Amor Fati

personal development stoicism Apr 21, 2017
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Embracing Stoic Determinism 

I was hung up on it for years. I’ve heard popular Stoic advocates like Ryan Holiday express the same reservation. Many who embrace the principles and practices of Modern Stoicism just can’t, or rather won’t, accept that their life is fated.

“Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” ― E.B. White

We come to the idea of being above fate honestly. If you’re American, it’s part of your cultural birthright. An inherent tenet of the “American Dream” is the idea of “the self-made man.” Of course, your mileage may vary, but if you were born white, male, and even of modest privilege in the good ol’ USA you’ve likely never questioned the idea that you determine your destiny.

But do you…?

Historically, the image of the self-made man or woman involved “pluck,” or the summoning up of courage or boldness. Pluck was required because if you were going to make something of yourself beyond the position you were born, you were going to have to bootstrap. You’d need to set an aspiration and work hard to reach it. You’d receive little assistance and would likely have your efforts met with resistance, indifference, mockery, or even hostility.

In today’s age of participation trophies, entitlement, and increasing narcissism, there is a glaring absence of pluck. You’d think that we’d believe that the bounty we receive simply for showing up was fated. But no, somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve earned it!

“Accept the things to which fate binds you….” ― Marcus Aurelius

To get over our unwillingness to accept that our lives are fated, we first must get over ourselves. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations provide plenty of reminders of our insignificance.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”

“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.”

In the end, whether we steer the ship of our destiny or fate steers it is of little consequence. No matter who we are or become, and no matter what we do or create; the only ultimate result is we die. All of our accomplishments will eventually be forgotten. Whatever we build will be destroyed. And anything that remains or is remembered no longer matters to us after we’re gone.

“Confine Yourself to the Present.” — Marcus Aurelius

If you have embraced the most basic of Stoic principles and practices, then you must accept determinism. The dichotomy of control, the Stoic touchstone that says some things are within your control and others are not, has “letting go” built into it.

We can’t change the past. The future is always uncertain. Therefore, all we have to work with is the here and now. The discipline of perception helps us recognize this, and the discipline of action encourages us to do so in accord with our virtue (our moral character). The practice of these disciplines is the path to practical wisdom, equanimity, and true happiness.

“Nothing has happened which was not going to be….” — Cicero

There are two primary hang-ups most modern Stoics have with the idea of accepting fate. First, is the notion that if everything is predetermined, there’s no sense in actively engaging with our life. If the future is fixed, why not just give up and satisfy our hedonistic instincts? Second, is the idea that predestination is at odds with free will. How can our future be set when we appear to have the ability to think and act freely?

The first notion, that life being fated implies there’s no need for us to actively participate, was addressed by Chrysippus (third head of the school established by Stoic founder, Zeno). Chrysippus called it "argos logos," “the lazy argument” and it comes about through some equally lazy thinking.

A life that is fated does not imply that it simply happens to you. It also happens through you. Yes, you are but a tiny cog in the machinery of the universe, but you still have a role to play. Past events do not solely determine your future, you can and should be an active participant. How you proceed is indeed fated, but it also is a reflection of your character. Do your best and let what unfolds be what it will be!

The second notion, that determinism is at odds with free will, is somewhat softened by the argument against the lazy argument above. Taking it further, a modern Stoic accepts that they are not free from their past. Who we were and what has happened are immutably fixed. As for who will become and what happens next, we must decide what position and action to take. 

The role we decide to play and whatever action we choose to take are on us. It will reflect who we are now and, along with fate, shape our destiny and our character.

“I want to do such and such, as long as nothing happens which may present an obstacle to my decision.” — Seneca

Seneca’s quote is one of many manifestations of what is known as the Stoic “reserve clause.” We may (and indeed virtue implies we should), act honorably and for the common good in the execution of our daily lives. Set properly motivated aspirations and strive to achieve them with diligent effort and in accord with virtue.

But since the outcome is beyond our control, we do so “fate permitting.” The result is not the reward; the reward is in the quality of our intention and effort. In fact, any disagreement with the role of fate is really a non-starter for the modern Stoic. Doing the right thing is always the right thing; fate be damned.

So, be here now. Do your best. Accept and absorb the results. Repeat and enjoy!

Scott Perry, Chief Difference-Maker at Creative on Purpose

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