There is no doubt that Nietzsche considered the theme of amor fati [love of fate] of essential importance: he referred to it in his later work as his ‘formula for greatness in a human being’, ‘the highest state a philosopher can attain’, or again his ‘inmost nature’.
Amor fati is often mentioned by commentators in connection with the eternal return and implicitly taken as an illustration of the sort of existential attitude characteristic of someone who would respond positively to the challenge of the daimon and affirm his or her life as worth living over and over again. It is occasionally touched upon in relation with various themes, such as self creation or the call for a re-evaluation of all values. Yet ⎯ surprisingly given its importance for Nietzsche ⎯ there is very little secondary literature specifically devoted to it.Perhaps this initial surprise will lessen if one considers that for all its importance, there is very little material on amor fati in Nietzsche’s work. All in all, I was able to identify only seven passages, four in the published work, one in the Will to Power, one in the Nachlass and one in Nietzsche’s correspondence. And if one tries to help oneself out by looking for separate elucidations of love, one does not fare much better. While critical passages about neighbourly love or the love of women are not rare, Nietzsche says little about more positive forms of love. In one of his latest fragments, he cryptically declares that ‘I have never desecrated the holy name of love’ and Zarathustra praises the ‘bestowing love’ of the ‘predator of all values’ and of the ‘friend’, but without expanding on the nature of such love.
As for fate, discussions in the secondary literature often focus on the issue of whether the doctrine of the eternal return commits Nietzsche to fatalism, with widely diverging conclusions In what follows, I shall restrict myself to examining Nietzsche’s thoughts on fate exclusively in connection with amor fati: I shall thus adopt the minimal construal of fate directly entailed by all the references to the latter in the published work, namely ‘what is necessary’ or ‘everything that is necessary’.
Although these expressions may be construed as implying that necessity can admit of exceptions, and thus that not everything is necessary, we shall see that the structural links between amor fati and the eternal return indicate that the category is all-inclusive, covering ‘the world as it is, without subtraction, exception or selection’. Interestingly, this understanding of fate as all-encompassing necessity is very close to the one put forward by the Stoa, whom Nietzsche clearly had in mind when he claimed that amor fati involves more than ‘merely bearing what is necessary’ ⎯ thus Aetius reported that ‘the Stoa describe fate as a sequence of causes, that is an inescapable ordering and connection’.
For the purposes of this paper, I shall leave aside such issues as the relation between this conception of fate as necessity and its more archaic and pathos-laden understanding in the Birth of Tragedy or the status of necessity in general as a category in Nietzsche’s work, to focus on the paradoxes and difficulties attached to having fate thus construed as the object of any love, let alone the highest possible form of love. In doing so, my aim will be fourfold:
a) to grasp both the structure of amor fati and the sort of love it involves,
b) to understand better the part played by the concept in Nietzsche’s later work, in particular in relation to the eternal return,
c) to identify some of the ways in which amor fati might be attained by us and
d) to question the sustainability and limits of such an ideal.
Unless it is construed counter-intuitively, as a blind force devoid of any intentionality which moves us in a purely causal way (a possibility which Nietzsche would certainly reject), love involves a valuation of its object. Loving something or someone entails understanding this object or person as valuable.
The usual assumption is that such valuation must be positive. This commonsensical intuition is often used in the literature about emotions to distinguish love from need in terms of their ‘direction of fit’: need pushes us towards a particular course of action while love attracts us towards its object. This also enables the distinction between love and negative emotions such a dislike or hate, in which the object repels us. Thus, to love something entails understanding it positively, as worth loving. Yet this observation poses two structural problems for amor fati. Firstly, it points towards a potential contradiction between the nature of the attachment and the putative value of its object. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘one will see that the problem is that of the meaning of suffering’.
As it is well known, the Birth of Tragedy emphasised in the starkest possible way that our fate is to suffer endlessly, a view illustrated by Oedipus’s story and encapsulated in Silenus’ ‘wise’ pronouncement that the best thing for us would be not to have been born, and the second best, to die soon. Even on the minimal construal evoked above (as necessity), fate is bound to entail at least some suffering and unhappiness for each of us. We shall lose loved ones, or see them hurt. We shall be harmed ourselves. And even if our life was as devoid of suffering as possible, fate will inevitably lead us to aging and death, possibly in painful or degrading circumstances. In order to love fate, then, one would have to accept the paradoxical possibility of loving a repellent object (either a fully negative one or one which on the best construal involves some very significant negativity).
Secondly, there are two main ways in which we can value a loved object: in relation to our own needs, for example because we deem its possession or enjoyment highly desirable or even indispensable to our well-being or happiness; or in relation to the object itself, because it appears to us as endowed with intrinsic value. In the first case, we perceive the object of our love as something that we should seek to acquire or, should we be fortunate enough to have it in our possession already, prevent the loss of. In the second, we try to preserve or protect the beloved object for its own sake, regardless of our own happiness. Yet both these options raise further doubts about the suitability of fate as an object of love.
Regarding the first, on either construal (Greek moira or necessity), fate is seen as indifferent to our needs and desires and would only fulfil them (or not) accidentally. We are aware that we cannot possess it and have no control over it. Furthermore, it is not even the sort of object we can actively seek: we are already under its sway and if anything cannot be rid of it
So how could we conceive of it as an indispensable component of our happiness? And if we were to value fate per se rather than in relation to ourselves (the second option), then a different problem arises, which was originally identified by the Stoa as argos logos [idle reason].Perhaps its best known version is given by Cicero: ‘if it is your fate to recover from this illness, you will recover whether you call for the physician or not. Likewise, if it is your fate not to recover, whether you call for the physician or not, you will not recover. One of the two is your fate, therefore it is pointless to call for the physician’. Along similar lines, by definition fate or necessity will unfold whether we love it or not, and it is not clear what difference our love could make. If this is the case, then amor fati would seem a rather futile form of love. Plainly put, why bother?
Thus prospective lovers of fate are faced from the start with two paradoxes:
a) amor fati involves an apparent contradiction between the nature of love and the partly negative value of its proposed object, and in particular requires us to love something which is difficult, if not impossible, to value in relations to our needs or desires;
b) should we value fate for itself, there would seem to be no point in our loving it: whether we do or not will make no difference either to fate or to what happens to us. Given these structural difficulties, how can we make sense of amor fati, let alone regard it as a desirable ideal? To seek a solution to this puzzle, it may help to turn to the traditional distinction between four forms of love: eros, agape, caritas and philia. Of these, only the first three are relevant to amor fati as philia (in its Aristotelian version) entails an element of disinterestedness from the part of the lover and reciprocity on the part of the loved object, two conditions which love of fate cannot satisfy.And since caritas, at least according to Nygren, is an Augustinian synthesis of eros and agape designed to solve a specific doctrinal problem (namely whether human love can by its own strength ascend to God), I shall focus on the last two. Very interestingly, the main difference between eros and agape, Greek and Christian forms of love, concerns the relation between loving and valuing. Both traditions agree that love is not blind and involves a valuation of its object, but they disagree on the source and nature of such valuation. In a nutshell, erotic love is motivated by the perceived value of its object: we love someone or something because we value them. By contrast, agapic love bestows value on its object, and this regardless of the value previously attributed to it: we value someone or something because we love them. As we shall see, whether and how we may solve the paradoxes of amor fati analysed above depends in a large part on which of these two conceptions of love is seen as dominant in Nietzsche’s thought. In order to understand this, I shall expand briefly on each of them.
According to Nygren, eros is the understanding of love that comes from the Platonic and Hellenistic tradition, and it has five main features:
a) it is an acquisitive love, intermediate between wanting and having (eros is the son of poros and penia): to love an object is to long for its possession;
b) consequently, it is a human form of love (thus for Plato the gods do not feel love because they want for nothing);
c) the longing and thus the love itself are motivated by the perceived value of the object (in the Symposium, beauty): it is impossible to love a negative object and should we realise, for example, that the object does not have the value we thought it had, we would cease to love it;
d) eros is a self-centred form of love: the object is loved because we assume that its possession can secure our happiness;
e) finally, such love can be educated: our estimations of the worth of its object can be corrected or refined, and this may lead us to re-channel our love accordingly. This last feature is what makes erotic love important for the Platonic tradition: it can be purified by philosophical reflection and ultimately refocused on intelligible objects (the beautiful and the good). This is the purpose of the ascent of love in Diotima’s speech in the Symposium.By contrast, agapic love is Christian in origin and finds its first formulations in the New Testament and John’s and Paul’s letters. It has four main features:
a) it is a divine form of love;
b) it is spontaneous in the sense of not being externally motivated ⎯ God’s undeserved (and undeservable, at least in the Lutherian tradition Nietzsche was familiar with) gift to man;
c) it is not motivated by the value of the object (Christ came for sinners and the righteous alike); and finally d) it creates value by transfiguring its object (the sinner becomes worthy by virtue of being loved by God).
It is difficult to know which (if any) of these two forms of love Nietzsche had in mind when he first coined the expression ‘amor fati’: ‘amor’ is a fairly neutral choice of words, although interestingly it is Luther’s own in his redescription of agapic love against Augustinian caritas.21 Furthermore, eros and agape are idealised types and it is unlikely that Nietzsche’s understanding of amor fati would fall squarely under either description. Let us start with the first occurrence of the concept in the Gay Science:
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! Some day I wish to be only a yes-sayer.