Overcoming dying: On Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the ninth 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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Here is the thrust of Stoterdijk’s argument:

First, reinterpret human beings as training animals and then see what this reinterpretation ‘opens us.’

Second, reclaim a kind of elitism which allows one to ask, ‘How is it possible for some adepts to become extraordinary?’ at the same time that one can avoid the universal injunction that all persons be this way or follow this path. I have called this orientation, in a felicitous paradox, ‘humble elitism.’

Third, make a distinction between ‘antiquity’ (an untimely, nonexistent epoch) and modernity. Show that ‘antiquity’ is set in motion by a ‘vertical tension’ wherein the ascetic is called by a particular interpretation that he must change his life. Demonstrate that modernity is committed to the expansion of the horizontal plane. Whence an entirely different injunction: you must change (all of) life for everyone. End human suffering. Seek universal equality. Live according to the moral law or the maximization of utility. Against the grain, plump for ‘antiquity.’

Fourth, make a case for conversion. Let the ascetic hear the call to change his life. Ask about what this means: secession from ordinary life first and an attempt to be unified with the cosmos second. In essence, describe this turning away and turning toward, this cave-leaving and light-beckoning, this utter reorientation.

Fifth, sketch the kind of exercises that are vital for this secession and this unification. Notwithstanding their differences, observe how all agile ascetics overcome scarcity, burden, sexual desire, alienation, and death. In lieu of taking these as ‘givens,’ as ‘deep facts’ about the human condition, notice how adepts take them as questions and then as feats of strength.

And sixth, track the overall transformation that occurs once the conversion is combined with these life-enhancing exercises. Feel wonder about the awesome possibility that human beings can transcend their encrusted habits, can become active training animals who take up life as their aim.

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I am nearing the end of the fifth step in the argument, which is concerned with the exercises that ascetics perform on themselves. In the past four posts, I have examined how it is that ascetics overcome scarcity, burden, sexual desire, and a sense of alienation. The fifth and final exercise has to do with the necessity (and fear) of dying.

In a section called ‘Against the Necessity of Dying,’ Stoterdijk once again wishes to argue that necessity can become ability or, in Nietzschean terms, that the ‘it was’ can become the ‘thus I willed it.’ For Stoterdijk, the composure of Socrates and Jesus transmogrifies necessity into ability, thus giving the lie to the ‘animal-like perishment of which Job said it is nonetheless the fate of humans’ (421). Call this the case for composure: that, based on certain metaphysical premises, I am equal to or greater than death (cf. Montaigne, ‘That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die’). Of course, Socrates’ path is not that of Christ.

This existential attitude toward death is but one, and somewhat strangely it is the only one that Stoterdijk mentions. By my count, there are three other existential attitudes that one can take toward death. These are

  • The Epicurean: ‘When death is, I am not. When I am, death is not.’ That is to say, being is distinct from non-being. If this is true, then death ‘exists’ only in non-being whereas life exists only in being. Hence, one cannot have reason to fear one’s death because there is a category mistake: from an Epicurean standpoint, there is no such thing as ‘one’s death.’
  • The Thoroughgoingly Finite: The human being is nothing apart from finite nature. Hence, when the body perishes, the person qua person perishes, passing into the finite, transient things. On this view, it is the assumption that human beings are ‘special’ and ontologically different from nature that gets these human beings into trouble, making them fear what is only natural, invariable, and inevitable.
  • The Cosmic: By some path, technique, or method, the self comes to regard itself as one with whatever is ultimate, as being nothing apart from this ultimate. Only when the self separates itself from this ultimate source does it ‘lose its way’ and fear ‘its own’ death. Once it returns to the proper vantage point, it also loses (so to speak) all vantage points, all concepts, all words. Losing everything, it becomes nothing (or everything). This is variously called unitary experience, cosmic consciousness, communion, etc.
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