How personal improvement is the new religion… and the old one too
What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.
It is always the same step, but you have to take it.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (quoted in Rubin, 103)
Pilgrim’s Progress on Steroids
John Buchan wrote The Thirty Nine Steps and many other thrillers set in the era of the Great Game. They are classics of a kind, but very much of their time – xenophobic, colonialist and chauvinistic at their best. I was struck recently by an article claiming that Buchan’s writing exhibited a ‘Christian existentialism’. My understanding of this was that unlike the country house mysteries of Agatha Christie, there is no question of whodunit. Instead the hero of a Buchan novel knows very well that he is running for his life. The question is one of survival. Also, unlike the country house mystery, there is no cosy coterie of neighbours who are all potential suspects. Instead it’s almost always one or two plucky heroes alone against the perilous world. This is an individualist quest for salvation. I found it amusing to imagine the great chases through the Scottish Hills as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress on steroids — and with much higher stakes.
You must change your life
I stood in a bookshop recently for considerably longer than planned, to skim through Peter Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life. Sloterdijk is a German TV presenter and philosopher who seems in recent years to have taken on the mantle of the greatest living prophet of European philosophy. He seems much more conservative, however, than that other chief contender for the title, Alain Badiou. He is also both a follower of and a challenger of Nietszche.
There is a great deal of interesting stuff in YMCYL, far more than could be accessed in a few minutes standing at a book shelf (see this review, for instance). But the basic idea is that Nietszche’s death of God was perceived as a tragedy, because of the realisation that there is now no-one to tell us how to live our lives. The only thing we have left is the obvious feeling that we could be doing it better, that improvement of the self is not entirely beyond our reach. Between Nietszche’s time and ours, says Sloterdijk, there has been a great proliferation of training regimes, schemes to help us to live better. We look to all sorts of teachers, trainers and gurus to learn the right techniques. He presents a brief typology of these in his book. In fact, he says, we are living in an era of ‘anthropotechnique’, in which we are encouraged to improve systematically.
Actually, though, he claims, we were always doing this. Religion never really existed. Religious leaders were always what we would now call ‘personal trainers’ and religions were never anything but misunderstood training regimes. Unlike Nietszche, Sloterdijk very much approves of Socrates and Jesus in this respect. Indeed the idea of religion as personal training regimen makes some sense. One thinks of the Rule of St Benedict, of the Ignatian Exercises, of the Methodist class. Certainly training the self has been an important strand of Christian piety.
Better than Before
There is a lot to like in Sloterdijk’s approach. Gretchen Rubin has recently published a book called Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives. After reading Sloterdijk it’s hard to avoid seeing such a title as the latest in a long line, not just of self-help books, but of spiritual exercises along the lines of Sloterdijk’s claims.
Where I would take issue with Sloterdijk, however, is with his belief that we are now secular and that our secularity can be projected backwards into the religious past to make sense of it. I don’t believe that religion never existed. Actually, I’d argue the opposite. It’s not that religion never existed. Rather it’s that secularism does not and will never exist. At least, to be less sweeping than Sloterdijk, religion never really seems to go away, does it? It just mutates into something less incredible, more acceptable and self-evidently true to the culture. For example, in John Buchan’s novels, secular heroes in pursuit of secular aims find themselves recapitulating the (existentialist) Christian quest. The age-weary theme of personal salvation mutates into the plot of a best-selling thriller. I do agree with Sloterdijk that these days, personal training, self help, is our common religion. And like all great religions, it only works when we see it as nothing more or less than practical common sense. Whereas Sloterdijk claims it was never religious, so religion can’t be on the return, I would claim it was always religious, so religion was never on the wane.
Permitted to be Mediocre
So why does this matter? If Sloterdijk is right about religion, that it has always been all about training, we should probably be satisfied with our lot. Membership at the local/global gym, lifehacking websites, books like Better than Before are the best we have any right to expect. After all, if God is dead, anything is permitted to be mediocre (to misquote Dostoevsky). This line of thought seems reminiscent of mid-Twentieth Century social democracy – the kind that was content to put up identical rows of cheap concrete tower blocks in place of the great buildings that both sides in the war had bombed – and without a hint of shame to call it progress, the very definition of the word modern. But if I am right, on the other hand, we should expect much more of our contemporary and emerging religion. The old religion included plenty to be critical of but at least it was impressive. If, now, training is all, we should set much higher standards for our present day training regimes. In place of the Ten Commandments, we have accepted seventeen rules for a flatter tummy. This is an aesthetic and moral capitulation. To give up St Peter’s Basilica and trade it in for a Fitness First gym on every corner doesn’t seem like a good deal to me. I’m not saying the Ten Commandments and St Peter’s are presently fit for purpose. I am saying that what has replaced them barely is. Ironically, then, it seems I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. When it comes to the religion of our time, I still believe we can, collectively, be better than before.
Note: I have been testing out Dave Winer’s new blogging platform, myWord.io and making it an excuse to learn MarkDown. You can check out the result if you like.
Image credit: Illustration for Pilgrim’s Progress, Gertrude Hermes. CC Ross Griff