Amor Fati

What does this Latin saying really ask of us?

There is a trinity of Latin phrases that have become highly commercialized within the sliver of pop culture landscape allotted to Stoicism:

  1. Premeditatio Malorum (the premeditation of evils)

  2. Memento Mori (remember your death) and

  3. Amor Fati (love of fate)

Over these next three weeks, I’m going to dive into each of these individually.

I will start, today, with Amor Fati – and with what might be a bombshell for some of you…

Amor Fati isn’t a “Stoicism thing”

It may shock you to learn that the phrase “Amor Fati” (an instruction to “love thy fate”) is not just not Greek, but also not Roman and not part of the Ancient Stoic canon.

While contemporary thinkers have found shadows of the idea in the writing of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, neither of these men ever told anyone to “love their fate.”

Instead, the phrase is derived from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (yes, the moustachioed heart-throb of Nihilists the world over) :

“What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? 

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)

Then, smoking gun #1:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, S.10 (1888)

And #2:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.“

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, S.276 (1882)

This phrase was derived from no other text but Nietzsche’s, ever.

When people sell t-shirts that say “Amor Fati” in some cheap Greek-looking font, they’re aligning a German Nihilist’s writing with an Ancient Greek philosophy and they’re using the Latin language to do it.

It’s a total mess.

Commoditization, commercialization, and misattribution notwithstanding, is it “Stoic” to love thy fate?

Perhaps the strongest evidence that Amor Fati is, at the very least, compatible with Stoicism (since we now know it’s not from Stoicism), comes from the calamus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations 4.3:

Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early nor too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return. 

It is, at least, clear here that Marcus believed in acceptance of fate – and how big a jump is it from acceptance to preference… and then to love?

There’s some artistic literary license being taken, but I’d say it’s a pretty short jump.

So “Amor Fati” does seem to be in alignment with Stoic philosophy — even if not derived from it.

But is it Stoically useful?

The reason this Latin “Nietzsche-ism” has never sat well with me is, yes, partly because of how commercial it has become (like a Che Guevera t-shirt or that bumper sticker of Calvin peeing on things) but mostly because it isn’t helpful without a lot of context.

“Amor Fati” always seems to be issued as shallow advice – like a serious directive issued with no instructions or strategy.

It’s like…

“Go make your fortune” – well, okay, but how do I do that?

“Stop being so sad” – well, okay, but I’m sad… how do I stop being sad?

“It is what it is” – yeah, of course it is, but how do I cope with the fact that it is what it is?

“Love thy fate” – okay, that sounds good! But how do I do that, exactly?

It’s like a bit of quippy pseudo-motivation that doesn’t do anything to advise you on how to make it actionable and move forward.

And, eventually, anything that sounds useful but doesn’t give any actual instruction, can become a tool of abuse to be used against those facing challenging times by individuals who probably haven’t faced many challenges in their own lives and who lack sympathy or empathy.

“Oh, you’re sad that your house burned down? Well, if you’d just learn to love thy fate, you’d get over it real quick. Suck it up, buttercup! In fact, it’s frustrating that you can’t just see that it doesn’t matter. A home is an indifferent. I don’t have any more time to spend on you. I’ve gotta get out here and carpe diem, yanno? It wouldn’t be very Stoic of me to sit around trying to make you feel better, that’s not in my control, and Stoics don’t spend time trying to change things they can’t control. See you later!“

And if you think that’s a bit too hyperbolic or over the top, I’ve heard (and read) hundreds of real-life (and online) comments that are just like that — ones said (and written) by people who very clearly do not understand what Stoicism is but profess to be Stoics.

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It might be in alignment with Stoicism for one to love their fate – in fact, I’m comfortable saying it is – but it’s not enough to simply speak truisms and then get on with your day.

We’ve got to understand what we’re saying, why we’re saying it, and what saying it truly implies.

What should Amor Fati mean to a Stoic?

Things that happen, once they happen, cannot be made to have happened differently.

Things that are about to happen, or will happen in due course, can be influenced by those who don’t lose themselves in depressive lament.

When we say Amor Fati, we are, first, reminding ourselves that things which have already come to pass cannot be made to not have come to pass.

That history is now written and cannot be unwritten.

Second, we are prompting ourselves to appreciate that, while it has placed limitations on what we can choose in the present, our history has left us with choices we can make.

Lastly, we are coming to grips with the very dangerous threat that depressive lamenting of the past poses to our making of good decisions in the present.

If we lose ourselves to depressive lamentation, we cap our metaphorical pen and forget to take an active role in authoring what happens next.

“Amor Fati,” then, is less about loving our fate and more about reminding ourselves of agency in the present.

We don’t necessarily love what fate has brought to us so much as we love that what has been brought to us presents us with the opportunity to make well-reasoned choices and that it reminds us of our agency… that we get to choose how we continue.

If we’re going to use this Nietzsche-ism as part of our Stoic practice, then I think it needs to be a lot more prescriptive.

Hopefully, now, it is.

Thanks for reading,

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