‘You must change your life’ or ‘You must change life’?

This is the first set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).


‘You must change your life,’ writes Peter Sloterdijk in his eponymous book of philosophy. His provocative project is to redescribe human beings in terms of forms of practice or training programs. Some programs are explicit (such as those formulated by yogis or by virtuosos), others inexplicit and inarticulate (such as daily routines), yet all human beings, he claims, are at the same time producers and products, dancers and danced, lovers and loved. The guiding thread of the book, then, is an investigation into the various ways in which the call to change your life have been articulated from antiquity to the present.

On my reading, there are two seminal moments. The first is ahistorical, basic, logically prior: ‘Can humans be uprooted from bad habits?’ (411). The second is historical, contingent, prescient:

Modernity is the time in which those humans who hear the call to change no longer know where they should start: with the world or with themselves–or with both at once. (323)

The distinction he wants to draw between ancient (or antique) and modern is also the one that I want to draw. Ancient forms of practice started out from flight from the world, took up the question of conversion (‘Education is conversion,’ writes Pierre Hadot), and were thought-through exercises concerned with changing ‘my life.’ What is esoteric or elitist about this antique dispensation is that the person who at once turns away from the world and toward a new way of life is not supposing that it is the sort of thing that all persons would also do, want to do, or be able to do; about this, he does not think to care. It is the sort of thing that he wants to do in order, as Sloterdijk puts it, to be in contact with this emerging ‘vertical tension.’

Unlike the antique, the modern dispensation follows what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age calls the ‘rage for Reform.’ The call is not about changing my life but about changing life. Whereas changing my life involves putting myself into contact with some vertical tension (e.g., God, the One, the Dao, the Good), changing life is focusing on either (a) extending the horizontal plane sideways or on (b) elevating all persons onto a higher plateau.

The bourgeois articulation seeks to do the first, proffering the ordinary goods of existence to more and more persons, ideally to all persons. The ‘New Human’ articulation expressed in Bolshevikism, Jacobinism, Maoism, fascism, and utopianism yearns to eradicate human finitude for good and at the same time raise all those deemed to be capable up to a virtuous or higher plane of existence. The first terminates in the Last Men, the second in bureaucratization, mass extermination, and social engineering. Banality on the one hand, terror on the other.

Can–to repose the first question–human beings overcome bad habits and, if so, how? To answer this question with honesty, we had better, thinks Sloterdijk, tack back from modernity’s failures and reconsider what exercises enhance and what ‘misexercises’ degrade particular human beings. Furthermore, we had better give up on modernity’s universalizing mission lest we fall, once again, into the trap of ennui (the bourgeois) or hubris (the utopian). In ‘Retrospective,’ Sloterdijk writes,

Now is the time to call to mind anew all those forms of the practicing life that continue to release salutogenic energies, even where the overelevations to metaphysical revolutions in which they were initially bound up have crumbled. Old forms must be tested for reusability and new forms invented. Another cycle of secessions [from bad habits, from ordinary life] may begin in order to lead humans out once again–if not out of the world, then at least out of dullness, dejection and obsession, but above all out of banality, which Isaac Babel termed the counter-revolution. (441)