Wishing With Reservation
Live Like a Stoic
Try to persuade them; but act even against their will, whenever the principle of justice leads you to do so. But if someone forcefully resists you, change your approach to acceptance and don’t feel hurt, and use the setback to express another virtue. Remember too that your motive was formed with reservation and that you were not aiming at the impossible. At what then? A motive formed with reservation. But you have achieved this; what we proposed to ourselves is actually happening.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.50
At first glance, the Stoics’ approach to the good life seems to recommend an attitude of resignation and helplessness in the face of obstacles outside our direct control. In a letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca anticipates this criticism: “Come now,” he asks, “do I really give you the impression that I advocate a life of inactivity?” (Letter 8). The Stoics historically were among the most activist philosophers of the ancient world. Seneca was deeply involved in the politics of Imperial Rome while Epictetus, who was born a slave, managed to secure his freedom and set up his own school. Marcus Aurelius himself, of course, had significant responsibilities during the almost 20 years of his reign as Roman Emperor. But how do the Stoics justify such civic engagement, given their views on accepting fate and focusing only on what’s under our control?
In fact, a closer inspection of the Stoics’ ethical views shows a notable emphasis on the need to effect change in the world, even among things over which we have no control. Their retreat to the internal space of the mind and how we respond to events does not entail a retreat from the external world altogether. Focusing on things within our control, particularly our intentions, allows for the development of motives directed at things outside our control—so long as these motives are formed “with reservation,” as the Stoics put it, and the acknowledgement that we don’t ultimately have power over how things turn out. What the Stoics stand against are attachments to outcomes that provoke unhealthy emotions (like anger or despair) when we fail to achieve a desired result. In the passage above, Marcus says that forming such attachments involves “aiming at the impossible.” When we form a motive with reservation, by contrast, we do so with the understanding that our efforts may not succeed. If our efforts do succeed, we should accept the result graciously. If they do not, we can still carry on.
Yesterday you examined the difference between things within your control and things outside your control, and you may have been surprised at how many things fell into the second category. For your exercise today, try out the Stoic technique of “wishing with reservation.” Throughout the day, but especially when you see that achieving something you want lies outside of your control, approach the situation with a “reserve clause” by saying to yourself: “I will achieve this, if nothing prevents it.”
Consider whether this shift in focus from the outcome of a situation to your expectations changes your view of the obstacles in your path. Consider also whether it changes your view of the outcome itself. Wishing with reservation requires accepting how things are or how they’ve turned out and carrying on with equanimity. It requires knowing how to adapt to a difficult situation, determining what you can still do, and recalibrating your efforts given the circumstances. In the event that you’re prevented from achieving what you wish today, can you “use the setback to express another virtue,” as suggested in the morning quote above?