’s flag on a pair of boxer briefs and then set out to convince you that cradling your nether-bits in the shart-filtering polyester embodiment of your nation’s most sacred emblem is the only patriotic way to approach undergarment selection.

They are manipulating our desire to show others where we stand and what we identify strongly with for the sake of profit.

It’s a scandal, and it’s made possible by the seemingly endless effort (by the profit-seeking powers that be) to get people more interested in signaling their identities than they are in reading books and figuring out what the world means both objectively and to them.

People are making money selling trinkets to other people who possess a strong desire to represent themselves as uniquely special or different through their fashion choices, bumpers stickers, or personal accessories – and they’re doing it (in the case of Stoicism in pop culture) by selling “slogans” that aren’t Stoic directly to those who identify as Stoics, because they know those people don’t know any better. Those people just want a cool t-shirt that shows other people what they’re up to… because…

To be Stoic has become something similar to being part of a club that provides both social status and cool swag, at the expense of its being presented to the world as a serious philosophy that can help people live better, more fulfilling, more useful, more compassionate lives.

Nobody sells a shirt with Meditations 2.1 on it.

Nobody has a bumper sticker that says, “Live according to Nature” or “Care for the Cosmopolis” or “As Stoics we are meant to work together” or “Peace, Love, and Virtue is the only Good.”


Because that sentiment doesn’t sell, while the sentiment of tough men, skulls, and a morbid fascination with death as some sort of masculine motivation, does sell.

If Zeno tried to found Stoicism today, he’d be decried as a lunatic.

It is no wonder, then, that the only parts of his philosophy that most people are familiar with today are the parts that leverage “pop identity obsession” and which didn’t originate from the philosophy endless numbers of swag salesmen are insisting, collectively, they originate from.

I told you I’d get cynical.

Put the catchphrases down…

They’re not Stoic canon, they’re products.

They’re not Stoicism, they’re commercialism and commoditization.

Stoicism doesn’t have any accessories, it has values, ethical and logical frameworks, and a wealth of good advice about how to go about living a life worthy of being lived.

It’s okay to have a t-shirt that shows your love of Stoicism, or a coffee mug or a keychain, but it’s far less important than doing the work to embody the values of this noble and ancient (Greek!) philosophy.

Thanks for reading.


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