This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the reserve clause is and how you can use it in your Stoic practice.
Definition Of The Stoic Reserve Clause
The Stoic reserve clause is a means of reminding ourselves that our actions and goals may not always go to plan. In other words, although we may try our best, the outcome is, at least to some extent, subject to Fate.
This reminder serves to diminish the pain of disappointment if something does go wrong.
A common way to express the reserve clause is to use the phrase “Fate permitting”. Stoics develop the habit of adding the clause to statements of intention when the outcome is not fully within their control.
For example, a Stoic planning to see their parents knowing that any number of unexpected events could prevent the visit happening might say:
“I will visit my parents tomorrow, Fate permitting”.
This maintains an awareness for the person using the reserve clause that they may not succeed in doing what they set out to do and may even help them plan better for likely obstructions.
What The Stoics Said
Marcus Aurelius was clear that disregarding the role of Fate in our endeavours would lead to us being unduly disturbed by failure:
If your impulse is without an “reserve clause”, failure at once becomes an evil to you as a rational creature. But once you accept that universal necessity, you cannot suffer harm nor even be thwarted. Indeed, nobody else can thwart the inner purposes of the mind. For it no fire can touch, nor steel, nor tyrant, nor public censure, nor anything whatsoever: a sphere once formed continues round and true.Meditations 8.41
He went on to highlight Epictetus’s advice in relation to the reserve clause:
Hear Epictetus: No one can rob us of our free choice. We must, says he, hit upon the true science of assent and in the sphere of our impulses pay good heed that they are with a “reserve clause”; that they have in view our neighbour’s welfare; that they are proportionate to a thing’s value. And we must abstain wholly from inordinate desire and show avoidance in none of the things that are not in our control.Meditations 11.37-38
Seneca also advises being wary of Fate:
He who does many things often puts himself in Fortune’s power, and it is safest not to tempt her often, but always to remember her existence, and never to promise oneself anything on her security. I will set sail unless anything happens to prevent me; I shall be praetor, if nothing hinders me; my financial operations will succeed, unless anything goes wrong with them. This is why we say that nothing befalls the wise man which he did not expect…
Now his first thought was that his purpose might meet with some resistance, and the pain of disappointed wishes must affect a man’s mind less severely if he has not been at all events confident of success.Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 13
And writes of the “protection” offered by the reserve clause:
The wise man considers both sides: he knows how great is the power of errors, how uncertain human affairs are, how many obstacles there are to the success of plans. Without committing himself, he awaits the doubtful and capricious issue of events, and weighs certainty of purpose against uncertainty of results. Here also, however, he is protected by that reserve clause, without which he decides upon nothing and begins nothing.Seneca, On Benefits
How Can I Use The Stoic Reserve Clause Right Now?
Using the Stoic reserve clause is quite straightforward. For every plan you make, it’s simply a case of reminding yourself that it could go wrong.
The idea of course is not to be pessimistic. It’s to keep in mind that the outcomes of our actions are not completely under our control. As such we can be better prepared if we don’t end up achieving what we set out to.
One way to implement the reserve clause is with this daily writing exercise.
- Draw two columns on a blank page with the headings “Event” and Reserve Clause”.
- For every upcoming event scheduled or every plan you make, list it in the “Event” column.
- Every time you list an event, briefly describe a realistic concern related to the event in the “Reserve Clause” column.
- After the concern you have described, write “Fate permitting” in brackets to reinforce the purpose of the exercise.
- Keeping the reserve clause in mind, you can do your best to fulfil your plans while being less disturbed if something unexpected scuppers them.
|I’ll meet my friend for coffee at 7pm…
|…as long as they can make it and nothing stops me making the journey (Fate permitting.)