Perspectives: Stoicism on 'Why You Should Never Make a Promise'

This is a guest article, by Rohan Healey, author of Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st CenturyIn this article, Rohan discusses the value of Stoic ideas for understanding the difference between making a ‘promise’, and making an ‘agreement’. Rohan also has a blog, which you can read here.

 Why You Should Never Make a Promise

One of the most important aspects of the Stoic Philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome was the importance of distinguishing between what is within our power and what is not. And once distinguished, the idea is to concern ourselves only with what we do control and to stop worrying about what we don’t. However you do not need to be a philosophy professor to see the benefits of thinking this way, all you need is a little common sense. When we make a promise to another human being we are essentially saying that we can control that which is actually outside of our power to control. If I were to organise a date and I say “I’ll see you at 2pm on Tuesday, this time I promise!” I am telling you that I have the power to be there at that time regardless of outside circumstances, this of course is a lie. Now let’s say that Tuesday comes around, I’m on my way to the date but there is a traffic accident some way up the road and I get stuck in traffic while the emergency services do their thing.

I turn up 30 minutes late and my date is looking very nonplussed, “You broke your promise!” You see when you make a promise, you are agreeing to take the responsibility for the breaking of the promise whether it was the fault of you or some outside force. A promise that relies on the complicity of the universe at large is a lie every time. I never make a promise that would require outside forces in order to come to fruition, I never make a promise that could be broken by something that is outside of my control. Here are a few phrases you will never hear me say; “I promise that I will never leave you”, “I promise that I will have it ready by Monday”, “I’ll be there this time, I promise!”

This might sound a little pedantic, you might think “What could possibly be the harm in making a promise? It’s only a word after all” Yes, but it is a word that has been imbued with magical properties, a word which can somehow alter reality and bring that which we cannot control into our sphere of influence. The word ‘promise’ has romantic connotations and it can be very tempting to promise all kinds of things while under the influence of love or desperation, but in the end it always results in tears eventually. You see when I promised to be there at 2pm on Tuesday and was late, who took the blame? Even though it was the traffic accident that caused me to be late, because I promised, it is I who takes responsibility for the lateness. When you say that you can control that which you can’t (by making a promise), you must then take the blame for things outside of your control as well!

It’s enough work taking responsibility for my own actions, words, thoughts, beliefs and opinions, I don’t also need to take the blame for the weather, the actions, thoughts, and words of others, traffic conditions, political and social climate and everything else outside of my power to control! When you make a promise you are saying “I can control that which I cannot, and I take responsibility for things that I do not have power over,” which of course is a lie and lies are bad m’kay. If you have any respect for yourself or the other person, you will never make a promise again. Traditional marriage is a classic example. When two people get married they make a promise, an oath to love and be with each other forever, no matter what. But what happens if the person you promised to be with forever turns out to be cruel and abusive a year or two down the line? When circumstances outside of your control change, your promise does not, you are still bound to that person because you made a promise to God and the state that you would stick it out no matter what!

So what can we do instead of making promises? We can make agreements. I love agreements, they are awesome! In an agreement two or more people agree on a set of rules and conditions. If the agreement is broken by one of the parties then they take the blame, however if the agreement is broken by some outside force it is no fault of either party. Let’s go back to our 2 o’clock date. This time I’ve agreed (not promised) to meet on Tuesday at 2pm, the traffic accident occurs and I am 30 minutes late. I explain the situation and all is fine. Now if I was 30 minutes late because I decided to stop in at the bar down the road for a beer before meeting my date, then I would quite rightly take the blame. The other major benefit of making agreements is that they can change as circumstances change, they can be re-negotiated. Agreements come with conditions, so let’s go back to the marriage example. Imagine that rather than getting married, our two fictional characters are simply an unmarried couple. Their relationship is based on the agreement that they will treat each other with respect and will not abuse one another physically or emotionally. If one day abuse and cruelty creeps into the relationship, the abused partner is allowed to re-evaluate their situation and make a change. However the one who made the promise to be together forever no matter what, has to stick it out or “worse”, break their holy promise!

To me it comes down to lies, when you tell someone that you can control that which you can’t, it’s a lie. When you take the blame for something you had no power over, it’s a lie. I avoid promises like the plague, both making them and when people try to promise me things. I’ve met a few people who make lots of promises and let me tell you, they are about the least trustworthy people I have ever met. Decent, reasonable people do not need to make promises, nor do they need to be promised anything. Reasonable people understand that some things are within our control and others not, and are happy to make agreements based on actual conditions that can be re-evaluated should conditions change. If you absolutely must make promises then make them only when it concerns something you always control. You can say “I promise that I will do my best” or “I promise to keep an open mind”, but never when it relies on some outside force for you to make your promise come true. In that case always stay away from the dreaded P word!

We cannot control what others do, think or say but we can choose to conduct ourselves in a way conformable to nature, to truth. With that in mind always remember this:

When you make a promise and it is broken by outside forces, the other person will be right to blame you, for you claimed to control that which you don’t

When you make an agreement and it is broken by outside forces, the other person will be wrong to blame you, for they believed that you could control that which you can’t.

I hope this has given you something to think about, my plans and relationships have improved significantly since I stopped making, or taking promises and started instead creating conditional agreements. Good luck in all your future agreements and beware people who are quick to make lots of promises, remember that decent and reasonable people do not need to pretend that they control that which they cannot.

Thanks for reading!


More about Rohan:

Rohan Healy, born in Murwillumbah, Australia in 1986 is an author, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, blogger and professional music producer.
As of 2013 Rohan has written, recorded, performed, produced and released 10 solo albums as well as performing and recording with artists including David Virgin, Dan Rumour, Cat Power, Billy Bragg, Jimmy Willing, Quiffs N Coffins and Christa Hughes (Machine Gun Fellatio).
Rohan has written and published two books, the first “Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century” in 2010 and in 2012 he published his second book “The 7 Things That Made Me Genuinely & Irreversibly Happy: And How They Can Do The Same For You”.
Rohan also writes the popular and regularly updated Rohan 7 Things blog.
Rohan currently lives in his ancestral home of Dublin, Ireland where he continues to write and record, as well as enjoying his hobby of photography.


2 thoughts on Perspectives: Stoicism on 'Why You Should Never Make a Promise'

  1. Dr. Ved says:

    Integrity (consistency between words/actions) is very important, sure. But so is ambition and confidence.
    I’m not sure how much Stoicism addresses the topic of ambition, but when someone believes you should never, or you should always make promises – it’s rather telling of how much confidence (or lack thereof) they possess.
    Now I’m not arguing against humility, but I believe that too much humility is often a mask for insecurity, while too much confidence is evidently arrogance. The true virtue for me – confidence – lies inbetween the two vices of insecurity and arrogance.

  2. StoiCat says:

    But what if a promise is broken simply out of laziness or a lack of caring from the other person? What is a stoic meant to think about that?

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