Sloterdijk, Peter. You Must Change Your Life, translated by Wieland Hoban (Polity, 2013)
We construct for ourselves ideals that taunt us, pull us upwards, and change our lives. This is fixed; but the the nature of those ideals, as well as our natures, the natures that need changing, vary among times and cultures. Sloterdijk’s set of reflections in this book concern “the methods of mental and physical practising by which humans from the most diverse cultures have attempted to optimize their cosmic and immunological status in the face of vague risks of living and acute certainties of death” (10). His title is taken from a well-known poem of Rilke’s, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which describes the mysterious power of a form to address us and command us directly: “… for there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life”.
This is the essence of any religion or soul-forming philosophy: to take what we are and recommend some sort of regimen, or some sort of training, to elevate us into what we are meant to be. It may be that we are to become mindful children of a tyrannical god, or channels of enlightenment through which bliss flows, or übermenschen who leap over these tightrope walkers into uncertain futures. Perhaps we are meant to climb evolution’s mountains of improbability into a civilized existence fit for proper human beings. Whatever challenge we construct, we need that challenge, for it is the ideal generated by a culture, and our cultures act as defensive shields against the chaos or entropy that comes crashing in without them. Our challenge is the same as ever: namely, to construct the right shields, and the right ideals, given what we think we know about the world and about ourselves.
But there is a productive tension at work whenever an ideal is raised. The ideal is meant to be available universally, for all of us, in principle. But not yet. If the ideal really is achieved, all its energy is gone. So the ideal also must be not really available, or at least never really attained. This, I think, is what Sloterdijk identifies as “the paradox of all advanced civilization”:
[The paradox] follows from its orientation towards hyperbolic or acrobatic excesses, which are always viewed on the assumption that they are only suitable for imitation or normalization. By elevating exceptional achievements to conventions, advanced civilizations create a pathogenic tension, a form of chronic altitude sickness to which sufficiently intelligent participants in the paradoxical game can respond with the development of an internal space of evasion and simulation, and thus a ‘soul’, a ba, a psyché, an atman – or, more generally speaking, an inner world that is permanently reflexively unsettled. (274)
There ain’t no faith without some bad faith. As we fall short of our aims, we find some evasion – splitting ourselves into willing spirit vs. weak flesh, or real me vs. apparent me, or rider vs. elephant; or else convincing ourselves that we really have done the trick, and shunting to the back anything that indicates otherwise. Is this paradox – the tension between verticality and gravity – really at the core of every advanced civilization? I am inclined to think so, at least with regard to the main story each culture tells itself. There are also the challenges of harnessing energy and maintaining civic order, but perhaps for now we can set those aside.
YMCYL, like all of Sloterdijk’s works, is a firework display of his erudition and imagination. The concept of an ideal that elevates us and frustrates us gives him a wide-open opportunity to plunge into religion, philosophy, and art, unearthing texts and artifacts that suddenly shine with new light and cast new shadows. I must read Sloterdijk with pencil in hand, just so that I can fill margins with exclamation marks and questions for further reflection. Towards the end, the book ramps its way toward the project of Spheres, and especially Foams, which is to highlight the contemporary challenge of constructing “a global co-immunity structure”, a structure we can inhabit even knowing all that we know about ourselves, our misbegotten and hollow idols, and our propensity for building uninhabitable structures:
Global immunity reason is one step higher than all those things that its anticipations in philosophical idealism and religious monotheism were capable of attaining. For this reason, General Immunology is the legitimate successor of metaphysics and the real theory of ‘religions’. It demands that one transcend all previous distinctions between own and foreign; thus the classical distinctions of friend and foe collapse. Whoever continues along the line of previous separations between the own and the foreign produces immune losses not only for others, but also for themselves. (451)
Anyone who has been carried along to this point has gotten the message: you must change your life.