The Reserve Clause

Fate permitting

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share emails – usually two – to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found. For the next few weeks we’re changing our frequency to one email per a week as we run our course.

🏛️ Theory

I will set sail unless anything happens to prevent me.

Seneca, Of Peace of Mind

The Stoic reserve clause involves adding a disclaimer to each desire: “fate permitting.” Whenever you set out to do something, remember that it may not happen as you want.

Seneca continues:

This is why we say that nothing befalls the wise man which he did not expect—we do not make him exempt from the chances of human life, but from its mistakes, nor does everything happen to him as he wished it would, but as he thought it would…the pain of disappointed wishes must affect a man's mind less severely if he has not been at all events confident of success.

This simple reminder helps us become less dependent on external outcomes. The frustrations of our plans are lose their force if we understand that things often go wrong.

Instead of holding onto our desires for dear life, we can loosen our grasp. As the facts change, we should change too.

However – there is a potential trap with this approach. As the quip goes:

Where there is a will to fail, obstacles will be found.

The reserve clause isn’t an excuse to abandon our plans at the first sign of adversity. Indeed, although it defends us against the bludgeonings of chance, that is not its primary purpose.

Instead, it’s a technique for seeing reality as it is. The universe is transformation. Always changing, always out of our control. What we wish may not come to pass.

The reserve clause reminds us to not invest in outcomes. Stoics focus on their character instead.

As Seneca encourages us:

In the meantime cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do.

Moral Letters 78

Stoicism calls you to do your best – while recognizing that things will rarely go as planned.

🎯 Action

Bring to mind one of your plans today and apply the reserve clause to it. Then act.

🔗 Links

🎧️ If you haven’t already, listen to Michael and I discuss the reserve clause here. It is one of the primary ways we can practice the discipline of action.

✉️ Check out this 10-day email series from What Is Stoicism? Start your next 10 days with Stoic morning routines that take only 10 minutes.

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