The Stoic Reserve Clause

The Stoic Reserve Clause

Philosophy-of-CBT-Karnac-Cover-TitleCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2010.  All rights reserved.

This is an excerpt from the book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  Find out more about the book at

The “reserve clause” (exceptio) is perhaps one of the most basic underlying concepts of Stoicism. In a sense, it merely formulates from a different perspective what I have termed the “Stoic Fork”, the distinction between that which is under one’s control and that which is not. It is a verbal clause added to the end of each sentence concerning one’s own actions or intentions. Or rather, it is the concept which would be implied by adding such a clause, the idea that it expresses, because I would assume that the Stoic went from learning to merely say the reserve clause to actually experiencing it. The clause itself can take several forms, e.g., “God willing”, “fate willing”, “nature permitting”, “if nothing prevents me”, etc. In each case, however, the underlying idea is basically the same. A common proverb expresses it thus: “Do what you must; let happen what may.”

Seneca writes that the Stoic Sage undertakes every action with the reserve clause: “If nothing shall occur to the contrary”’ (Seneca, 2009, p. 116).

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 result. Here also, however, he is protected by that reserve clause, without which he decides upon nothing, and begins nothing. (Seneca, 2009, p. 116, modified)

He defines the reserve clause by the following formula,

I want to do such and such, as long as nothing happens which may present an obstacle to my decision. (Seneca, in Hadot, 1998, p. 193, modified)

He gives the example, “I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me,” and elaborates,

Nothing happens to the Sage contrary to his expectations, for he foresees that something may intervene which prevents that which he has planned from being carried out. […]

What he thinks above all is that something can always oppose his plans. But the pain caused by failure must be lighter for one who has not promised success to himself beforehand. (Seneca, in Hadot, 1998, p. 205)

The Stoic therefore makes a point of qualifying the expression of every intention, by introducing a distinction between his will and external factors beyond his control. The Sage thereby holds two complementary propositions in mind simultaneously, viz.,

1. I will do my very best to succeed.

2. While simultaneously accepting that the ultimate outcome is beyond my direct control.

It implies, “I will try to succeed, but am prepared to accept both success and failure with equanimity”, and thereby recognises human fallibility. Centuries later, Christian theologians would signify the same notion by appending the letters “D.V.” or Deo Volente (“God Willing”) to their correspondence.

The concept of goal-directed behaviour was traditionally illustrated in classical philosophy by the metaphor of an archer. (Apollo, the patron god of philosophy, was also the god of archery.) The archer can notch his arrow and draw his bow to the best of his ability, but once the arrow has flown he can only wait to see if it hits the target: an unexpected gust of wind could blow it off course. The intention is under his control, as is the act of setting the arrow in motion, but the result is outside his sphere of direct influence and, at least in part, down to “fate” – by which is meant merely external variables. In the third book of De Finibus, Cicero uses the analogy of the archer shooting an arrow at a target. His ultimate wish is to hit the target, but he can only do everything within his power to shoot his arrow straight, and so shooting straight, as opposed to actually hitting the target, must be his primary concern, and so it is with life in general. Nowadays, we say, “All that anyone can ask is that you try your best.” Marcus Aurelius writes, ‘Thanks to action “with a reserve clause” […] there can be no obstacle to my intention’ (Meditations, 5.20).

Remember that your intention was always to act “with a reserve clause”, for you did not desire the impossible. What, then, did you desire? Nothing other than to have such an intention; and that you have achieved. (Meditations, 6.50)

Again, Epictetus puts it as follows,

For can you find me a single man who cares how he does what he does, and is interested, not in what he can get, but in the manner of his own actions? Who, when he is walking around, is interested in his own actions? Who, when he is deliberating, is interested in the deliberation itself, and not in getting what he is planning to get? (Discourses, 2.16.15)

This is a little like saying “It’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it.” The Stoic Handbook of Epictetus likewise recommends that in addition to reminding oneself to avoid attaching emotive language to external things, we should undertake any action with this reservation: that we may always be thwarted by others, or by fortune. We should remind ourselves to view the future realistically, and to prepare to accept any obstacles calmly rather than feel frustration (Enchiridion, 4). The reserve clause can probably be correlated with the Serenity Prayer insofar as it makes a basic distinction between courageously doing what is under our control while Stoically and serenely accepting what is outside of our control, the outcome or consequences of our actions.

The Reserve Clause & REBT

We have seen that the Stoics acknowledge both irrational and rational forms of desire which could be translated in terms of the distinction between “craving” and “preference”. The reserve clause, which appears to typify the concept of rational preference (boulêsis) in Stoicism, bears a very obvious resemblance to the concept of “rational preference” in REBT. Ellis considered irrational demands, the major underlying source of most emotional disturbance, to be fundamentally exemplified by “must” and “should” statements

So REBT encourages your clients to feel strongly about succeeding at important tasks and relationships, but not to fall into the human propensity to raise their strong desires to absolutistic demands – “I must succeed or else I am worthless!” These produce dysfunctional negative feelings, especially panic and depression, that block their desires.(Ellis & MacLaren, 2005, p. 21)

The healthy alternative prescribed by Ellis is to adopt a philosophy of flexible preference which expresses a desire but also accepts the possibility of it being frustrated, e.g.,

“I must succeed, failure would be awful!”, becomes,

“I strongly prefer to succeed, but even if I fail I will accept myself fully.”

This is, of course, essentially the same “philosophical” attitude toward success or failure that the reserve clause embodied for the Stoics. Again, to put it another way, “I intend to act with wisdom and integrity, fate willing, but will accept the result of my actions with a philosophical attitude.”

We might call this philosophical stance the “take it or leave it” attitude of the Stoic Sage, who is willing to meet success or failure with equal composure. These are the Stoic qualities Marcus Aurelius appears to have deliberately sought to model from his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius.

The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance – without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.

This “take it or leave it” aspect of Stoicism was, of course, one of the themes in Kipling’s famous poem, If,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same; […]

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!(Kipling, 1994, p. 605)

This is sound wisdom and illustrates, once again, the extent to which Stoicism embodies a “perennial philosophy” which permeates the history of European civilisation, from philosophy and theology to poetry and the arts.


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