Training the Self

Training the Self

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, 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

Science communication and conservative values

image CC via flickr/jeffreypriebe

Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

Is it necessary for God to be doing anything different from the laws of physics?

Victor Stenger, is the author of  God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that

the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God.

It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why. Continue reading

Two kinds of tales, one true and one false

More on truth and lies:

‘There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,’ Socrates claims in Plato’s Republic (trans A.D. Lindsay, 1935, London: Dent, p. 376).

‘The depth of consciousness created by the exercise of the arts of deception is the first arena for the practice of that dissimulation proper to the life of human intelligence. The same spirit permeates other expositions, for instance that of Karl Popper, who equates the capacity to lie with the capacity to imagine: the power to imagine other things, to negate, and thereby to create fiction, even hypothesis – and thence to create science’. (John Forrester 1997 Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9)

What, according to Nietszche, the Greeks admired in Odysseus;

‘his capacity for lying, and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose’ (Frederich Nietzsche 1974 The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufman, New York: Random House, p. 156).

These quotations are to be found in :

Linda Neil (2009) Beautiful lies my father told me. TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real April

Now read: Truth and Lies

Beware – Dangerous Robots!

Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project has been thinking about the possible ways of reacting to robots that kill. It’s a relatively new set of technologies, but what happens when AI merges with weaponry to produce robots that want to kill you? He thinks the arguments could go in several ways and I tend to agree.

The ethics of this is already being worked out, with the aim of making robots behave ‘more humanely than humans’. There is a summary.

The title of a key book on the subject points to the potential contradictions:

Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots

Governance is great – as long as we’re the ones in charge

The context in which all this is happening is an Hierarchical one: the so called military-industrial complex. Hence the great significance of the term ‘Governing’. For Hierarchy, governing is exactly the correct response to ‘lethal behavior’ – and this applies to all lethal behaviour, not just that of robots, who in a sense are nothing special. The point is, in the Hierarchical worldview violence is warranted, provided it is clear who is doing the warranting. But lethal robots present something of a problem. What happens if they aren’t programmed to be ‘governed’? Continue reading