The Problem with ‘Amor Fati’

According to Wikipedia, amor fati refers to an acceptance of everything, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, that happens in one’s life. The term was used by Nietzsche, but traces of its ideals can be found in Greek Stoic thought, and loosely in Buddhism.

I’m finishing Luc Ferry’s ‘A Brief History of Thought’, a primer to philosophy that’s quite short and engaging. Here is his critique of amor fati, which he defines as ‘love of what the present brings:

However, there is one specific object – concerning Nietzsche – I must raise, so that you may understand why, despite my considerable interest in the work of Nietzsche, I am unable to be a Nietzschean. This objection concerns the doctrine of amor fati which is found in several philosophical traditions, notably Buddhist and Stoic, and also resurfaces in contemporary materialist philosophy.

The notion of amor fati sits on these principles: to regret things a little less, to hope for the future a little less and to love the present a little more, if not completely! I can understand perfectly that there can be serenity, relief, solace —everything Nietzsche describes so compellingly— in the ‘innocence of becoming’. But this injunction really only applies to the more painful aspects of existence: to enjoin us to love what is already lovable about reality would make little sense, since we do so anyway. What the wise man must manage to realise in himself is the love of whatever happens; otherwise he merely resembles everyone else in liking what is likeable and not liking what is not likeable! And here is the problem: if we must say yes to everything, without ‘picking and choosing’, but must shoulder whatever comes our way, how do we avoid what one contemporary philosopher and disciple of Nietzsche, Clément Rosset, has so aptly referred to as ‘the hangman’s argument’. This can be summarised as follows: there exist on Earth, since time immemorial, hangmen and torturers. They are indubitably part of the real; consequently, the doctrine of amor fati, which urges us to love whatever is the case, likewise must urge us to love torturers.

Another contemporary philosopher, Theodor Adorno, asked whether, after Auschwitz and the genocide perpetrated against European Jews, mankind could still be urged to love the real as it is, without reserve or exception. Is such a thing possible, even? Epictetus, for his part, admitted that he had never in his life met a single Stoic sage, if by this is meant someone who loved the world as it is, under all aspects, however atrocious, and who under all circumstances could refrain from either regret or hope. Must we see in this failure a temporary wobble, a difficulty with the demands of wisdom — or is it not a sign that the theory falters, that amor fati is not merely impossible but on occasion obscene? If we must accept everything that occurs, as it is, in all its tragic sense or lack of sense, how can we avoid the accusation of complicity, even of collaboration with evil?

There is more. If loving everything that is the case turns out not to be truly feasible, neither for Stoics nor for Buddhists nor for Nietzsche himself, does it not immediately risk taking on the abhorrent form of a new ideal, and consequently, a new figure of nihilism? Here, in my opinion, is the strongest argument against the long tradition running from the most ancient practices of Oriental and Occidental wisdom to the most up-to-date philosophical materialism. What is the good of pretending to have finished with ‘idealism’, with all ideals and ‘idols’, if this proud philosophical programme of amor fati remains itself an ideal? What is the good of holding up for derision all theories of transcendence, old and new, and invoking the wisdom of things as thy are, if this love of the real is itself in thrall to transcendence and remains an objective that becomes radically inaccessible whenever the going gets even mildly difficult?

— A Brief History of Thought (2011), pp. 193-195

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