The Stoic Reserve Clause: Actions Don't Always Go to Plan

In this article, we travel to the world of the Stoics and one of their most illustrious representatives. He revealed how we can deal with those aspects of life that are beyond our control.
The Stoic Reserve Clause: Actions Don't Always Go to Plan

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 09 November, 2022

The Stoic reserve clause is an antidote to the obsession with staying in control. A control that most of us, to a greater or lesser degree, enjoy. For example, you lay out plans and prepare the ground to follow them, minimizing the number of factors that might obstruct you. This provides you with feelings of security and confidence.

However, the reality is often extremely different. In fact, no plans develop exactly the way you imagine them to, and you often need to modify them. This is what the Stoic reserve clause reminds you: the fact that the supposed control you have over certain things is nothing more than an illusion.

This clause applies to all kinds of everyday and personal situations. That said, it might be easier to maintain control over a current project as opposed to something that may or may not happen in six months’ time. Nevertheless, it’s always important to keep the Stoic reserve clause in mind. You can find out about it here.

A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope .”

-Epictetus-

Woman thinking
Only paying attention to results can result in frustration.

The Stoic reserve clause

The stoic reserve clause refers to advice left by the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus in the  Enchiridion, or Handbook of Epictetus. In Chapter Two of this book, he stated: “Use only the impulse that leads you to action and the rein that inaction allows you, but gently, with moderation and with a reserve clause”.

What did he mean by this? He explained it better in Chapter Four of the same writing: “When you’re about to embark on any action, remember what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you”. The philosopher meant that it’s extremely difficult to predict the outcome of events. Therefore, when initiating an action, it’s advisable to keep in mind that there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to carry it out as you expected. Taking this into account will save you a great deal of frustration.

The force of the unknown

The Stoic reserve clause mentions the word hupexhairesis. There’s no exact translation for this term, but it’s broadly equivalent to expressions such as “God willing”, “If God wants it” or “As long as fate doesn’t oppose”. In other words, there are aspects of that future that are impossible to foresee and that have the power to completely change the course of events.

It wasn’t only Epictetus, but all the Stoics who promoted the idea that the most important thing is to focus on efforts and not so much on results. In fact, if attention is directed toward the latter, the possibility of feeling frustrated is much higher.

Put another way, the Stoics suggested that we focus on what we have the most control over. Consequently, the wisest thing is to focus on your will or conviction to do something. The rest is unknown.

Woman thinking
According to the Stoic reserve clause, it’s preferable to focus on efforts, rather than results.

The usefulness of the Stoic reserve clause

The main use of the Stoic reserve clause is to remind us that, even if we feel like masters of reality, this is nothing more than a fantasy. Keeping this in mind will make it easier to avoid disappointment. Likewise, you’ll be more open to changing plans, if reality demands it, without feeling defeated.

If you have a really rigid mental mindset and reality causes unforeseen twists, you’ll probably end up denying the facts or feeling paralyzed. On the other hand, if you’re open-minded and flexible and accept you need to move in a new direction and reformulate your plans, you’ll be less emotionally drained and be able to move forward more smoothly.

The Stoic reserve clause is extremely useful today when uncertainty is a given. We live in times when many powerful events have the ability to change individual lives. Indeed, wars, diseases, climate change, and many other factors make this wise safeguard against the future more necessary than ever.

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  • Braicovich, R. S. (2012). La recepción de la doctrina de los indiferentes en Epicteto. Nova tellus, 30 (1), 105-132.
  • Rovira Faixa, T., Fernández Castro, J., & Edo Izquierdo, S. (2000). Análisis de la influencia de la conducta en la ilusión de control. Anales de psicología.