Sloterdijk: You Must Change Your Life

UPDATE: Not enough Sloterdijk for you, go here.

A new book from Sloterdijk just came out, it’s called Du musst dein Leben ändern, quite a title. Apparently the title comes from Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo. Here’s a short review (with a rough translation) from Deutsche Welt:

Dass wir im Zeitalter der globalen Krise leben, dämmert mittlerweile jedem. Jetzt hat der Philosoph Peter Sloterdijk das Buch mit dem Rat zur Krise geschrieben: Wenn Du die Welt nicht ändern kannst, ändere Dich selbst.

Der Titel ist Programm: “Du musst dein Leben ändern” behandelt auf gut 700 Seiten Variationen dieses Aufrufs, der sich zugegebenermaßen liest, wie ein Griff in die Trickkiste der Ratgeberliteratur. Das scheint auch der Grund zu sein, weshalb dieses anspruchsvolle Buch auf die Bestseller-Listen gekommen ist. Doch wenn man Sloterdijk vor etwas in Schutz nehmen muss, dann vor solcherlei Vorwürfen. “Du musst dein Leben ändern” ist ein Parforceritt durch die Geistesgeschichte des Morgen- und des Abendlandes.

Ändere nicht die Welt, sondern dich – wem da ein vom Kopf auf die Füße gestellter Marx in den Sinn kommt, der liegt nicht falsch: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern”, heißt es in der berühmten elften Feuerbachthese von Marx. Doch dieser Weg ist nach Ansicht Sloterdijks gescheitert. Sei es die französische oder die russische Revolution – statt Weltverbesserung brachte die gelenkte Moderne oft nur Repression und unermessliches Leid.

The rest of the review is here.

Apparently the book is already in the process of being translated into English. Here’s a short translation (by yours truly – any improvements are welcome, of course) of the review cited above:

That we live in the time of the global crisis is already obvious to everyone. Now the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has written a book with a simple advice vis-a-vis this crisis: If you cannot change the world, you can change yourself.

The title of the book already announces its basic premise: You Must Change Your Life stands at about 700 pages that contain numerous variations of this very advice, pages that admittedly could be read as full of stock phrases that are often found in self-help manuals. This also seems to be the reason why this book is currently on the bestseller list. However, in defense of Sloterdijk, we may note that You Must Change Your Life is a tour de force of intellectual history of East and West.

Change not the world but yourself – if one immediately thinks of Marx’s famous pronouncement from the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach – “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” – one is not wrong as Sloterdijk’s point is that Marx’s approach has not worked. Neither French nor Russian revolution brought us a better world, but only repression and immeasurable suffering.

The Voice of Antiquity.

If we are talking about changing the outside world, then it’s never a bad idea to take a look back and examine the past. Sloterdijk’s search for answers in the ancient world leads him to Greek philosophers although he is equally as willing to listen to Indian gurus, Kafka’s “fasting artist” as well as football coaches.

You Must Change Your Life is a call, a call that comes to modernity from a distant past. It was first identified and later reworked in Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” – a headless and limbless torso of the god from Louvre, a torso that despite its mutilation still possessed authority, carried “a message that appealed only to itself,” or as Sloterdijk laconically states, had “intensity that challenged the standards of perfection.”

Upword and Onward.

You Must Change Your Life is thus an “absolute imperative” – more absolute/totalitarian than Kantian categorical imperative, and is found at the very core of all religious thought and action. He who wants to change himself, must work on himself. Sloterdijk prefers a somewhat old-fashioned notion of “practice/discipline”  because it speaks not of  a simple change of products but of a transformation of self. And so Sloterdijk sets off in search of these practitioners and finds them in all walks of life, inside convent walls on beds of nails, but also increasingly today among professional athletes. He calls this human urge to outgrown oneself, to leave the basecamp and to reach the top of the mountain “vertical tension.”

Sloterdijk’s principal witnesses in his case are Nietzsche and Foucault. Nietzsche fits perfectly with the model of “vertical tension” since in Zarathustra he describes humans as being on the rope between animals and overman. Foucault, for Sloterdijk, reveals and works out the connection between the notions of practice, discipline and human development. With Foucault in mind then we read that “it is impossible to change humans without also training them.”

The Crisis Speaks.

But why should I change? Who ultimately has the right or the authority to order me to change? This is, for Sloterdijk, the crisis itself: economic, cultural, moral and ecological crisis. If bankers in their unbridled greed can steal billions, if a vast number of people think of cable television as “culture” and of hamburgers as “pleasure,” if we are destroying the very foundation of our life on this planet, then we must utlimately seriously question ourselves about these matters.  Sloterdijk wants us to “adopt daily practices/disciplines of good habits of our communal survival.”

The book ends here and we are left all alone. Sloterdijk does not give us any divine instruction or provides us with an all-encompassing earthly utopia that tells us what is right and what is wrong. Of course, 200 years of Enlightenment and “critique of ideology” have left their traces, but we are not presented with a solution, although for many such solution can be within their reach, were they, of course, to get off the couch.

15 thoughts on “Sloterdijk: You Must Change Your Life

  1. I should note that I’m a big mark for the self-improvement shtick, as just about anyone who does yoga is.

    But part of me finds Sloterdijk’s thesis almost unbearably depressing, the giving up of all hope that humanity will get its act together. And the price of not getting its act together is not just continued rule by ignorant bullies and psychopaths over most of the world for most of the time, it’s also apocalyptic ecological catastrophe. Merry Christmas Hurricane Katrina!

    Saint Paul says, “For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

    That is a bizarre sentiment, and I can’t help but to remember Mikhail writing about when he was a kid being told how some day nobody would have to pay for things in shops. I can’t help but remember the films I watched in school as a child in the 1970s about how we would soon have hovercrafts, live in octagonal structures, colonize space, have limitless and non-polluting energy from nuclear fusion, have robot servants, etc . . .

  2. Isn’t the whole problem apropos the ecological crisis that it *can’t* be fixed on the basis of individual change alone? I haven’t read any Sloterdijk–I only know of the Critique of Cynical Reason from secondary work–but doesn’t this seem to just be another version of the “well-rounded man” (something the article has to openly admit so it can move on…)?

    • I haven’t read this new book yet, thus the review – I’d say it’s probably in a kind of provocative counter-tradition to Marx’s statement, i.e., we all assume that it is our task to change the world, whether we’ve read Marx or not, it seems that revolutionary heritage has been adopted by popular culture, regurgitated and spit out in the form of McDonald’s commercials that, by the way, is the most irritating thing on TV, and Che t-shirts, yet this active changing of the world only brought us misery – is it still fair after all these experiences to assume that we can distinguish between the message and the actual means of revolutions? I’m thinking of Kant’s enthusiasm for the French revolution or the Western enthusiasm for the Russian revolution – both brought horrible misery to the people (arguably both revolutions themselves and their subsequent support) they were supposedly helping. Or something like that – I’m reading Zorn und Zeit (when I have time) these days and it’s a rather erudite and amazing read through Western history – I’m assuming this new book is similar in its scope and insight.

  3. M.E.,

    Please give a review, or from time to time updates on Zorn und Zeit. I would really appreciate it. The book’s premise fascinates.

  4. Pingback: Peter Sloterdijk in English « Te Ipu Pakore

  5. ES la mejor lectura de Nietzsche que conozco.Está lleno de ideas estimulantes y es muy clarificador respecto a la cuestión de la “huida del mundo”en el mundo antiguo y medieval y la vuelta a la inmanencia a partir de la edad moderna; en este sentido es el juicio mas ponderado que conozco -tanto frente a la izquierda como frente a la derecha- sobre las formas de optimización del mundo en la modernidad y la diferencia que existe entre “cambiar tu vida” y “cambiar la vida”, esto es, entre horizontalidad y verticalidad en el cuidado por la existencia.

  6. Pingback: “you must change your life”, Sloterdijk « Conversamos?!…

  7. Snakes are coiled upon the granite, horsemen ride into the west
    Moons are rising over the planet, where the worst must suffer like the best
    Pears are ripe and peaches are falling, Suns are setting in the East
    Women wail and men are calling, to the God that’s in them, and to the beast.

    Love is waiting, for a lover; Generations kneel for peace
    What men lose, man will recover; polishing the bones, his brains release.
    Truth conceals itself error, History reveals it’s face;
    The days of ecstasy and terror; invent the future, that invents the race.

  8. Pingback: A Treatise on Psychedelics Part 1/3: The Stigma | Psychedelic Frontier

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