Accepting One’s Fate: What Stoicism Can Teach Us About Embracing Life’s Events

Accepting One’s Fate: What Stoicism Can Teach Us About Embracing Life’s Events

This post Originally appeared on Medium. 

The concept of accepting one’s fate was popularized by Friedrich Nietzshe around 1882 when he coined the latin term, amor fati. The concept, however, dates back further and the Stoics, knowing full well what was and was not within their control, made accepting one’s fate, or, amor fati, a staple of their philosophy.

In the Enchiridion, curated by his student Arrian, Epictetus uses the analogy of a bath to describe accepting one’s fate:

“When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.” Epictetus. Enchiridion. IV.

Part of this concept of accepting one’s fate comes from the Dichotomy of Control, which is the Stoic tenet of understanding what is and is not within one’s control. Epictetus believed that the things within our control are:

  • Opinion
  • Pursuit
  • Desire
  • Aversion
  • Our own actions

Things Epictetus believed were not within our control are:

  • Body
  • Property
  • Reputation
  • Command
  • Whatever are not our own actions

Accordingly, fate is not something within our control because it encompasses aspects of life for which we only have “partial” control over, which is what the Stoics categorized as “not being within our control.”

Marcus, among the other Stoics, knew that he had control over himself, his actions, and his influence on the world. But other than that, he had little control over the world itself and others’ actions. He therefore positions himself to advantage his situation when he writes in book two of Meditations:

“It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Book II.4

Marcus is reminding himself of the power he has within himself, that his time on earth is limited, but that regardless of what he does and pursues, he is a part of a much larger picture for which he ultimately does not have full control over.

Accepting One’s Fate

Accepting one’s fate was crucial during the times of the Stoics as many of the Stoics whose works survive today such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Musonius Rufus, were preaching philosophy under emperors who were ruthless in their judgments and made snap-second decisions which caused reverberations throughout the philosophical community. Each of the above-named philosophers found himself exiled at one point or another in his life.

  • Seneca was exiled from Rome in 41 AD by Emperor Claudius;
  • Epictetus was exiled from Rome by Emperor Domitian;
  • Musonius Rufus was exiled from Rome in 71 AD, as were all philosophers of the time, by Emperor Vespasian.

Each had to let go of the lives they lived and move, giving up everything they possessed including their freedom to live the lives they wished to live.

Similarly, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself to stay present in the moment and accept the events life provided as he writes:

“Cease to fume at destiny by ever grumbling at today or lamenting over tomorrow.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Book II.2

Viktor Frankl whose book, Man’s Search for Meaning, details his enslavement in Nazi concetration camps during World War II, also had to embrace the fate he was delt, writing:

“…step-by-step we had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.” Viktor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning

Application of Value-Judgments on Fate

Epictetus, having been a slave for half of his life, knew of having little control over his own fate and instead embraced his exile by changing the judgments he applied to it, stating in Discourses:

“In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.” Epictetus. Discourses. I.6

Likewise, Seneca, whose Moral Letters to the Italian Official, Lucilius, still survive today, wrote:

“Accept in an unruffled spirit that which is inevitable.” -Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Letter XCVIX

Seneca himself found out just how important this understanding of fate was when he was accused of trying to orchestrate a plot to overthrow Emperor Nero, and was forced to commit suicide in 65 AD. Accepting his fate, he kissed his wife goodbye and allowed his veins to be slit, but rather than immediately pass, he continued to live due to his aged veins. He then ingested poison which too did not kill him. He eventually died after being carried into a bath wherein the steam suffocated him.

At any point, Seneca could have begged for his life, could have tried to make a deal with Nero, could have offered the guards standing watch ungodly amounts of money to save him. But he did none of this. Attempt after attempt, he pushed on toward his fate, eventually meeting it.

Marcus Aurelius, aged and sick in his final weeks, refused to eat or drink as a way to help speed up the process of death, knowing full well he had reached the end, and in turn, embraced the fate he had been handed.

Prior to this, Marcus wrote to himself in Meditations:

“Last and chief, wait with good grace for death.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. II.17

We must understand, we control the mindset and judgments we apply to events. There are things for which we can change and will to our want. But there are other things, such as fate, for which we have very little control over. And it is within these things, the ones we truly don’t control, that we tend to exert the most energy, fighting battles we cannot change.

In Meditations, Marcus reminds himself of this, stating:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VII.8

We can change the things within our control and accept the things for which we cannot change. We should not be angry or spiteful, rather, we should accept what we cannot control and from this, understand that we had no control over these events in the first place.

The Stoic Reserve Clause

The Stoic Reserve Clause helps one to remain calm and collected in times of trial. It means “fate permitting” and is used by Stoics as they embark on their goals with the knowledge that external forces are at play and may become an impediment to their end goals.

For example, in book four of Meditations, Marcus writes to himself:

“If the inward power that rules us to be true to Nature, it will always adjust itself readily to the possibilities and opportunities offered by circumstance.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. IV.1

The Stoic Reserve Clause falls within the Stoic idea of Discipline of Desire — the idea that we will pursue a goal and will inevitably have to accept that there are external forces at play that may become an impediment to our achieving the desired goal. It is through the Discipline of Desire that Stoics learned to embrace and accept this idea of fate — that there are things outside of our control and that regardless of how we might approach the desired outcome, there may be something that prevents us from achieving said goal.

In his book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Donald Robertson describes the Stoic Reserve Clause as:

“…a verbal clause added to the end of each sentence concerning one’s own actions or intentions… The clause itself can take several forms, for example, “God willing”, “fate willing”, “nature permitting”, “if nothing prevents me”, etc.” Donald Robertson. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

This idea of a Reserve Clause was so important to the Stoics and their views of the world and outcomes that Marcus reminds himself of it several times in Meditations, once again writing in book six:

“Try to move men by persuasion; yet act against their will if the principles of justice so direct. But if someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue.” VI.50

Embracing Our Own Fates

The concept of embracing fate, of thinking we’re releasing control of our lives, is one of the harder aspects of being a Stoic as it requires one to come to terms with aspects of their lives they may not be ready to come to terms with; the idea of the Dichotomy of Control is hard to embrace in itself simply because we do not like to think we’re not in control of our lives.

But it is not that we’re not in control of our lives, rather, it is that there are aspects within our lives for which we are fully in control and it is within these that we should embrace the opportunity to make the most out of those actions, out of those things which we do have control over, versus pouring ungodly amounts of energy into things for which we have little to no control.

The acceptance of one’s fate falls within this category. We do not have full control over our lives.

Think of what Marcus writes to himself in Meditations:

“That every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see. Not just the right one overall, but right. As if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely like that, and embody it in your actions: goodness — what defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. IV.10

Accept the event. Embrace fate. Grow from the experience.

We can understand this concept and begin to see the powers for which we do have, specifically, the powers over our own actions. But by knowing this, by embracing what we do have control over, we have a greater ability to influence other aspects of our lives. While we may not be able to have full control over our lives, we have control over a large portion of them, namely, the actions, judgments, and beliefs we hold. By embracing these things, we can tip the scales further into our favor. Sure, we will never have full control over other aspects of our lives, but neither does anyone else.

Therefore, we should learn to lean in and embrace those that we do have control over. We should check our judgments and actions, journal daily, and investigate what we’re doing, asking penetrating questions to get to the bottom of what we’re thinking and the direction we’re attempting to move our lives into. We have far more control over these aspects of our lives than most think, and need we must learn to embrace them. Too often we create excuses for why something does or does not work out in our favor when if we were to investigate it, we could see we may have had more power over the situation than we realized and just did not take the necessary steps to advantage ourselves.

As for the things that may or may not befall us and are outside our control, we say amor fati and embrace them for in the end, we will learn from those experiences. It is through those adversities, the times where things did not go according to plan, that we will learn and grow the most. But in order to truly benefit from these times, we must embrace the obstacles, the difficulties, the adversities for which we did not anticipate.

From this, we will be better prepared for the future, for the next go around, for the rest of life. Nothing will ever be perfect, nothing will ever be fully within our control, but we can still grow and be wiser for them. Before we know it, we will no longer have the time to embrace these moments, we will no longer have the time and energy to grow. We will meet the end which we must all accept. So while we’re still here, while there is still time, let us embrace everything that comes our way.

Remember:

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” Epictetus. Enchiridion. 8.

The Stoic Within

The art of living a virtuous life.

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