Conversion and elitism: A propaedeutic to reading Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the third set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). In the post below, I am tacking back, by way of Charles Taylor’s work, in order to understand how Stoterdijk arrived at his version of neo-Nietzschean elitism.

The first set of reflections can be read here.

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Before one comes to the question, ‘How is conversion possible?’ one must confront the genuine challenge that modernity has a truck with the very idea of conversion. One place where the refusal of conversion is in great evidence is in the realm of the therapeutic. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor discusses the triumph of the therapeutic in terms of two basic claims. I cite him at length:

The modern therapeutic perspective develops partly out of the Enlightenment (in inspiration, Lockean) idea that the human agent is malleable; on the basis of certain fundamental motivations (e.g., seeking pleasure, avoiding pain), the agent can be trained to identify his ends in a variety of different ways. To redefine these ends through re-education thus does not force him to abandon an intrinsic direction of his being; and if it ends up making him better able to adjust to everyone else, it can lead to greater harmony, greater general desire-fulfillment, and thus a gain all around.

The other source of the triumph of the therapeutic is the desire to do away with the category of sin, which attributes at some level an ill will to the sinner. The deviant is a victim of bad training or illness; he is not there as an agent endorsing his lamentable, destructive behaviour, someone we should therefore condemn; rather he is caught in a cycle of compulsion, from which we can liberate him through therapy. (633, my emphasis)

Taylor’s argument against the therapeutic dispensation turns on the assumption that there is a loss of transcendence. Under this regime of thought, there are only ordinary goods to be pursued and secured, with greater or lesser a degree of success. If transcendence is impossible, then one might subscribe to a materialist view according to which human beings are malleable (what changes is only the already-existing) and exculpable (since one’s conduct, already reduced considerably to behavior, is not up to one). It seems that the patient or client is, at bottom, merely a being who suffers and so is in need of help or amelioration of his condition.

Pace the triumph of the therapeutic, Taylor replies that, if there is to be change, it is to be conversion with a view to what is higher. And if there is to be some grasp of human beings as agents or authors of their lives, then it must also be the case that we take seriously his claims about life, human life, and his life in particular.

Not wishing to shuck the ordinary goods such as love and friendship, Taylor arrives at the ‘maximal demand,’ which has to do with ‘how to define our highest spiritual or moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn’t crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity’ (640). In other words, there is the demand to synthesize human flourishing, which is decidedly this-worldly, with the desire for what is higher.

One possible way of meeting the maximal demand is to go all in for elitism, i.e., the rejection of universalism. On Nietzsche’s view, the idea is to

repudiate a basic constraint on the maximal demand: that it reconcile higher aspirations and ordinary fulfillments for everyone. Once this universal requirement is set aside, the way is open to see that an elite of the truly exceptional is capable of bidding for excellence either without sacrifice, or in joyful acceptance of it. (642)

We can now repose the question, ‘How is conversion possible?’ The answer could turn out to be that there can be conversion, albeit only for the few. This, in my view, is the welcome neo-Nietzschean route that Stoterdijk has taken in You Must Change Your Life. I do not enjoin or entreat others to set foot on the strenuous path out of the ordinary; if I am so called, I reply because this is just the thing for me to do. Such a view is resonant with the quietism of Daoist thinking.

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