One way to read The Odyssey is that it’s a story of human perseverance. Odysseus is cunning and determined, he’s willing to do everything and anything to get back to Ithaca…and eventually, because of that, he finally does. That’s certainly the interpretation of Tennyson in his poem “Ulysses”:
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
But there is also a way to read The Odyssey as illustrating the exact opposite lesson. Because basically every delay and impediment on Odysseus’s long journey home is completely his fault. He says he wants to get back to Ithaca, and then proceeds to constantly undermine himself. It’s only towards the end, when he finally stops and actually listens to the gods (most of whom favor him) that he quickly makes any real progress.
In fact, they finally come out and tell him this when Odysseus tries to argue with their instructions for surviving Scylla and Charybdis (he wants to stand and fight, they tell him to dart through). “Goddess, please, tell me the truth, is there no other way?” Odysseus pleads. The goddess answers, “No, you fool! Your mind is still obsessed with deeds of war. But now you must surrender to the gods.”
Marcus Aurelius talked about practicing the “art of acquiescence.” Seneca and Epictetus spoke often about surrendering to fate—understanding that we are not in control, accepting that there is a larger plan for us spelled out in the logos. It seems like resignation, and it’s a very scary thing for us to try. So most people don’t. We refuse to yield, like Odysseus, and we never end up getting where we want to go.
The concept of Amor Fati is quite paradoxical. It’s acceptance fused with determination. It’s the ability to go along and make the best of something—even if every ounce of your being would rather stand and fight. It seems crazy, but it works. Because there is more at work behind the scenes than we know. There is a bigger picture we cannot see. And even if there wasn’t, the universe is much stronger than we are.
That’s why it’s better to flow with it than impotently resist it.