Stoic Serenity 2.5: Acting “With Reservation” – Part 2

Are you continuing to keep a “Power Log?” I really hope so. I thought the activity was rudimentary and almost wasteful at first, but I’m beginning to see the benefits. Personally, as I’ve considered my daily activities and evaluated whether I have power over them, I’ve been noticing a shift: at first, when considering what is not in my power, I usually imagined absurd scenarios (a possible apocalypse prevents me from actually finishing the task, for example). But as I’ve continued, I’ve noticed that the scenarios that I imagine have gone from physical catastrophe or prevention of “physical success” to imagining potential things that would evoke realistic emotional reactions.

A transformation that has gone from something like this:

Activity: Met with an acquaintance for coffee.
In My Power: Intend to make a new friend.
Not in My Power: My acquaintance might have stood me up—(she didn’t);
There might have been a hail storm preventing me from driving—(there wasn’t).

To this:

Activity: Met with an acquaintance for coffee.
In My Power: Intend to make a new friend.
Not in My Power: What my acquaintance thinks of the situation; whether she had an enjoyable time.
Reaction: Initially question whether she enjoyed herself, whether she’s interested in pursuing a friendship (does she like me?). Then reminded myself, “Her reaction or thoughts to our meeting are not within my power. The only thing that is in my power is to intend to express myself, intend to have an enjoyable social meeting (at least on my end), and intend to pursue a friendship.”

Do you see the difference? Pretty neat, eh? As we have more practice analyzing and evaluating the situations, we have more opportunities to develop skills of introspection. This will help us address all those hidden insecurities that we don’t like to admit to ourselves.

Acting with Reservation — The Stoic Disclaimer

Today we look at a couple more Meditations to see what Marcus Aurelius meant when he talked about “acting with reservation.”

From one point of view, human beings are the beings who are closest to us, insofar as we must do good to our fellows and show them tolerance: but [if] any of them stands in the way of our closest duties, a human being then comes to be one of the things that are indifferent to me, no less than the sun, or the wind, or a wild beast. Now these may hinder one or other of my actions, but they are not hindrances to my impulses or disposition, because I have the power to act with reservation and turn circumstances to my own advantage. For the mind adapts and converts everything that impedes its activities into something that advances its purpose, and a hindrance to its action becomes an aid, and an obstacle on its path helps it on its way.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20)

In Oxford World’s Classics of Meditations (translated by Robin Hard and notes by Christopher Gill), it says that this Meditation covers a couple of key Stoic themes:

  • Our natural kinship to other human beings.
  • Wishing “with reservation.”
  • Making the best use of circumstances by responding properly to events which are not “preferable,” and accepting them as fated.


Try to persuade them, but act even against their will when the principles of justice demand it. If someone, however, should use force to bar your way, [maintain your tranquility of mind] and refuse to yield to distress, and so use the setback to display another virtue. Remember, moreover, that your original impulse was not unconditional, and you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply to exercise an impulse subject to certain conditions. And this you have achieved; just what we have proposed to ourselves comes to pass.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.50)

What does Marcus mean, “my original impulse was not unconditional?” By “impulse,” he is referring to your original intention when you undertook the activity. By “unconditional,” he is referring to the agreed method that Stoics use to set goals. Remember these?: “I will get to work on time if nothing prevents it,” and “My company will expand and build three new offices in different cities unless something prevents it.” When Stoics set “goals” or aims, they add a disclaimer (“unless something prevents it”), that is, they make the goal with a condition attached.

When our projects are hindered, we need to “go with the flow.” To fight reality is useless, therefore irrational.

Seddon says that when we face obstacles (events or even people) who prevent our projects from success, we need to recognize that they were only hindrances to our projects, but they are never hindrances to our impulses or dispositions. They can’t prevent us from attempting to do what we believe should be done. We don’t have authority over other people—we can’t make them do what we want. So if our plans are thwarted, our response should be to remain mentally calm—maintain our composure. Don’t give in to distress. When we intended to do something, we intended to do it “with reservation,” and on condition (with our “Stoic disclaimer” so to say). If we demand success in everything, we are certain to fail. But when we intend with reservation to achieve our goals, and if God or the Universe should so make everything beyond our own power align in our favor, then we will have been met with complete success by simply trying.

How do we handle setbacks?

If we face setbacks in our projects, we must “display another virtue”— responding with calmness and patience would likely be beneficial and enable us time to reassess the situation and make an intelligent choice concerning our next step. “Is it worth pursuing my aim in a different manner? Or is it a wiser decision to abandon this project completely?”  Stoics shouldn’t view abandoning a project as a failure. That would be a perception, but abandoning a project is not intrinsically bad. We as Stoics should consider that when we make rational choices to abandon a project, it is nonetheless a success, because we are rationally turning ourselves away from one project in order to focus and devote ourselves to another project that perhaps is more in harmony with nature.

love how Seddon ends this chapter:

In short, what the Stoic is able to do is pick up new roles and new aims, as circumstances require, without getting frustrated and angry. “I was driving along, and my car broke down!” So now you must stop being a driver and become someone who sorts out a broken-down car. “The bank manager refused to make the loan!” So now your plans must change. “But I was going to start my own business!” And now you must think again; and does getting upset really help matters? “But the stupid manager didn’t understand my business plan!” And who told you that you were destined to have a highly intelligent bank manager?

Basically, for some reason, we grow up on this earth believing that God or the Universe owes us something. We think we’re entitled to have everything go our way and that we are entitled to success. But that’s simply not the nature of reality, and as soon as we come to accept the true nature of reality, we’ll have a much easier time of things.

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