Overcoming sexual desire: On Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the seventh 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 Sloterdijk’s principal theses is available here.


Sloterdijk has written a book on anthropotechnics. He wants to redescribe human beings as those creatures who train themselves–some doing so explicitly, most implicitly–to become who they are. He wants to show, based on Nietzsche’s vitalizing distinction, that some training programs are life-enhancing while others are life-degrading.

In more recent posts, I have been examining how the adept, who has already seceded from ordinary life, trains himself to become extraordinary. Sloterdijk claims that material scarcity, life as a burden, sexual need, alienation, and death are the ‘five fronts’ upon which practitioners have fought. Today, I turn my sights on the third front with an eye to exercises concerned with overcoming sexual desire.

The dilemma of sexual desire has to do with rejection and affirmation. If one rejects sexual desire, then one’s desires can become infinite and perverse (call this the transgressive path). Yet if one simply affirms one’s sexual desire as it is, then the latter remains crude, course, unrefined (call this the pornographic tack). Hence, certain periods of human history have been deemed prudish or repressive with the response being that what is called for is sexual openness. Thus, the various dyads: pagan/Christian; Epicurean/Christian; Victorian/fin de siecle; 50s/sexual revolution–the list could be extended almost indefinitely. From a philosophical point of view, these dyads are not ways of overcoming sexual desire but rather forms of mutual reinforcement. In The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale first has sex with Hester Prynne, only to lacerate himself afterward. The two go hand-in-hand.

In reply to these interminable vacillations, Sloterdijk perspicaciously observes,

The ascetic response to the challenge of the sexual drive was to transform the constant excess of specific pressure into an aspecific élan to strive for higher goals…. Plato [in the Symposium] revealed its schema by describing a ladder on which sensual desire ascends to a spiritual motivation–from one beautiful body to another, and from the plurality of beautiful bodies to the singularity of the beautiful [i.e., the idea of Beauty]. This ultimately transpired as the side of the good itself that shines in sensuality. (418)

By this route, one seeks to refine while elevating one’s élan. Not frantic sex but patient love; not a singular or obsessive focus on this but a wide view of the all; not gaudy fabrics or dazzling jewels but subtle scenes and subtler languages; not the blinding perishings but the resplendence of the beautiful. This describes an itinerary by which the practitioner can make his way toward the beautiful splendor of the highest good.

A similar case is made by Plato in The Republic. The man of thumos has to cultivate this power, his great energy by listening to natural-sounding music and by reading philosophy. We find further evidence for such a view in Daodejing 12: ‘The five colors blind the eyes. / The five tones deafen the ears. / The five flavors dull the taste.’ Laozi is not urging us to do away with the senses nor to stop interacting with the natural and social world nor to stop looking, tasting, and touching but to get beyond the overexcitation and excessive stimulation of our senses when these are in the presence of things that are cloying, fetishized, sentimental, embellished, tawdry, sharp, and so on. One must transform the nature of one’s desire–to alter it entirely by reorienting it–in accordance with the good.

Overcoming sexual desire means going beyond all talk of the will (yes/no; have to/mustn’t), i.e., all forms of ‘giving in,’ animal pursuits, and self-restraint, aggression and violence becoming swiftness and lightness. Doing so easily, one thereby accords with the beautiful, luminous power of the good.