Action with a “Reserve Clause” in Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius refers five times to the Stoic technical concept of action “with a reserve clause” and this article summarises those passages.

The “Reserve Clause” in Stoicism


There are five explicit references to the concept of acting “with a reserve clause” in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which he obviously employs as a kind of technical term.  This isn’t very clear in some of the English translations available.  The concept of action “with a reserve clause” (hupexhairesis) is probably closely-related to the concept of “moral choice” (prohairesis) and the definition of the good as “worthy of being chosen” (haireton) in accord with reason and nature.

The concept of the “reserve clause” (exceptio in Latin) can also be found in Seneca and Epictetus, and to some extent in Cicero’s writings on Stoicism.  The basic idea is that Stoics must act in the world, although the good of their own soul (wisdom and virtue) is the chief goal in life, external and bodily things, despite being classed as “indifferent” with regard to our ultimate wellbeing, are to be “selected” or “rejected” in a somewhat detached manner, insofar it is natural and rational to either get or avoid them.  In other words, we should pursue external goals with the caveat: “Fate permitting.”  There’s a good description of this in the New Testament:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James, 4:13-15)

Hence, Christians used to write “D.V.” or “Deo Volente” (God willing, in Latin) at the end of letters.  However, Marcus makes it explicit that he’s deriving the concept, in part, from Epictetus, whom he quotes.

Hear Epictetus: No one can rob us of our free choice. We must, says he, hit upon the true science of assent and in the sphere of our impulses pay good heed that they are with a “reserve clause”; that they have in view our neighbour’s welfare; that they are proportionate to a thing’s value. And we must abstain wholly from inordinate desire and show avoidance in none of the things that are not in our control. (Meditations, 11.37-38)

The Stoics believed the mind was composed of a physical substance like a subtle form of fire, and Marcus describes its ability to adapt to external events, through the “reserve clause”, as resembling an all-consuming fire.

That which holds the mastery within us, when it is in accordance with Nature, is so disposed towards what befalls, that it can always adapt itself with ease to what is possible and granted us. For it is wedded to no definite material, but in the pursuit of its aims it works with a “reserve clause”; it converts into material for itself any obstacle that it meets with, just as fire when it gets the mastery of what is thrown upon it. (Meditations, 4.1)

What stands in the way becomes the way:

Though a man may in some sort hinder my activity, yet on my own voluntary impulses and mental attitude no fetters can be put because of the “reserve clause” and their ability to adapt to circumstances. For everything that stands in the way of its activity is adapted and transmuted by the mind into furtherance of it, and that which is a check on this action is converted into a help to it, and that which is a hindrance in our path goes but to make it easier. (Meditations, 5.20)

The “reserve clause” is a way of overcoming emotional pain and as the perfect Sage cannot, by definition, be happy (eudaimon) if he is distressed, then he must act at all times according to this rule.

Try persuasion first, but even though men would say to you not to, act when the principles of justice direct you to. If anyone one should obstruct you by force, take refuge in being contented and without emotional pain, and use the obstacle for the display of some other virtue. Remember that the impulse you had was with an “reserve clause”, and your aim was not to do the impossible. (Meditations, 6.50)

However, he also seems to refer this concept to the image of the “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empedocles, which he mentions three times in The Meditations.

If your impulse is without an “reserve clause”, failure at once becomes an evil to you as a rational creature. But once you accept that universal necessity, you cannot suffer harm nor even be thwarted. Indeed, nobody else can thwart the inner purposes of the mind. For it no fire can touch, nor steel, nor tyrant, nor public censure, nor anything whatsoever: a sphere once formed continues round and true. (Meditations, 8.41)

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10 thoughts on “Action with a “Reserve Clause” in Marcus Aurelius”

  1. That was a good (err, “indifferent-but-preferrable”?) read! This is a bit off-topic, but which translation did you use in the article? It is clearer and a great deal less obtuse than some of the other translations of Meditations that I’ve come across.

    1. Thanks. I re-translated parts myself to make it more readable. My knowledge of ancient Greek is very basic but it’s not difficult to see that slight changes in grammar and the choice of words can sometimes make it much more consistent to read. For example, all of those passages use the term “hupexhairesis” but in the translation that accompanies the Loeb edition of the Greek text, they’re all translated differently in English, which obscures the fact that he’s using a technical term and that they’re all obviously related accounts of the same concept.

  2. Fascinating. What was the Stoics stance on external influences? Was mind in any way whatever influenced or shaped by the physical world? Or rather, since mind is some sort of subtle physical stuff, is it in any way affected by the more “robust” physical stuff? From many of these passages, it seems that Marcus Aurelius considered mind as insulated from the external world.

    1. Well the Stoic stance on external things is actually pretty central to their whole philosophy but it’s a little bit tricky to explain in a nutshell because it’s quite specific and complicated in some respects. They would say: The mind is affected by external impressions but it always potentially has the freedom to choose whether or not to give assent to them.

      1. That makes sense. I’d like to read more- who in your opinion best explains their psychological/epistemological theories? Is Aurelius a good place to start?

        1. Well, less than 1% of the original Stoic literature survives, and the stuff that we have, although excellent, focuses more on the ethics of the good life rather than epistemology. We do have some fragments relating to Stoic epistemology, mainly from Academic Skeptics who are attacking them. It depends whether you want something simple or quite technical. Marcus Aurelius is the most popular Stoic and so he’s generally a good place to start. Seneca’s Letters are also a good starting point.