Amor fati now receives its maximal extension: we must not only love what is necessary, but love its return. There is much secondary literature on the eternal return and my intention here is not to enter the various debates for their own sake. I am only interested in understanding the practical role that it performs in relation to amor fati. From the perspective of erotic love, the most obvious possibility is to see the eternal return as a radical method to develop our ability to see what is necessary as beautiful.
On this construal, it is a powerful tool that allows us both to develop the right perspective on our life and to test our capacity to love fate by being provided with the appropriate standpoint from which to consider it. According to this logic, many commentators present the eternal return as a ‘thought experiment’ designed to provide us with a ‘visual and conceptual representation of a particular attitude towards life’.
The aphorism is analysed as a form of hypothetico-deductive reasoning, laying out a hypothesis (a demon might come and tell us that we shall have to live our lives over and over again) followed by a rational ‘conclusion’ which must evidence our ability to ‘grasp conceptually’ the implications of the thought experiment. In a similar manner, Clark understands the demon’s challenge as structurally similar to the question ‘if you had to do it all over again, would you marry me again?’ Analysing the validity conditions of the test instead of trying to answer it would be a mark of evasiveness rather than of intellectual honesty: the important thing is to ponder the question and see what conclusion we may draw from such careful assessment.
The implicit idea seems to be that we must consider everything that happened to us, both per se and in its interconnectedness with other events, and make a judgment about the overall worth of the sequence. Although Nietzsche is insistent that the ‘value of life cannot be estimated’ because we are ‘party to the dispute’, the eternal return provides us with a vertical standpoint (the bird’s eye view in the previous quote) which allows us to evaluate our life (not life in general) from a perspective that is temporarily detached from the sequence of events it is asked to consider. This detachment is symbolised by the staging of the thought experiment (presented to us by a supernatural creature, a demon): we are supposed to stand at the ‘gateway’ described in Zarathustra, from where the two temporal paths of the past and the future ‘abut on one another’. Only from this gateway, ‘Moment’, can we consider both. If, from this standpoint, we are able to conclude that our life is worth living over and over again, then our love of fate will be both substantiated (its object will acquire a determined content through the thought experiment) and proven (by our having given our assent). Note that on this reading, affirming the eternal return is tantamount to asserting a propositional content of the sort: ‘my life is worth living again and again and such is my will’.
There is no guarantee that assessing our life from the standpoint of the eternal return will lead us to a positive conclusion regarding its value: all it does (which is already considerable) is making it possible for us to reach such a conclusion. But should we reach it, then on the erotic logic envisaged so far, this would be enough to solve the first paradox of amor fati (having to love a repellent object): fate will have turned out to be a positive object after all Yet tempting as it may seem, there is a fatal flaw in this interpretation. To get a grasp on it, let us turn briefly to a perhaps unlikely (given Nietzsche’s criticisms of the categorical imperative) source, namely Kant. Reflecting on the first two commandments, Kant observes that ‘love is a matter of feeling, not of will or volition, and I cannot love because I will to do so, still less because I ought’ .
This comment points towards a crucial and so far unexplored gap: that which separates loving and valuing. Indeed, the fact that love involves a valuation of its object does not mean that it is reducible to such a valuation: I can value the British public transportation system without loving it. I can deem someone’s character and actions worthy of respect or admiration without loving that person. Thus the relation between loving and valuing is asymmetrical: I cannot love an object without valuing it in some way (even mistakenly), but I can value it without loving it. As we saw, the idea of wilful affirmation was supposed to bridge that gap: having assessed my life in the light of the eternal return, I can now will its repetition. But I can value my life positively and even want it to return eternally, and yet not love it. My assent can be won over by my rationally considering a hypothesis and following it through to its conclusion (namely that my life is worth living again and again); but even with the strongest motivation, I can neither argue nor will my love into existence.
The reason for this is not a deficit of will power. As we shall see, the difference between willing and loving is qualitative, not quantitative: while the first is purely active, the second entails a significant element of passivity. Although I may be more or less receptive to it, try to cultivate it or to discourage it, love will happen to me (if it does) independently of my control. As strong-willed as I may be, as much as I may value someone or something, I cannot choose to love (nor to stop loving) them.
So the erotic construal of amor fati fails: the motivational gap between valuing and loving cannot be reduced by rational arguments or by an effort of will. Very significantly, in a letter to Overbeck dated summer 1882 (and thus contemporary of the theme’s first appearance in the published work), Nietzsche refers to amor fati in terms which emphasise its passive dimension: ‘I am in a mood of fatalistic ‘surrender to God’ ⎯ I call it amor fati, so much so, that I would rush into a lion’s jaws’.I shall return to the religious overtones of the passage later on, but note that the proper attitude to amor fati is one of surrender, not of erotic pursuit, affirmation or wilfulness. A few years earlier, Nietzsche had already shown his awareness of the motivational gap by insisting that love is beyond education or rational motivation:
it is impossible teach love; for it is love alone that can bestow on the soul, not only a clear, discriminating and self-contemptuous view of itself, but also the desire to look beyond itself and to seek with all its might for a higher self as yet still concealed from it.37 (UM: 162-3).
This passage hints at the other possibility I mentioned above, namely agape (love alone ‘bestows on the soul’…), to which I shall now turn.Remember that on an agapic model, the value of the object does not determine the love we may bear it; on the contrary, our love transfigures its object by bestowing value on it. Whether fate is valued positively or negatively prior to our loving it will not affect whether we may love it or not. This takes care at once of two of the difficulties previously encountered, namely the apparent impossibility of loving a repellent object and the motivational gap examined above. Even if fate was perceived as a fully negative object, our love would per se enable us to overcome this negative valuation. Consequently, on an agapic reading whatever function the eternal return will play in relation to amor fati, it won’t be to provide us a standpoint and reasons for a positive re-evaluation of fate (as this would be falling back on the erotic logic just refuted). By contrast, on an agapic construal the main problem is that of genesis: not why we should love fate (since reasons won’t determine love), but how such a love can come into existence, especially bearing in mind that in its original version agapic love is divine, not human. But before turning to this problem, I shall first look at textual evidence to see whether it provides support for and substance to an agapic interpretation of amor fati.
Let’s return to Nietzsche’s original statement, this time by emphasising different aspects of it:
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!
I previously read this passage as laying out a quasi-Platonic strategy for overcoming the perceived negativity of fate and thus making amor fati possible. However two elements plead in favour of a different interpretation: firstly, on an erotic construal the second part of the statement (‘then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful’) is rather mysterious: it is presented as a consequence (‘then’) of amor fati. The only interpretation that an erotic reading allows for is rather literal: having learned to see things as beautiful, I would be in a position to create beautiful things. But the expression ‘making things beautiful’ (die Dinge schön machen) clearly refers to existing things, which rules out the idea of a physical poiesis whereby nice things would be produced. The alternative is to understand this making beautiful of things as an agapic transfiguration of their value brought about by our love for them. This central feature of agapic love, namely its ability to transform the former value of its objects, is explicitly identified by Nietzsche as one of the characteristic of the Overman: ‘verily, a predator of all values must such a bestowing love become; (…) May your bestowing love and your knowledge serve towards the meaning of the earth! (…) And may the value of all things be fixed anew by you! I shall try later to specify how this bestowal works in the case of amor fati; for the moment, let me point out the second aspect of GS276 which favours an agapic reading of love.
It concerns the peculiar modality of the expression ‘let that be my love’. Firstly, although it is, grammatically speaking, an imperative, it can also be read in a non prescriptive way, as an expression of hope for the coming of agapic love rather than as an erotic call for action. Secondly, the sort of act it refers to (letting be) is neither fully active nor passive: it suggests that the love may come to and through the agent (who has to ‘let it’ happen ⎯ perhaps, in this case, precisely by hoping for it), but that it cannot be fully caused by the agent. Although most indo-European languages only allow for passive and active modes, ancient Greek had a third mode to refer to such cases where agency is ambiguous. The middle voice was meant to capture the modality of situations in which the agent is both active and passive, in such a way that s/he participates in the action but without being in control of it.underlines this peculiar active/passive mode of the middle voice in relation to a particular example in ancient Greek, that of marrying someone.
The active form (gameô) was standardly used by men and denotes an action in which the agent is fully in control, namely the taking of a wife. This is grammatically reflected by the fact that the complement is in the accusative. The middle voice form (gameomai) was normally used by women: it denotes activity (the woman takes a husband) but also passivity (she gives herself over to him, a fact which is grammatically expressed by the complement being indirect and in the dative). Furthermore, the middle voice has an eventive dimension: it indicates that ‘the process of marriage befalls the subject’, in such a way that she participates in it without controlling it.
I want to suggest that this mediopassive modality is typical of Nietzsche’s reinterpretation of agape as a human form of love. It differs from the wilful, erotic pursuit picture of love in that it fully takes into account the motivational gap revealed by the phenomenology of love described above. The letting be of agapic love displays precisely the two features pointed out by Gonda: it is both active and passive, requiring, perhaps, the development or cultivation of a particular receptivity to such love, but without any guarantee that the presence of such sensitivity will generate our love. Secondly, it has a marked eventive dimension (love happens to us, as expressed by the locution ‘to fall in love’).
This mediopassive mode is often found in passages devoted both to amor fati and to the eternal return. For example, Nietzsche’s autobiographical observations in Ecce Homo recount how the revelation of the eternal return came to him on the background of the ‘yes-saying pathos par excellence’ then ‘alive in me to the highest degree’ (EH: 296 ⎯ note that GS276 also refers to loving fate as being able to say yes to it, a point I shall comment upon later). The modality of this ‘being alive in me’ of the ‘yes-saying pathos’ is very similar to that of the ‘letting be’ of amor fati: it suggests that Nietzsche’s attitude was instrumental to the yes-saying pathos being alive, perhaps in the sense that he was self aware enough to perceive its existence in him and offered it propitious conditions without which it would have died; yet the expression makes it clear that both the pathos and its life were neither generated nor controlled by Nietzsche himself.
Thus Nietzsche’s introduction of amor fati in GS276 is ambiguous. It can be read as an invitation to strive to satisfy the conditions that will make an erotic version of amor fati possible or as a description of what may happen if an agapic form of amor fati was somehow realised. By contrast, the last two passages about amor fati, which I have so far left aside, seem to emphasise the second possibility, to which I shall now turn. They are as follows:
Ten years ⎯ and nobody in Germany has felt bound in conscience to defend my name against the absurd silence under which it lies buried (…). I myself have never suffered from all this; what is necessary does not hurt me; amor fati is my inmost nature)
What is most intimate in me teaches me that everything that is necessary, viewed from above and interpreted in the direction of a superior economy, is also useful per se ⎯ one needs not only bear it, but also love it… Amor fati: this is the bottom of my nature