Of negative visualization and positive thinking

A few years ago, I read an essay that briefly examined the TV series Battlestar Galactica from a Stoic perspective.* I knew almost nothing about Stoicism, but the essay and its depiction of the philosophy lingered in my memory, so when I learned of a new book on Stoicism recently, I tracked a copy down. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine isn’t the first attempt to explain Stoicism to a modern audience, but this book seems to be better known than some of its predecessors. Having a better grasp now of what Stoicism is, I find myself comparing it to Paganism. If the two turn out to have some incompatibilities, it will be a mite ironic—after all, many modern Pagans would view the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics as Pagans as well.

Consider this: Stoicism advocates a practice that Irvine terms “negative visualization.” Negative visualization (and I’m condensing this considerably from Irvine’s book, which in turn summarizes multiple Stoic sources) involves imagining that you have lost what you value. The goals are

  1. to come up with ways to prevent these losses,
  2. to reduce the emotional impact when inevitable loss does occur, and
  3. to forestall or reverse hedonic adaptation (the tendency for people to get bored with what they have, and want a bigger house, a different relationship, etc.) and learn to desire what you already have—that is, to really appreciate the people and things in your life and not take them for granted.

But wait. Many Pagans believe that you create your own reality. Indeed, focusing on a desired outcome is a key part of Pagan magic. Negative visualization isn’t at all about wanting bad things to happen, but it does mean focusing on them. When it occurred to me how negative visualization could look from a Pagan perspective, I admit I didn’t rush in to trying it. I’ve never been sure how far I believe that you create your own reality, but it might be time to ponder that. After all, desensitizing myself to loss is one thing; literally inviting disaster would be overkill.

Reading beyond Irvine’s book, I’ve learned that the ancient Stoics had considered this perspective and rejected it. As Seneca the Younger wrote,

Who of us ever looked upon his possessions with the thought that he would die? Who of us ever ventured to think upon exile, upon want, upon grief? Who, if he were urged to reflect upon these things would not reject the idea as an unlucky omen, and demand that those curses pass over to the head of an enemy or even to that of his untimely adviser? You say: “I did not think it would happen.” Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened to many? . . . He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.

It was reassuring to read that. It was just so darn reasonable. I find the Stoic view on misfortune attractive in its own way. It’s not that I think that dwelling on how I will feel if I lose my job or my apartment catches on fire or someone I love dies will be a pleasant experience, but there’s a certain relief in a philosophy that acknowledges that these things do happen, but that it has nothing to do with you personally. The belief that you create your own reality puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on you if that reality is flawed, and most are.

So is this my farewell post before I shut down this blog and run off to become a Stoic? Hardly. I don’t think negative visualization is a universal answer any more than positive thinking is, nor is it the entirety of Stoicism any more than magic is the entirety of Paganism. Perhaps one can deepen the other. Regardless, it probably won’t hurt to think more about how they might interact—and it gives me a summer reading project.


*”How To Be Happy After the End of the World” by Erik D. Baldwin. In Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Knowledge Here Begins Out There edited by Jason T. Eberl (Blackwell Publishing, 2008).

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