Earthly Amor Fati: On Overcoming and Affirmation

By Oli Stephano

I. Introduction: Earthly Love

You too love the earth and the earthly: I have seen through you…Your spirit has been persuaded to despise the earthly, but your entrails have not been persuaded, and they are what is strongest in you.

If, as Heidegger argued, all thinkers have but a single thought that constitutes the still center of their philosophy , then the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the joyful affirmation of existence. Against the manifold forms of asceticism decrying bodily life in favor of a transcendent term, Nietzsche sought an immanent justification for life itself. His experimental philosophy aims at amor fati, a love of life-in-itself so strong it is capable of willing “a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, without subtraction, exception, or selection– it wants the eternal circulation:– the same things, the same logic and illogic of entanglements.” Embracing “the world as it is,” the practice of amor fati cultivates positive affects and transforms negation into affirmation.

Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra offers a potent figuration of this affirmative stance toward existence. Through the character of Zarathustra, a parodic prophet, Nietzsche explores the possibility of humanity’s self-overcoming. Surpassing and transmuting the world-denying values by which it has constituted itself and its image of the world, the human becomes something other-than or more-than human: the overman. The overman, in turn, is the being capable of enduring and affirming the eternal return of life upon itself. The overman embodies an affirmative stance towards life in the absence of transcendent values.

As such, the overman inaugurates a different relationship between the (formerly) human and the more-than-human Earth. Zarathustra first introduces the figure of the overman with reference to the earth. Positing man as something to be overcome, Zarathustra then declares, “The overman is the meaning of the earth.” While “the earth” could here be interpreted as a mere synonym for bodily existence, it seems something more is at play. “The earth” is not simply interchangeable with “the world,” this world as opposed to the otherworldly. Rather, the term “earth” signifies a totality of enmeshed earthly beings, a specific planetary plane. When Zarathustra exhorts his audience to “remain faithful to the earth,” he is doing more than insisting that they value embodiment in the face of its denigration by ascetic ideologies. His call to cultivate faithfulness to the earth is a charge to transform the relation between man and the more-than-human Earth.

Humanity’s self-overcoming goes hand in hand with this faithfulness to the earth. After all, it is the overman, and not man in his present instantiation, who can effect this earthly fidelity. The Zarathustran doctrine of faithfulness to the earth therefore invites a consideration of the role of overcoming in earthly ecologies. If both the self-overcoming human who cultivates this fidelity and the Earth who elicits it are always becoming, what can the Zarathustran doctrine of earthly fidelity offer in crafting affirmative relations to the more-than-human Earth? What might it mean to be faithful to the earth as a practice of amor fati?

Three conceptual elements are particularly instructive here: the overcoming of human reactivity; the transvaluation of the will to power; and the reciprocal fidelity between overman and earth. First, there is the question of how humanity can overcome its reactive orientation not just to existence as such but to the Earth itself. Reactivity is a poisonous stance towards existence broadly construed, but it is also the root of a toxic relationship between human and nonhuman forms of life that together compose the living earth. Transmuting a reactive posture towards life into an affirmative one necessarily transforms this web of relationships.

This leads to the second element, the transvaluation of the will to power. The will to power is, for Nietzsche, synonymous with life: with Zarathustra he names it “the unexhausted procreative will of life.” As life’s tendency to accumulate strength, overcome and transform itself, the will to power can proceed in either negating or affirming modes. “The will to power interprets,” Nietzsche writes, “it defines limits, determines degrees, variations of power.” It is a principle internal to the play of forces that constitute life. It is genealogical, in the sense that it interprets and selects the quality of a given force. He continues: “Mere variations of power could not feel themselves to be such: there must be present something that wants to grow and interprets the value of whatever else wants to grow.” The will to power is this interpretative, evaluative principle that desires its own expansion. The will to power varies qualitatively: it can be expressed either negatively or affirmatively. Overcoming the reactivity of forces necessitates a transmutation of the quality of the will to power.

Third and finally is the relation between the overman and the rest of the Earth. The overman is the figure of humanity’s self-overcoming. Zarathustra introduces the term amidst mention of worms, apes and men, ghosts and plants. “You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm,” he tells a crowd awaiting a tightrope walker. “Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape. Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict between plant and ghost.” Man must be overcome, Zarathustra insists. “The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!” Introduced in a swarm of earthly beings, the overman is posited as the meaning of the earth. What this “meaning” means remains to be seen. It is tempting to suggest that Zarathustra’s declaration simply establishes the overman as the new sovereign in the anthropocentric scheme where man once reined. However, a closer engagement with Nietzsche’s poetic logic yields other possibilities. If the overman is the being capable of practicing amor fati, affirming life’s return upon itself and overcoming reactivity, then perhaps it signals something other than the perpetuation of human domination over nonhuman beings.

II. The Tightrope: Introducing Earthly Fidelity

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

Zarathustra’s call for faithfulness to the Earth comes early in his travels, in the first town he encounters after descending from the mountaintop and leaving the forest. He addresses a crowd unprepared for his untimely message of man’s overcoming; they do not yet have ears for it. Awaiting the arrival of a tightrope walker, the townspeople laugh at Zarathustra’s message of an overman capable of crossing the bridge called Man into something greater.

From the first, Zarathustra’s evocation of the overman involves the Earth. “The overman is the meaning of the earth,” he insists. “Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!” This curious proclamation establishes a resonance between the overman and the earth, through the harmonic of an as-yet unrealized promise. Since the overman is still to come, the earth does not embody the meaning this overcoming would bring to it. In the absence of this self-overcoming, humanity wallows in its resentment of earthly existence. The Earth itself is in turn impoverished by this stagnant reactivity. “To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing,” Zarathustra proclaims, “and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.” This last line helps to clarify the relation between the overman and the meaning of the Earth. It is unethical to value the transcendent, otherworldly, and unknowable above “the meaning of the earth.” Zarathustra has already equated this meaning with the overman. Therefore, the meaning of the earth signifies a transformed relationship between humanity and the entire Earth in and with which it dwells.

Zarathustra describes man as a polluted stream. Humanity is toxic because of its contempt for life, he suggests. “One must be a sea to be able to receive a polluted stream without becoming unclean,” he declares. “Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this sea; in him your great contempt can go under.” The overman nullifies humanity’s contempt for existence and the earth itself. As a figure of humanity’s self-overcoming, the overman is strong enough to transform the greatest negation into affirmation: to transmute great contempt for the earth into faithfulness to the earth.

Hence when Zarathustra entreats the townspeople to “remain faithful to the earth,” he warns them against heeding the proponents of asceticism or otherworldly transcendence. “Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.” The planet itself tires of humanity’s reactive contempt for the earth of whose flesh it is a part.

Later in Zarathustra’s journey, surrounded by disciples with ears fit to receive his teachings, he again invokes a powerful fidelity capable of revaluing earthly life. Man was an experiment, he says, and a damaging one at that: “Over the whole of humanity there has ruled so far only nonsense- no sense.” Humanity has established a nonsensical relationship to the rest of the Earth. Overcoming this nonsense, this denial of value to earthly life, demands the creation of new values. It requires positing a new meaning, a new value, for the Earth itself. “Let your spirit and your virtue serve the sense of the earth, my brothers; and let the value of all things be posited newly by you,” Zarathustra enjoins his disciples. “For that shall you be fighters! For that shall you be creators!…Verily, the earth shall yet become a site of recovery.”

III. Reactivity and Revenge Against the Earth

Alas, do you preach patience with the earthly? It is the earthly that has too much patience with you, blasphemers!

Identifying life itself with the will to power, Nietzsche creates an intensive ontology of differentiated and differentiating forces.  Defining life as “an enduring form of processes of the establishment of force, in which the different contenders grow unequally,” he proposes two fundamental and opposed qualities of force: active and reactive.  Life and matter are constituted by the dynamic struggle between these qualitatively different forces. The will to power is the principle internal to these forces that conditions their emergence in either an affirmative or negating mode.

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche discusses reactivity in terms of a resentful slave morality whose only creative act is to say “No” to an exterior other. “It needs external stimuli in order to act- its action is fundamentally reaction,” he argues. The active power of noble or aristocratic morality, in contrast, is characterized by its capacity for spontaneous action and growth. “[A]ll noble morality grows from a triumphant affirmation of itself…it only seeks out its antithesis in order to affirm itself more thankfully and more joyfully.” This analysis provides a useful exposition of the difference between active and reactive forces. Active forces seek to maximize themselves, to create not only to the fullest extent of their ability but also to create the conditions necessary for their actualization.  They are creative in an entirely different sense from reactive forces, because their creative mode arises from a desire for action and expression rather than the nullifying vindictiveness that motivates reactive forces. Active forces go to the limits of what they can do in good faith, pushing their strength full-force in the service of maximizing their capabilities. In his monograph on Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze notes that an active force goes to the limit of it what it can do, affirming its own consequences. The full development of an active force necessitates both stretching to full capacity and embracing the capabilities engendered by that maximization of power.

Conversely, reactive forces are rooted in a sickness of will and can affirm neither their capabilities nor the unforeseen consequences of their workings. Lacking self-definition, they are differentiated by their opposition or responsive posture towards active forces. They can only react to activity originated by active forces. Where active forces strive to maximize their own strength and power, reactive forces seek to separate active forces from what they can do.

Crucially, reactivity reaches its apotheosis not only in the slave morality touched on above, but in the ascetic ideals decried by Zarathustra and critically exposed in Nietzsche’s Genealogy. The intricate critique provided by the Genealogy has its concise aphoristic counterpart in Zarathustra discourse “On the Preachers of Death.” There, Zarathustra indicts those who condemn life as solely suffering and advocate the renunciation of earthly life. With wry wit, Zarathustra suggests that it is not life itself that deserves to perish for inflicting suffering: it is the preachers of death! “There are preachers of death; and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach renunciation of life,” he says, insisting that those who despise life are the ones who should give it up. “The earth is full of the superfluous; life is spoiled by the all-too-many…They have not even become human beings yet, those terrible ones: let them preach renunciation of life and pass away themselves!” If life is suffering, Zarathustra reasons, then it is the life that is only suffering that should cease. The Earth and life itself suffer at the preachers of death, the poison-mixers, the despisers of life. The Earth itself is sick and tired of the rule of reactivity. The spirit of revenge against earthly existence, as exemplified in the ascetic ideal, tries to cleave Earthly life from its overflowing creative capacities.

IV. Overcoming/Going Under: Love of the Farthest

Life wants to climb and to overcome itself climbing.

There is, therefore, an ecological component to this spirit of revenge against the earth. The problem of the reactive human relation to the more-than-human world is implicitly ecological, concerning the ways in which beings dwell together on and as the earth. While the term “ecology” resounds with contemporary scientific, political and philosophical connotations, it was in fact coined toward the end of the 19th century by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who defined it as “the study of all those complex interactions referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.” In Nietzschean terms, then, ecology concerns the will to power. This is not because the will to power is identical with the struggle for existence; Nietzsche repeatedly insists that where Darwin’s theory foregrounds survival, his own thought privileges profusion, excess and superabundance. Rather, it is because the will to power conditions the fields of forces that constitute life as “a multiplicity of forces, connected by a common mode of nutrition.” Human reactivity has ecological consequences, as Zarathustra insists again and again. As Adrian Del Car argues, Nietzsche “set the standard at the threshold of the ecological age for humanity’s first attempt to dwell affirmatively, intelligently, and in partnership with the earth.” Shifting from a reactive approach to earthly life to an affirmative one requires overcoming the human who has so far defined itself through an antagonistic, resentful approach to incarnation.

The overman is Nietzsche’s attempt to figure a new way for humans to inhabit the earth. Man is not the pinnacle of existence; he is an experiment to be surpassed, something to be overcome.  Rather than put humanity at the center of the universe, Nietzsche foregrounds the proliferating, experimental character of life itself, of which man is only one outgrowth. “Man is not only a single individual but one particular line of the total living organic world,” he insists. Not only is man just one particular vector through which life elaborates itself, it is a line that must perish and surpass itself in the course of life’s struggle for intensification. “The organic is rising to yet higher levels,” Nietzsche affirms,” hundreds of thousands of experiments are made to change the nourishment, the mode of living and of dwelling of the body; consciousness and evaluations in the body, all kinds of pleasure and displeasure, are signs of these changes and experiments. In the long run, it is not a question of man at all: he is to be overcome.”

In Nietzsche’s thought, humanity is reactive to the extent that it perpetuates a destructive relationship to earthly life. Zarathustra even refers to man as a skin disease infecting the surface of the earth. Joseph Vincenzo argues that this is proof that man is inherently reactive, and humanity’s function as a species is to convert forces to this reactive tendency. This is a strong claim, identifying humanity as a whole with a reactive spirit of revenge against the Earth. A more modest reading would suggest that humanity infects the earth when it sows resentment against corporeal life, when it rails against existence with an insistent “No.” The problem is the knot binding the human to its ascetic ideals. When this is overcome, the human surpasses itself, no longer man but overman. It may be inaccurate to claim that man is essentially reactive, in light of Zarathustra’s assertion that “what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.” This suggests that the human contains an open-endedness, a potential for active affirmation and self-overcoming.

Indeed, Zarathustra repeatedly praises those affirmative acts by which man surpasses himself, actively embracing his own perishing in order to make way for the overman. Zarathustra loves humanity for its potential to go beyond itself. “My will clings to man, with fetters I bind myself to man because I am swept up toward the overman,” he exclaims. The capacity to long for this self-overcoming is itself affirmative. It is grounded not in transcendent justifications or life-denying rhetoric, but in a desire for a different ecology of earthly life.  “I love those who do not first seek behind the stars for a reason to go under and be a sacrifice, but who sacrifice themselves for the earth, that the earth may some day become the overman’s,” Zarathustra proclaims:

I love him who works and invents to build a house for the overman and to prepare earth, animal, and plant for him: for thus he wants to go under. I love him who loves his virtue, for virtue is the will to go under and an arrow of longing…

This self-overcoming is powered by will, a will that wills the perishing of an individual form in the creation of greater possibilities for its creative profusion beyond man. It reveals life as the will to power, as an accumulative, overflowing, excessive burgeoning will to seek its own intensification. Considered not as a conative drive toward survival and self-preservation but as the will to power, life is constantly overcoming itself, holding nothing in reserve.

V.  Qualities of Will

The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled whell, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed…

The will to power is the struggle between dominating and dominated forces that constitutes life. As such, it is not a unitary will, but a field of competing wills. As Elizabeth Grosz’s reading makes clear, Nietzsche does not posit a singular, universal will to power. Rather, the will to power is “a multiplicity of competing wills, which align to form organs, individuals, and collectives, which make inorganic and organic objects as well as the fields within which these objects are to be located, each of which competes for whatever resources it needs for self-expansion…” It is a will towards self-expansion. It is a will to power, that is, a will toward increased capacity for action, expansion, and intensity. It is not something like a psychological desire for greater quantities of power over other beings; instead, it is an immanent force seeking its own maximization. Excessive and creative, the will to power seeks its own expenditure. Life proliferates because the will to power is not a will to preservation. “Life, as the form of being most familiar to us, is specifically a will to the accumulation of force,” Nietzsche argues. “[Al]l the processes of life depend on this: nothing wants to preserve itself, everything is to be added and accumulated.”

Just as forces can be active or reactive, so too can the will to power proceed in either an affirmative or negating mode. When the will to power is expressed through negation, it produces reactive forces. The negative will to power is the will to deny. Proceeding in a negative mode, the will to power becomes the will to nothingness. This will to nothingness is the will as conditioned by the ascetic ideal. As Nietzsche proclaims at the end of his Genealogy:

We can no longer conceal from ourselves what is expressed by all that willing which has taken its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animal, and more still of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, the fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, form longing itself– all this means– let us dare to grasp it– a will to nothingness, an aversion to life…

This will to nothingness is at the root of the humanity’s toxifying relationship to the more-than-human Earth. When Zarathustra calls for a renewed faithfulness to the earth, he is inviting nothing less than a complete revaluation of the will to power.

Converting the will to power from a negative to an affirmative mode means expressing it in terms of active affirmation rather than No-saying reaction. Affirmation thus recasts the relations between the constellations of forces that emerge from this fundamental will to power. This becoming-affirmative is concrete, carnal and embodied. If the will to nothingness has perpetuated itself through an aversion to earthly life, by separating earthly entities and the Earth itself from what they can do, then the affirmative will to power seeks the intensification and expansion of these earthly powers. It therefore entails a renewed faithfulness to the earth on the part of those who, in a negative mode, would seek to sunder themselves from it.

VI.  Conclusion: Bless and Say Yes

Happiness should smell of the earth.

Amor fati is the practice of faithfulness by which the will to power becomes affirmative. Love of fate is an instrument of overcoming; by loving all actions and consequences of the will, one affirms the flux of becoming through which life creatively surpasses itself. “To impose upon becoming the character of being– that is the supreme will to power,” Nietzsche writes. Bestowing the character of being upon becoming means making life’s transformative self-overcoming an object of affirmation. When willing proceeds in this affirmative mode, it transforms the spirit of revenge that rages against the movements of temporal becoming. The overman is the figure of the posthuman capable of this strength of will.

By naming the overman as the meaning of the earth to come, Zarathustra’s proclamation actually constitutes an attempt to displace the reactive human domination of a debased earthly terrain. The transvaluation of “meaning” is a response to the problem of the ascetic chokehold on life. In order to understand this point in its fullness, it is necessary to turn briefly to Nietzsche’s Genealogy. The ascetic ideal, which spurns bodily existence in favor of a transcendent beyond, ascribed meaning to life. In other words, it provided an aim for the will to power. It constituted the will to power as a negating will to nothingness. It offered an explanation for human suffering, by making suffering itself the defining characteristic of material existence. “Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal,” Nietzsche argues, “the will for man and earth was lacking.” The ascetic ideal, Nietzsche continues, could only arise from a sense of lack whereby man “did not know how to justify, to account for, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning…” The ascetic ideal is thus an attempt to account for earthly existence and human suffering through a logic of repudiation, resentment and reactivity.

Where reactivity rules and calibrates the will to power as a will to nothingness, the meaning of the earth is its own undoing: the separation of earthly beings and the being of the Earth from their capacities for action. By identifying the overman with a new meaning of the earth, Zarathustra supplants this reactivity with a qualitatively transformed will to power. The overman is the figure of life’s sheer joy in its own intensification and overcoming, “in which existence celebrates its own transfiguration.” Articulating this affirmation in terms of earthly fidelity, Nietzsche grounds this “love of the farthest” in what is most near: the sensuous earth. This renewed faithfulness to the earth is not a sentimental attachment to human representations of nature. Rather, it is a practice of earthly amor fati that affirms life’s carnal capacity to grow, to become, to generate new forms.  It is rooted in an overcoming of the reactivity that has hitherto constituted humanity’s posture towards the more-than-human earth. Through this self-overcoming, the human becomes actively receptive to the varied forces of the more-than-human Earth. This practice of earthly amor fati transforms this field of forces in ways that cannot be predicted in advance, but can only be achieved through an experiment in going under. ❉

Works Cited

Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Del Caro, Adrian, Grounding the Nietzsche Rhetoric on Earth (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.
Deleuze, Gilles, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Grosz, Elizabeth, The Nick of Time. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004
Heidegger, Martin, Nietzsche, Volume III: The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics, ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
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Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
———Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1966.
———The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, ed. Walter Kauffman. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.
Vincenzo, Joseph P.,  “Nietzsche’s Animal Menagerie: Lessons in Deep Ecology,” Mosaic
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