‘All education is conversion’: Reflections on Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

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

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In his provocative book You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk advances the thesis that human beings are inexplicitly or explicitly training animals. His principal question therefore is, ‘Can human beings overcome bad habits [those they inherit in the course of ordinary life] and, if so, how?’ If one could overcome one’s poor habits along with one’s unclear notions and excessive affects, then one would be engaged in an explicit practice program whose point is to discover as well as tighten the ‘vertical tension’ which pulls the practitioner toward an idea of the higher.

The beginning of an answer can be found in Chapter 9, ‘Change of Trainer and Revolution.’ With reverence does Sloterdijk cite Pierre Hadot’s elegant aphorism: ‘All education is conversion.’ Clearly distinguishing conversion in the genuine sense from counterfeit conversion is the first exercise in thought. The contrast Sloterdijk goes on to draw is that between periagoge and metanoia. Whereas periagoge is a fundamental act of turning, metanoia purports to turn yet only elongates what was prepared for being the case. Concerning periagoge, he writes,

The concern of the most resolute secessionaries is not simply a fascinated retreat from a reality that no longer invites participation, but rather a complete reversal –a turn away from the superficially manifest, which means a turn towards something that is better, true and real on a higher level. (299)

The examples he offers in order to bring this distinction into greater focus are those of Plato and St. Paul, respectively. In the allegory of the cave, Plato suggests that there is a turning away from what is lower at the same time that there is a turning toward what is higher.

To carry it out, [Sloterdijk writes] a change of sight from the dark to the light is required, a change that cannot take place ‘without turning the whole body’ (holo to somati). This marks the first explicit reference to the motif of the integral turn. Analogously, the same faculty must ‘be wheeled around, in company with the entire soul’ (hole the psyche). (299)

The simultaneous, integral turn is not incidental, I don’t think, but logically necessary for one in the midst of proper conversion: for one cannot only secede from ordinary reality without also, and at the same time, setting foot on the path of what is higher. This kind of reorientation is doubly a tearing-free and an opening-onto. What is implied more generally about human beings undergoing self-transformation is that they are properly motivated at once by the negative (what is not this, not that, etc.) and the positive (the vague coming into being of what is otherwise, luminous, and higher).

Sloterdijk’s discussion of St. Paul’s conversion while Paul is on the road to Damascus provides him with a way of speaking about a simulacrum: that of ‘changing’ without turning. His formerly strong, committed, thoroughgoing aversion toward Jesuans prepares him, Sloterdijk claims, to hear God’s call as nothing but a crossing over to the other side. For Sloterdijk, the ‘epiphany’ is no more than the substitution of one trainer for another: a repetition of the same with another name or, what is the same thing, an elongation in the same direction, albeit under the sign of the different.

About Paul’s experience, here is what Sloterdijk writes:

Paul’s experience is by no means conversion, which would have completely changed his personal habitus. (303)

Metanoia is above all a panic phenomenon, in that it goes hand in hand with the gesture of pulling oneself together in a crisis and getting serious before the looming end. (303)

What Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, then, was a metanoetic episode that led to a reorganization of consciousness from the perspective of a newly formed centre of the highest conviction. (304)

From a practice-theoretical perspective, conversions of the metanoetic type amount to a change of trainer, as the converts generally submit not only to an altered moral regime–and eo ipso a new Great Other–but also a new practice plan. The personality structure as such, however, is usually kept throughout the change. (308)

Whether Sloterdijk’s interpretation of Paul’s conversion (or of metanoia) is correct is beside the point; his distinction is elucidatory. In light of his contrast, one notes that most changes in life cannot count as conversions since they simply ‘reorganize’ one’s consciousness, performing ‘lateral moves’ in a widening horizontal plane while also foreclosing the possibility of experiencing the vertical tension exhibited in the lives of sages, gurus, virtuosos, masters, and philosophers.

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