Okay, or die might be a stretch, maybe be miserable, or really stressed out. Amor fati is a Latin phrase translated as “love of fate” or “love of one’s fate”. It describes an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in life, including suffering and loss, as good or, at least, necessary. Lately I have been pondering what does this mean for us as leaders–or what does Amor fati have to do with leadership?
Amor fati is often associated with what Friedrich Nietzsche called “eternal recurrence”, the idea that, over an infinite period of time, everything recurs infinitely. From this Nietzsche developed a desire to be willing to live exactly the same life over and over for all eternity.
Nietzsche is always interesting–but the concept of amor fati is linked all the way back to Ancient Greece and the stoics–more specifically Epictetus. Epictetus was born a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey) and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. Epictetus knew a few things about fate, misery and suffering.
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” –Enchiridion of Epictetus Ch. VIII
Amor fati is also seen in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, who did not use the exact words (he wrote in Greek, not Latin).
“All that is in accord with you is in accord with me, O World! Nothing which occurs at the right time for you comes too soon or too late for me. All that your seasons produce, O Nature, is fruit for me. It is from you that all things come: all things are within you, and all things move toward you.” -Marcus Aurelius Meditations IV.23
However, Amor fati found its most explicit expression in Nietzsche, who made love of fate central to his philosophy.
“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.”
The phrase is used elsewhere in Nietzsche’s writings and is representative of his general outlook on life:
“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.”
Nietzsche in this context refers to the “Yes-sayer”, not in a political or social sense, but as a person who is capable of uncompromising acceptance of reality per se.
Nietzsche’s love of fate naturally leads him to confront the reality of suffering in a radical way. For to love that which is necessary, demands not only that we love the bad along with the good, but that we view the two as inextricably linked.
“Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit….I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’; but I know that it makes us more profound.”
Nietzsche does not promote suffering as a good in itself, but rather as a precondition for good. A ‘single moment’ of good justifies an eternity of bad, but one extreme cannot have meaning without the other.
“For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”
Life implies struggle, conflict, disorder, unpredictability, destruction, impermanence, and decay, and all these things are painful. Consequently, to get to the bottom of life-affirmation–let alone of its supreme expression in amor fati–it is necessary to get a firm grasp on what exactly it is Nietzsche understands by “suffering”.
“From life’s school of war – What does not kill me makes me stronger.”
“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering,” Nietzsche tells us, “has given rise to every enhancement in humanity so far,” — “Every important growth is accompanied by a terrible crumbling and passing away: Suffering … belong[s] in the times of tremendous advances.” The idea is the same at the level of individuals. Danger, risk, and suffering are essential for happiness and growth – “the path to one’s own heaven leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell.” Nietzsche presents a poetic expression of the general principle that suffering is a necessary condition for any increase in life and health.
Here we find the basic idea that strength and health grow by facing adversity. We see the same in biology–it’s the same principle behind a vaccination. Nietzsche, it is important to remember, credits the excruciatingly painful illness that afflicted him throughout his writing career with making him decisively stronger and healthier. Nietzsche explains that it is his agonizing illness and the deep suffering it caused him that afforded him some of the key psychological insights that form the background of his work.
A surprising corollary of this theory of suffering is that the healthiest and strongest are precisely those who are most prone to suffering. The tragic Greeks, Nietzsche tells us, were such extraordinary artists and dramatists precisely because they were “uniquely capable of the most exquisite and heaviest suffering.” Nietzsche would later present the idea more generally with his claim that “order of rank is almost determined by just how deeply a person can suffer.”
The healthiest are thus not only those who suffer the most deeply, but those whose will to suffer is the greatest. What does not kill them makes them stronger and healthier, and so they want to be exposed to what could very well “kill” them. It is in this sense that the great health of amor fati involves not only accepting and embracing suffering, but also willing it. For without great suffering, there is no great health.
Heraclitus was the first to teach that all things emerge from struggle, we grow by facing adversity, and the Heraclitean worldview, is not a state, but a dynamic process of constant overcoming.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius would say:
“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”
Amor fati is the Stoic mindset we take on for making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it.
As leaders we have to remember–like oxygen to a fire, obstacles and adversity become fuel for our potential. So in 2020 Amor fati to become a stronger, better, more healthy leader.