You Must Change Your Life
by Peter Sloterdijk
Reviewed by John David Ebert
The main thesis of Peter Sloterdijk’s newly translated 2009 work You Must Change Your Life is that there is no such thing as religion and never has been. (The word “religion” is a recent, post-Christian development, for one thing). Instead, Sloterdijk insists, there is only what he calls the “practicing human.” And there is nothing specifically or inherently religious about the practicing human, since humans have always been engaged in self-disciplinary techniques of improvement and transformation, whether under the guidance of a master or one’s own ascetic impositions. Writers, farmers, yogis, philosophers, artists, educators, monks: all share in common the fact that they are “acrobats” walking tightropes and performing feats of near impossible difficulty that astonish the rest of us and further the transformation of the human being into something greater than himself.
It was in the latter third of the nineteenth century, moreover, that Western civilization initiated a new, hitherto unheard of development: the somatization of the spiritual or the secularization of the ascetic, which signaled the shift out of the seven or so century long development of the culture of “work” back into the retrieval of the pre-Medieval cultural world of the practicing human for whom, not work, but following a self-imposed discipline was the paradigm. The “somatization of the spiritual” that came in at the end of the nineteenth century tended to crystallize around the cult of the athlete and the completion of the Renaissance in the form of the reinstitution of the Olympic Games in Athens and in Paris right around the year 1900. The cult of the Olympian athlete, Sloterdijk argues, has all the structures of ascetic discipline but without the character of a true “religion,” and so points up the slipperiness of the very designation of just what constitutes a religion and what doesn’t in the twentieth century.
In a little gem of a chapter on Scientology, furthermore, Sloterdijk examines just how easy it is for a self-designated “prophet” like L. Ron Hubbard to create a parody of psychotherapy and simply call it a “religion” for tax shelter purposes. What is the status of “religion” in an age when frauds like Hubbard can simply manufacture one out of whole cloth? Sloterdijk asks, and I have to admit here, that he does have a point.
However: the main problem with the book — and it is a serious one — is that the concept of the “practicing human” is so broad and general that almost anything can be plugged into it. Who isn’t a “practicing human”? And indeed, as a result of this vagueness of the concept, Sloterdijk spends five hundred pages discussing anything and everything, lumping together the most disparate and heterogeneous phenomena into one vast soup of ideas that ends up with little in the way of a unifying paradigm. At one point, the reader will find him discoursing upon five different types of teacher; and then, in another chapter, he will find himself in the midst of a discussion on the advent of anesthesia in the middle of the nineteenth century; or a discourse on witch hunts in the sixteenth century; or a discussion of the “New Human Being” invented by the Soviet Russians. And so forth. This book, I’m afraid, is a mess.
Sloterdijk, furthermore, fails ever to give a definition of what he means by “religion.” If you’re going to deconstruct the term and argue it out of existence, well and good, but you must at least give the reader examples of what you are talking about. But then if you do that, you are tacitly admitting the existence of something which you say has never existed in the first place! Hence, the lack of a definition or any examples.
The problem is that, saying that “religion has never existed, only the practicing human, secular, sacred or otherwise,” is a little like saying that “schools don’t exist, only students exist.” In other words, Sloterdijk has simply performed a figure / ground reversal, in which he has isolated the practicing human from out of the contextual grounds of his environment within the enclosed macrosphere of his religion. Religions are holistic systems that build and structure civilizations, and they do so by providing rituals, liturgies, myths and works of art — as well as ascetic disciplines — which surround, capture and embed the individual subject within them like cocoons in a spider’s web. There is no question that religions exist: they have always existed, since they are the fabric which has woven the various civilizations together like a series of exotic Turkish rugs all laid out for sale in a bazaar.
It remains unclear to me just how the existence of practicing humans invalidates the existence of religion. He might just as well say that there is no science, either, just practicing “scientists.” Sloterdijk seems to be saying (like Magritte’s painting of a pipe that says “This is not a pipe”), “Here are all the great religions, but they are not religions.” But the truth is, they are not religions simply because Sloterdijk says they’re not. Hence, the return of fundamentalisms which comprises one of the cliches of modernity turns out not to be the return of fundamentalisms because fundamentalisms don’t exist. Only an increase in the spectacle of the practicing human, more and more of them every day, all the time.
In short, Sloterdijk’s book is an unconvincing attempt to argue out of existence something which is obvious to anyone who looks carefully around at what is going on: religions are cultural immune systems that confer an identity upon a people, and these provincial identities are everywhere being threatened by the antigenic force of globalization which has no immune system because it has no religion. It is only a system of technics wed to economics and democracy that does not take ethnic identities as co-immunintary structures into account. Sloterdijk, to his credit, does acknowledge this in the book’s final pages, insisting that we need a General Theory of Immunology to replace metaphysics, but it remains difficult to see whether, and how, such a theory would solve the problem of expanding provincial cultural immune systems to encompass the solidarity of humanity as a single co-immunitary system.
In short, Sloterdijk’s book is a monumental flop, a sort of philosophical equivalent to Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate. It suffers badly from an out of focus thesis and a murky theme that acts as a catch-all for every subject Sloterdijk feels like discussing. Sloterdijk’s books are normally very good, creative and intelligent examinations of the plight of the contemporary human in an age of mass media and digitization, but this one must be tossed aside into the junk bins of well-meaning, but failed, works of philosophy that attempt to deconstruct traditional ideas.