The main theses of Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

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


Let us review what we know about Stoterdijk’s basic philosophical orientation.

1.) Human beings are first and foremost practicing animals. Most practice what they do implicitly: even an ignoramus, Stoterdijk contends, has to ‘work hard’ to continue to be ignorant. (Imagine him continuing to get a math problem wrong and continuing to work on it in this wrongheaded fashion.) Meanwhile, the few and the rare are immersed in explicit training programs aimed at radically changing their lives.

2.) Stoterdijk’s most elementary question is, ‘How does one become extraordinary?’ The other way of articulating the question is, ‘How is it possible for a human being to uproot himself from his poor habits?’

3.) Stoterdijk is an elitist in the sense that he insists that some human beings dare to be extraordinary while most do not. He is not so much concerned with what impediments stand in the way of virtuosity as he is to analyze the project of extraordinary human beings.

4.) Tellingly, however, I read him as avoiding Nietzsche’s strong social anti-egalitarianism. Nietzsche claims that a good society must be hierarchically arranged according to ranks in order for the ‘aristocrats’ to strenuously set themselves apart from the slaves. This tension propels the great to create new values. In contrast with Nietzsche, Stoterdijk claims that virtuosos take flight from the world and go off to do their own thing. Society, it seems, goes on however it does while these gurus, philosophers, and acrobats of the spirit perform their own exercise programs away from the world. Leaving the world behind, they do not seek to impose their will upon it, to change it according to their insights. (So, Stoterdijk would not be subject to Popper’s critique of Plato’s totalitarianism.)

5.) Stoterdijk distinguishes between antiquity and modernity by noting that the former–a concept, not an actual epoch–is animated by ‘vertical tension’ whereas the latter is obsessed with spreading horizontality farther and farther (e.g., the project of ending of all human suffering).

6.) Those who take flight from the world enmesh themselves in a two-fold program of (a) withdrawal from ordinary life and (b) union with what is higher. ‘The only important thing,’ Stoterdijk writes, ‘is to keep oneself in shape for the cosmos’ (36).

How do the extraordinary become ‘who they are,’ i.e., extraordinary? In the next post, I analyze the ‘five main fronts of need’ (416) upon which those who have sought to be extraordinary (i.e., to go beyond the merely ordinary) have fought: ‘material scarcity, the burden character of existence, sexual drive, alienation and the involuntary nature of death’ (416). What kinds of exercises make it possible for one (say) to overcome one’s fear of scarcity? To move past the idea of humans as beings governed by their appetites?