Overcoming burden: Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the sixth 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. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.


Recall that Stoterdijk is singularly focused on how the practicing animal can become more than he is. Having seceded from the buzz and chatter of ordinary life, the practitioner has now made the aim of his life that of putting his life to the test.

In Chapter 12, ‘Exercises and Misexercises,’ Stoterdijk suggests that there are five main fronts upon which they have fought. These are ‘material scarcity, the burden character of existence, sexual drive, alienation and the involuntary nature of death’ (416).

In the last post, I analyzed Stoerdijk’s claims concerning how the practitioner overcomes material scarcity. Not far from the layperson’s fear of hunger is that of the ‘burden character of existence’ (417). When one takes oneself to be overtaxed by the task of living, he either seeks forms of ‘hardenings’ or moments of ‘little escapes’ (417). We can tease out the implications of these two strategies. On the one hand, one can harden oneself to the point of ‘coldness’ (Adorno) so that one becomes as insensible to the vibrations of life–of the well-cultivated mind and senses–as to the ethical claims of others. On the other hand, one can fantasize about the kinds of escapes from burden that will count as times of pleasure and enjoyment. This form of momentary release is called vacation. Both strategies are foolish.

Intuitively, it would seem that, in the face of these misguided strategies, one would be well-advised to back off the burden character: relax, do less, calm down–the counsel we daily hear. Yet Stoterdijk assures us that, for those who are in engaged in the project of becoming extraordinary, the path heads in the opposite direction. These athletes of the spirit

show that a state of great effort is no sufficient reason not to make an even greater effort. The image of Hercules at the crossroads is the primal ethical scene of Europe: this ultimate hero of being-able-to-do-something embodies the rule that one becomes human by choosing the difficult path. For this, it is necessary to favor the austerity of arete over the sweetness of depravity. (417)

Epigrammatically, he continues,

Like the hunger artist, the athletes [e.g., of the spirit] have a message for the psychologically poorest and physically weakest that it is worth sharing in: the best way to escape from exhaustion is to double the load. (417)

‘Doubling the load’ may appear not only paradoxical but also misleading. Yet it is not a question of quantity but rather of verticality; not about ‘how much?’ but from the first about ‘how effortlessly high?’

Let us unravel Stoterdijk’s paradox that the burden is overcome by ‘doubling down’ by appealing to one of the earliest Daoist texts, Inward Training. In verse 9, it is written that sages ‘act upon things, / And are not acted upon by them, / Because they grasp the guiding principle of the One [Dao]’ (Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism 62).

Effort begets effortlessness; understanding the world begets clarity; struggle begets play. The burden character of human existence accordingly disappears in the times when the practitioner has ultimately learned to act spontaneously in the face of whatever comes his way. Hence, the sage is never acted upon. Then of him it cannot be asked, ‘How difficult was that for you?’ How silly. Then, it is only: having trained his ability, having taken his time, he went along with life and thus ascended effortlessly, contently higher.