'Amor Fati' - What does Jung mean by 'loving your fate'? by Kaye Gersch PhD.
“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it - all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary - but to love it”.
On the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce Homo
One of the biggest problems human beings have is that we expect someone else to tell us how to live our lives - some expert, some religion, some tradition, some formula, and some commodity that we buy such as a course or product. And one of the biggest problems our culture has is that it believes it can deliver those experts, those religions, those traditions, those formulas, and those commodities.
I’m going to talk about something very different, about discovering meaning in the one and only life that is you, or me, a meaning beyond cause and effect, beyond upbringing and environment, out of the reach of experts, religions, traditions, formulas and commodities.
Natalie Goldberg, Zen teacher and author of “Writing Down the Bones”, asks, in “Long, Quiet Highway” (page 69):
“Just who was I? Where did I come from? How was I becoming a writer, given my family? What part of us is born apart from family? How was I heading in a whole different direction from my upbringing, from anyone I knew (in my home community), and how was I so alone and different in school?” This is something many of us can relate to.
Are we the child our mother sees, or is the acorn growing and are we something else? Consider fairy tales such as the Ugly Duckling, (who turns into a swan) and the Little Lion (who wasn’t a sheep after all). The theme in these stories is that there is one who is born into a family or village, or culture, who feels a total misfit, and later discovers that they belong to an entirely different family, species or culture. These stories introduce us to the daemon, through a different way of discovering identity.
It is clear from reading Natalie Goldberg’s autobiographical work, “Long, Quiet Highway”, that something sprouted in Natalie very early on in her life, in spite of, not because of, her family and her upbringing. What is also clear is that she was equipped with sufficient curiosity, tenacity and openness to discern this “other” life that was showing up, and to water it, give it light and air, and to wait. This is important, and we will come back to it later.
Natalie Goldberg is one among many who have discovered this “other” voice and listened to it. Every innovator, social reformer, creative artist, creative thinker, creative engineer, radical teacher, has a similar story. I believe we each have a similar story, that is, that we are not just a sum of nature and nurture, but that a third element is involved. This, in the terms we are using tonight, is the daemon, and the daemon has to do with fate.
“Real life is what happens when we are busy making other plans”: we can all agree with this saying, with a wry smile. The daemon often doesn’t agree with the plans we are making, and we end up doing something else instead. That’s the daemon. That’s fate.
One of the reasons I have adhered to the Jungian approach for many years is that the individual is central, and with it the daemon. Jungian analysis is never to do with getting an individual to conform to experts, religions, traditions and formulas. Certainly not psychological formulas. Not normalizing. Not pathologizing. It’s about being curious about the specifics of one particular individual, and the unique circumstances that surround that individual.
I’ve quoted the Leonard Cohen poem “Ring the Bell”, before. Here it is again:
“Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget the perfect offering
Everything has a crack in it
That’s how the light gets in".
The crack, or the light that comes through it, is the daemon. This gives us the clue that the daemon finds purchase in our lives through the wounded parts, which nevertheless water our hearts and souls. How many of those of us who are therapists would do what we do if our early years had been happy and light? If we didn’t know about our own wounding, would we be interested in witnessing the wounds of others, day after day, year after year, and still show up for more? That’s the daemon. For Jung, one’s professional calling is fated. He said, “the more one sees of human fate, and the more one examines its secret springs of action, the more one is impressed by the strength of unconscious motives and by the limitations of free choice. The doctor knows – or should know – that he did not choose his career by chance; and the psychotherapist in particular should clearly understand that psychic infections, however superfluous they seem to him, are in fact the predestined concomitants of his work, and thus fully in accord with the instinctive disposition of his own life" CW16: 365p.
Sometimes the daemon takes a while to show up, or takes a circuitous route. One of my favourite famous people is the Polish-born scientist Benoit Mandelbrot, 1924 - 2010. Till the age of twenty, due to the persistent poverty of his family at the time, he was largely self-educated. His own curiosity led him down many paths, which a formal education might well have stifled. It was the necessity of poverty that created this very eclectic education. We will talk more of necessity later. Mandelbrot was convinced that he had something to offer. This quote is from his autobiography, “The Fractalist”.
“When I turned thirty-five, I questioned my life. Had I, in my dreams of leaving my mark on science, really ‘missed the boat?’ I am keenly aware that this fear led me to reinvent myself surprisingly late in life, when I did my best-known work. My refoundation of finance was to occur as I neared forty, and the discovery of the Mandelbrot set came at fifty-five. For a scientist, those are unusually–astonishingly–old ages, as many witnesses have noted" (p 291, ibid).
He expands on how he discovered his aptitude for new and diverse fields.
“Since thirty five – a turning point - my life has been most atypical in different but fruitful ways. It reminds me of the fairy tale in which the hero finds a small thread where none was expected, pulls on it, harder and harder, and unravels a variety of wonders beyond belief…all totally unexpected. Examined one by one, the wonders ‘belonged’ to fields of knowledge far removed from one another. One could pursue each on its own, to great benefit, as I did…” p xiii.
Mandelbrot’s development was not linear, not a carefully considered progression, but random and unexpected. That’s how the daemon often works. Also notable is that he first hit upon the Mandelbrot set of fractal geometry in 1945, but it wasn’t until 1982 when computer science was sufficiently developed, that he was able to display it’s astonishing forms. He himself worked at IBM and did the programming for it. That’s nearly 40 years of faith in his own idea - he knew it was possible.
It’s people like him who inspired me to take on a full-time PhD well into my sixties. If the university was game, so was I. For most of the 4 ½ years I was incredulous that I got this lucky, that our culture could support such late blooming. The daemon is like that. It gives us lucky breaks – and unlucky ones too. Thirty-five years before I entered the University of Queensland as a PhD candidate, that same university turned me down for an undergraduate degree, on the merest pretext. Who can explain this, except in terms of the daemon?
Mandelbrot gives us another clue. He said, in a 2004 interview, that “a recent, important turn in my life occurred when I realized that something that I have long been stating in footnotes should be put in the main text.” I must say that I thought the best energy of my PhD thesis was in the footnotes, but my supervisors wanted me to get rid of these juicy morsels. These were the things I really wanted to say, but I suspected, correctly, were not going to get past the censors. But Mandelbrot is saying something more all encompassing. He’s talking about the daemon, and how we don’t recognize it as the important thing it is. Are we like my supervisors, doing our own censoring, relegating the most important things in our lives to the footnotes, or expunging them completely, or deferring to “later”, or to our spare time, or “when I retire”?
I have a young friend who is a brilliant musician, a multi-instrumentalist. Music rolls out of her as easily as rain drops down a window. See’s also a PhD candidate in science. She is a very unhappy and unproductive PhD student. But, bolstered by a family and a culture that value science a lot higher than music, she’s sticking with the science. Music is firmly in the footnotes. I’d like to imagine that this scenario doesn’t happen too often, but I know I’m wrong. Do you recognize yourself in this story?
There is a most extraordinary Oscar-winning documentary called “Searching for Sugarman”. It’s about Sixto Rodriguez, born 1942, and I won’t say anything else because this is something for you to experience, to wonder over, and to contemplate in regard to the daemon and to fate. This story is not over yet, it’s still being written, Rodriguez is still alive. What are the footnotes for Rodriguez, what is the main text? That’s for you to think about later. Where is his daemon?
The idea of destiny and the daemon is not new. “The Fates lead the willing but drag the unwilling,” according to Cleanthes, the Greek Stoic philosopher of the 300’s BC. Seneca, the Roman philosopher who lived mid-1st century AD, expressed a similar idea: “The Fates lead him who will - him who won’t they drag.” C.G.Jung internalized this idea, and claimed “that which we do not approach consciously comes to us as Fate.” His idea is that when we engage consciously and willingly with the necessities of our lives, that Fate is somewhat forestalled or circumvented. Our Fate, in this view, is in our own hands. Others who agree with the idea that our nature is our fate are Schiller, who says “the stars of thine own fate lie in the breast,” within one’s own psyche, and Emerson who claims “a man’s fortunes are the fruits of his character”, and therefore within his own capacity to influence.
Plato and the Greeks called it "daimon," the Romans "genius," the Christians "guardian angel." Today we use the terms heart, spirit, and soul. To James Hillman, the daemon is the central and guiding force of his "acorn theory" - in which each life is formed by a unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny, just as the mighty oak's destiny is written in the tiny acorn. Philosophers and psychologists from Plato to Jung have emphasized the fundamental essence of our individuality, which they attributed to something other than nature, or nurture. The daemon is that third thing - neither nature nor nurture but something in-between or even other.
James Hillman pursues the daemon in his book, “The Soul's Code: in Search of Character and Calling". I’ll summarize his main points here.
If we take Hillman’s idea of the daemon, events in a person’s history, which we have habitually considered to be causes of his present psychopathology, may now perhaps be viewed as manifestations of an emergent life-pattern. Traumatic events of childhood may perhaps be seen as essential landmarks in the actualization of a pattern of wholeness. Theses traumas may be understood as the “suffering of the soul” which is needed to engender present and future psychological advances.
Living in congruence with our daemon shows up as an invincibility of belief, when we keep going no matter what others think, when we refuse to be dumbed down to mediocrity or the lowest common denominator. We make soul with our behaviour, so our habit-patterns count. An invincibility of belief can imbue us with the impetus, the conviction, the determination, the endurance, and the inspiration to establish the kind of habits that suit us and work towards our fulfilment. It is through changing our habits and what we give priority to, that we can remain more true to our daemon.
Our culture seems to value only that which stands out, the winners, the wealthy, the sporting heroes, stardom, and the standard measures of value. How do we value the small achievements of our own ordinary life, our ordinary day, a day that no one sees but ourselves? If we are listening to the daemon, we have a very different measure of success, and of meaning. The daemon calls us to life, but not necessarily to what is seen as success. Become aware, as a process of mindfulness, of how you judge yourself; what standards do you employ to assess yourself?
Hillman discusses accidents: Do they hinder or advance the work of the daemon? Are accidents the work of the daemon, of fate? Or are accidents the results of psychological complexes that get in the way of the work of our destiny? Hillman won’t be drawn to taking sides on this question. He said, “I would rather keep accidents as an authentic category of existence, forcing speculations about existence.”
The daemon involves telos, which means aim, end or fulfilment. Telos is not to do with cause and effect. Rather it is the pull of purpose. It crosses my intentions, and has nothing to do with my past. Do we interpret (or reinterpret) the past by what comes in the future? Do we even reinterpret a life through the manner of the death?
One of Hillman’s favourite subjects is the idea of style. That is, a personal sense of style, what appeals to us, which shows in how we live, what we enjoy, how we dress, how we decorate, how we write, how we speak. It is not about fashion. In this way Hillman himself was a very stylish guy, right to the time of his death. He also liked cats, which he thought were very stylish. It’s not what we do but how we do it – finding and expressing something unique. It is therefore not about choosing the big job, or the notable career, or the fashionable clothes, or the “in” colour, or the position that will bring the highest financial rewards, but about being ourselves.
Everyone has a daemon. Some live in close relationship with it, others at a far distance. This leads to considering what we do with our talents. According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “the person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it". Hiding our talents or refusing to live them, is living in opposition to the daemon. I think of my young musician friend here. American novelist Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989) went even further, and said that “talent is what you possess; genius is what possess you.” So, perhaps being “possessed” by one’s talent, of giving it rein, is the genius of the daemon.
I mentioned “necessity” before. Necessity is something we cannot get away from. We see in biographies how necessity is at work in human lives, as we have noted with Benoit Mandelbrot, and how necessary early poverty was to his education. Another example is Jakob Böhme, born 1575, also in Poland. He was a shoemaker and mystic. He worked hard to make ends meet and to support his large family. It was while he was devoted to his manual work that he had his mystical awakening, which gave him a completely different understanding of, literally, everything. One of his major works was entitled “The Signature of All Things”. He was persecuted for his un-Lutheran views, and was even refused the last sacrament on his deathbed. But he did not cease his outpouring of exquisite communications. His story is repeated in the biography of virtually every western mystic; both his poverty and his rejection were necessities, in the sense I am using it here. The genius of the daemon is that it comes with a great sense of purpose and unwavering determination, as well as an inner fire that stays alight even in the most adverse circumstances.
“Necessity” implies restriction, when we have no other choice but to do it, and there is no escape. James Hillman says, “The truer you are to your daemon, the closer you are to the death that belongs to your destiny.” Death is the final necessity. I think this is one of the reasons we are fascinated by death, and in wonder about the particular death that shows up for each particular individual.
Etymologically our word fate derives from the Latin fatum, meaning to speak, in the sense of something spoken or decreed. But when something has been spoken does this mean that it is inevitable? For the Greeks (Moirai) and Romans (Parcae or Fatae), The Fates were a trio of women who handled the threads of human life and allotted both good and ill. The norns were the Fates in Norse mythology. One’s fate was not to be blamed upon another human being, but on Fate itself. The Fates gave advice on human activity, and of particular note, suicide is described as a breech of fate by at least one Roman writer, the result being that “thou hast forcest an entrance to the gloomy Shades”. The Fates make regular appearances in popular culture; their presence lends an atmosphere of depth and universality. The development of gaming brings with it an emphasis on fate. This would indicate that there is a deep drive within us, recreated by each generation, to maintain and develop a mythology, and that this mythology includes the notion of Fate. This suggests that Fate represents an archetype which has been relevant throughout history, and which we cannot dispense with.
Contemporary thinkers have a lot to say about both fate and the daemon. “Follow your bliss”, says mythologist Joseph Campbell. He continues, “When you follow your bliss…doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else". The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard says: “God has given each of us our ‘marching orders’. Our purpose here on earth is to find those orders and carry them out. Those orders acknowledge our special gifts".
In The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, Sisyphus is punished for hubris by being required to push a huge boulder up hill, then to let it roll down again, and then to repeat the whole thing again. Camus’ Sisyphus managed to do this will hope, and with a smile, and this smile is a revolt against fate. Rather than being doomed, Sisyphus chooses to push the stone. In this act is dignity and freedom. When we choose to embrace the complexities of our lives, we discover meaning. We have no choice over the condition, the givenness, but we have a lot of choice over the attitude we take towards it.
Viktor Frankl, in both his book “The Search for Meaning,” and the movie made of his life called “The Choice is Yours”, emphasizes that even in imprisonment, our attitude to that imprisonment is completely up to us. The yes is the achievement of amor fati, the love of one’s fate. Meaning is an experiential by-product of a life lived in the way it is supposed to be lived. As Jung says: “A psychoneurosis must be understood . . . as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning” C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion.
I’ll now look briefly at some religious ideas relating to fate. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells us “Never do what you hate.” Perhaps we could also say, never hate what you do, in order to “love your fate”. This is very similar to Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss”. In Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ the triumph of Jesus is not over death, but the triumph is acceptance of his fatem to embrace the suffering he is called to live. Some people are consciously aware throughout their lives, of being “guided by invisible hands”. Joseph Campbell says that he has always felt this personally, and he regards a lack of this awareness as tantamount to loss of soul. A sense of being led, guided or the receiver of divine hints gives one a sense of knowing the will of the gods. “Throughout we believe ourselves to be the masters of our deeds. But reviewing our lives...it appears as if our steps had been guided by a power foreign to us” Schopenhauer, on Apparent Design in the Fate of an Individual.)
Jung proposed that the mistakes and bad choices we make are to do with complexes, and in this sense our complexes are our Fate. “If we… examine our lives, we too perceive how a mighty hand guides us without fail to our destiny, and not always is this hand a kindly one. Often we call it the hand of God or of the devil, (thereby expressing, unconsciously but correctly, a highly important psychological fact: that the power which shapes the life of the psyche has the character of an autonomous personality. At all events it is felt as such, so that today in common speech, just as in ancient time, the source of any such destiny appears as a daemon, as a good or evil spirit" CW 4:727.
In The Way of the Dream, the Jungian analyst Marie Louise Von Franz proposes the idea that every soul has it’s own star in heaven.
“Hitch your wagon to (your own) star,” she says. Why is it that so few people follow their own star? Why is it such a heavy burden? Von Franz answers this by saying that following your own star means isolation, having to find out a completely new way for yourself instead of following a well-trodden path. There has always been a tendency for humans to project their uniqueness and the greatness of their own inner self onto outer personalities. What is this notion of a star? We see it in the Magi who see the star in the east and follow it to see the Child in Bethlehem. We see it in the dream of Gilgamesh, which is 46 hundred years old. This is the dream:
“In the middle of the night I walked proudly up and down among my people. There were stars in the sky. Suddenly, one of the stars of the sky-god Anu fell upon me. I tried to lift it, but it was too heavy for me. All Uruk assembled around this star and the people kissed its feet.” This was the Fate that fell upon Gilgamesh, and we can liken it to our own. He was happily and proudly following a collective role, following the typical pattern of the hero-king. The star that falls is heavy, and symbolizes his unique destiny. From now on he will be required to be the specific human being he is destined or even required to be. This task often falls upon us in mid-life. Before this we can see our success in the collective and be assessed by that collective. It is interesting to note that Gilgamesh’s subjects do not kiss his feet, but rather the star’s feet. The message for him, and us, is that they acknowledge his true greatness, and the source of that greatness - that is his necessity to become a unique individual, his true heroic task.
Loving our fate involves asking the question, “What does Life want of me?” rather than trying to impose what I want upon life. Amor Fati is in the end a recognition that it is here, in this place, in this time, in this area, that we are called to live our lives. As Edward Whitmont says: “With amor fati, or at least with the acceptance of the idea of a personal destiny, life can be understood as something more than a never-ending attempt to right past wrongs (all that has been done to us). The prevailing attitude of “If only I, my parents, or society had been different, or had acted differently”—which necessarily carries guilt and blame in its wake—can be transformed into a feeling for life as a creative experience, as a search for fulfillment and realization. A destined identity poses a potential, which is always waiting, at any point in time and space, to be actualized by our efforts, our trials and errors, and our creative improvisations in personal situations. Such a viewpoint offers a challenge even in the face of despair. In it’s suffering, the soul can discover meaning”.
We have seen that it is necessary (and fate is the necessity) to find meaning in our individual lives, to exercise our talents, and to develop beyond the patterns we inherit from our family and culture. The following poem shows us someone who achieved this.
This is from the final book of poems of Raymond Carver, written just before he died.
“And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth”.
Late Fragment, Raymond Carver 
 This is incorrectly attributed to John Lennon. He certainly made it popular, but it originated with Allen Saunders. It appeared in the "Quotable Quotes" section of the January 1957 issue of Reader's Digest.
 This is the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s poem/song “Anthem”.
 “The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick.”Panthoen, 2012, New York
 Interview at The Edge 20 December 2004.
 Hillman, James. (1997). The Soul's Code: in Search of Character and Calling (Warner Books ed.). New York: Warner Books.
 I have been unable to source this quote.
 Statius, Thebaid 10. 810 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D. wrote): "Of thy own will and pleasure slain [of one who committed suicide], ay, even against the will of Fata (Fate), thou hast forcest an entrance to the gloomy Manes (Shades)."
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, p. 217
 I have been unable to source the origin of this quote.
 Penguin Classics, London, 2013
 Viktor Emil Frankl 1985, Man’s Search for Meaning, Simon & Schuster, New York
 Harper Collins, 2009, New York
 2012, Simon & Schuster, New York
 Transcendent Speculations on Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual, Watts, 1913
 The Way of the Dream, Shambala, 1994
 Whitmont, Edward (2007). The Destiny Concept in Psychotherapy. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 9 (1), 25-38.
 “A New Path to the Waterfall”, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989, p 122