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The Roots of Red Teaming (Praemeditatio Malorum)

The Roots of Red Teaming (Praemeditatio Malorum)

Over the years, we've been asked my times how red teaming began. We don't believe there's an easy answer to the question. Some point to the German Kriegsspiel or earlier variants of battlefield simulation (chess, for example). Micah Zenko in his book Red Team highlights the Catholic practice of employing a devil's advocate. We've recently encountered another example of proto-red teaming: the ancient Stoic practice of praemeditatio malorum. (For the sake of completeness, we must note that the practice wasn't strictly limited to the Stoics, nor is Stoicism limited to the ancients.)

Without turning this post into an introduction to Stoic philosophy, we'll simply note that ancient Stoics sought fulfillment through a variety of practices, among which was the method of praemeditatio malorum, or "preparing the mind in advance to cope with adversity." (Robertson 2010, 207)

Seneca justifies the practice in these terms:

It is in time of security that the soul should school itself to hardship, and while Fortune is benign it should gather strength to meet her harshness. In the midst of peace the soldier charges, he throws up her rampart when there is no enemy, he wearies himself with superfluous exertions, in order to make himself adequate to necessary exertions. If you don’t want a man to panic and action you must train him beforehand. This is the program of the school which approaches actual want in its monthly imitation of poverty; the object is to be unflinching in the face of a situation they have often rehearsed. (Seneca in Hadas 1958, 179)

Pierre Hadot describes the same idea in modern language:

One of the best-known Stoic spiritual exercises consisted in the "pre-exercise" (praemeditatio) of "evils," which we could gloss as an exercise that prepares us for facing trials. Here, we imagine in advance various difficulties, reversals of fortune, sufferings, and death. Philo of Alexandria says that those who practice praemeditatio do not flinch beneath the blows of Fate, because they have calculated its attacks in advance; for of those things which happen against our will, even the most painful are lessened by foresight, when our thought no longer encounters anything unexpected in events but dulls the perception of them, as if they were old, worn-out things. (Hadot 2002, 137)

The practice is not limited to the imagination. Citing Michel Foucoult, Donald Robertson observes, "As Foucoult notes, the Stoics divided their exercises into meditatio, a word that can mean both 'preparation' and 'meditation', and gymnasia, practical training through activity. 'While meditatio is an imaginary experience that trains thought, gymnasia is training in a real situation, even if it's been artificially induced.'" (Robertson, 211)

Admittedly praemeditatio malorum is not the direct counterpart of modern red teaming, but it certainly is related. Scanning the horizon to detect possible sources of difficulty and preparing for them is one of the main functions of red teaming. Where the ancient Stoic sought to become a more resilient person, modern red teamers typically seek to build a more resilient system or organization. And just as the modern organization seeks to avoid surprise, the ancient Stoic sought to resist the various guises of Fate. It's just one more example of the fact that the mental exercise of red teaming isn't limited to one domain or even one era.

References

Hadas, Moses. The Stoic Philosophy of Senece: Essays and Letters. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1958.

Hadot, Pierre. What Is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

Robertson, Donald. The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). London: Karnac Books, 2010.

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