The idea of acceptance has found much, well… acceptance in our therapeutic culture, by way of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, 12-step programs, the wave of secular mindfulness practices, the body-acceptance movement, etc. All of these interventions into depressed, bereaved, guilt-ridden, and/or anxious states of mind have their own aims and methods, which sometimes overlap, sometimes do not. But what they all share, perhaps, for all the struggle involved, is a general sense of optimism about acceptance.
One cannot say this definitively about the Stoic idea of amor fati—the instruction to “love one’s fate”—though you might be persuaded to think otherwise if you google the term and come up with a couple dozen popularizations. Yes, there’s love in the name, but the fate we’re asked to embrace may just as well be painful and debilitating as pleasurable and uplifting. We cannot change what has happened to us, or much control what’s going to happen, so we might as well just get used to it, so to speak.
If this isn’t exactly optimism in the sense of “it gets better,” it isn’t entirely pessimism either. But it can become a grim and joyless fatalistic exercise. Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche used the term—and he used it with much relish—amor fati means not only accepting loss, suffering, mistakes, addictions, appearances, or mental and emotional turbulence; it means accepting all of it—everything and everyone that causes both pain and pleasure, as Alain de Botton says above, “with strength and an all-embracing attitude that borders on a kind of enthusiastic affection.”
“I do not want to wage war against what is ugly,” he wrote in The Gay Science, “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse.” Readers of Nietzsche may find themselves picking up any one of his books, including The Gay Science, to see him doing all of the above, constantly, on any random page. But his is never a systematic philosophy, but an expression of passion and attitude, inconsistent in its parts but, as a whole, surprisingly holistic. “My formula for greatness in a human being,” he writes in Ecce Homo, “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… but love it.
Although the concept may remind us of Stoic philosophy, and is very often discussed in those terms, Nietzsche saw such thought—as he understood it—as gloomy, ascetic, and life-denying. His use of amor fati goes beyond mere resignation to something more radical, and very difficult for the human mind to stomach, to use a somewhat Nietzschean figure of speech. “It encompasses the whole of world history (including the most horrific episodes),” notes a Leiden University summary, “and Nietzsche’s own role in this history.” Above all, he desired, he wrote, to be a “Yes-sayer.”
Is amor fati a remedy for regret, dissatisfaction, the endlessly restless desire for social and self-improvement? Can it banish our agony over history’s nightmares and our personal records of failure? De Botton thinks so, but one never really knows with Nietzsche—his often satirical exaggerations can turn themselves inside out, becoming exactly the opposite of what we expect. Yet above all, what he always turns away from are absolute ideals; we should never take his amor fati as some kind of divine commandment. It works in dialectical relation to his more vigorous critical spirit, and should be applied with a situational and pragmatic eye. In this sense, amor fati can be seen as instrumental—a tool to bring us out of the paralysis of despair and condemnation and into an active realm, guided by a radically loving embrace of it all.