Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”. Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today. And now, Evan’s post!
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe.” (Meditations 4.23)
To accept whole-heartedly all that life presents one with, not just the positive, but the difficult and distressing, is the essence of amor fati: love of fate.
When first encountering this concept, so counter-intuitive to what I often thought and felt about my life and the lives of others, it annoyed me. Reading about “human greatness” in Nietzsche was one thing, his style is evocative, but I didn’t take it seriously. Later coming across it in the plain speaking Epictetus, who I did take seriously, I woke up a bit:
Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. (Enchiridion, 8).
However, when I say “woke up,” I don’t mean in a good way—in fact, I scoffed. It seemed tautological, “like what you get, and you’ll get what you like.” A meme for rubes. But I woke up in the sense that I remembered and couldn’t let it go. Later, when reading Meditations, the concept’s recurring appearance was hard to miss. I began to feel convicted by the idea. Reading Marcus’ pep talks to himself, and sensing the nobility of his vision, I admitted that I wasn’t and hadn’t been accepting, let alone loving and leaning into, what the universe had dished out. I resented much of it. And because of this, I was missing out on . . . everything.
This was no epiphany, it was a long time coming, and I had to absorb a lot more of Stoicism before the idea took root. There kept springing to mind the dismal turns in my own life, and I needed only to think of those I knew who had lost children or who had been victimized as children. Love that?
Even today I think amor fati is one of those concepts that Epictetus would counsel shutting the hell up about, especially if talking with those who are suffering or not of a philosophical bent. It is a concept tailor-made for his maxim, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Amor fati is a discipline for my own life, not an advice to deploy on others.
Amor fati, for me, is a correction and orientation, especially in days of duress. At the core of it is gratitude. It transfigures my experience of both present and past. Far from making me passive, it helps remove impediments to action—fear, anxiety, resentment, recede when I adopt something more than just resignation to events. The grief and quiet desperation that Thoreau remarked on is diminished. The potential for happiness increases.
But to be frank, it is no box of chocolates: it requires me to consciously adopt more courage than I actually have. Too often, I begrudge the exercise of saying, Okay, love this. I hate it like I hate a cold shower, sometimes. I grouse, Well here it is, gratitude, O Universe, you bitch. But like a cold shower, if I manage it, I will then make my damn bed and face the day with more comportment, and maybe, sometimes, even be glad when I step out the door and really feel the sun. For a moment. Bit by bit reclaiming moments of joy that would have been lost without it. And I am now alert to those of whom it can be said:
A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. -Meditations
Evan Oakley lives in Colorado, where he makes 20 minute brownies in 10 minutes, participates in full contact origami, and writes Petrarchan sonnets. He is a father, disability advocate for HearStrong, and Chair of English at Aims Community College.