Overcoming alienation: On Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the eighth 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.

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I am nearing the end of my excursus into the exercises that athletes of the spirit perform on themselves in order (a) to secede from ordinary life and (b) to unify themselves with the cosmos. How this secession-unification nexus will work will change according to particular program followed by the particular community of practitioners.

I have discussed Stoterdijk’s claims regarding overcoming scarcity, burden, and sexual desire. It is not that one stops eating, ceases existing, or refuses to have sex; it is rather that one is freed completely from the compulsions of eating, the sense of burden, and the sexual appetites for one has overcome the erroneous claims that ‘one has to do X….’

I am now concerned with alienation. The claim is that there is an ‘enemy’ to living, one that oppresses me, thereby making life inhospitable or unlivable. In ‘Against Domination and Enmity,’ Stoterdijk makes the Nietzschean argument that the ascetic freely and actively submits himself to forms of coercion in order to be free. There is no freedom without the path of coercion; no higher freedom without the program of self-submission or self-surrender. Nietzsche’s counterintuitive conclusions run counter to those in modernity (save, perhaps, Kant’s concerning the rational person’s giving the moral law to himself), which distinguish between zones of coercion (e.g., the state) and spaces of freedom (e.g., the private sphere).

For the ascetic, the project is to transform coercion into freedom by once again ‘doubling down.’ Stoterdijk: ‘Coercion by the highest [thereby] downgrades all other compulsions to second-order factors’ (419). Here, ‘the highest’ is not the existing Other but the exercise of the self upon itself. In his program in humility training, St. Benedict, for instance, claims that the very first step on the path of humility is the cenobite’s growing awareness of the omnipresence of God. Arguably, this is just the opposite of the draconian, the coercive, and the dominating: it is the novice’s raw introduction to the idea of the higher. Indeed, as he proceeds farther along the path of humility and overcomes his estranging arrogance, he finds instead softness, gentleness, and God’s ‘loving-kindness.’ Notwithstanding the question of God’s existence, what is right about Benedict’s argument is the architecture of humility.

And what has happened to Benedict’s cenobite or to Epictetus, the lame man who was once a slave and who later on became a great Stoic teacher? Stoterdijk writes, ‘Moral asceticism takes away the enemy’s power to make us strike back. Whoever moves beyond the level of reacting breaks the vicious circle of violence and counterviolence…’ (420, my emphasis). The implication is that I qua ascetic may strike back or I may not (though neither Christ nor the Buddha would), yet either way I can feel no revenge animating me (indeed, no animus for anything) and thus cannot be egged on by ugly compulsion. By enduring the worst of my own devices, I cannot ever be cowed. Hence, just as the good man cannot be harmed, so the free man can never avenge or be avenged.

Stoterdijk’s Nietzschean riposte–to come to freedom by way of submitting oneself to the most grueling exercises in coercion–is one route beyond enmity and alienation. The other, about which I have often written in the past, is the Hegelian-cum-Daoist route: beyond enmity, on a higher level one comes to reconciliation or attunement with what is. The other cannot possibly harm me because, from this philosophical vantage point, whatever life is beyond the perishable is kindly through and through.

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