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In the Shadow of Mount Sinai
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Church Times Bookshop £9
“THIS book makes the acquaintance of an author who is lacking neither in pride nor in ambition and is among the most provocative and daring philosophers alive today.”
So Jean-Pierre Couture summarises the first English-language introduction to the life and work of Peter Sloterdijk. He might have added that Sloterdijk’s 1983 work Critique of Cynical Reason became a cult book that sold more than 120,000 copies in Germany before being translated into English in 1987. It remains post-war German philosophy’s greatest success.
It is remarkable how little is made of Sloterdijk’s work today, although hardly surprising, given his polemical attitude to the all-consuming polarities of modernity and post-modernity — and the ivory-tower academics whom he condemned for their timidity and careerist ambitions.
Born in 1947, Sloterdijk studied philosophy in Munich and Hamburg before joining Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram in Poona. That experience exerted a lasting influence on his subsequent life in Germany as a somewhat semi-detached academic and very self-aware Nietzschean enfant terrible. He quickly became detached from the Frankfurt School, and its espousal of Critical Theory, to carve out for himself a distinctive and controversial niche addressing a wide range of artistic, philosophical, and political agendas.
Couture’s study has five main chapters, each of which covers one of the approaches used in Sloterdijk’s work. The first describes the cultural crises that he saw as central to understanding the modern world: cynicism, mobility, and rage.
To understand these psychopolitical malaises, Sloterdijk bestows upon himself the title of “storyteller of the origins of humanity”, which is covered in chapter 2. The word “anthropotechnics” is coined to describe how “You must change your life” (the title of one of his best-known works) to combat the debilitating effects of aesthetic humanism, mass media, material comfort, and egalitarianism. As Couture observes, “Sloterdijk’s diagnosis could hardly be described as music to democratic ears.”
Sloterdijk’s apparent leanings towards eugenics caused a storm in 1999, and initiated a great spat with Jürgen Habermas which amounted to a bid for intellectual supremacy by Sloterdijk in relation to his elder and highly esteemed compatriot. Together with his attack on taxation as “state kleptoracy”, controversy dominates chapter 4.
In between, Sloterdijk’s magnum opus (some 2500 pages) on “Spherology” is examined, although Couture acknowledges that “it is difficult to manage and absolutely impossible to summarise.” But this expansive exploration of “Being and Space” to balance Heidegger’s “Being and Time” is intriguing.
Finally, chapter 5 provides an overview of Sloterdijk’s therapeutic prescriptions to counter the malaises identified earlier. These range from body-centred Epicureanism to the virtues of anti-bourgeois collectivism.
Sloterdijk has relatively little to say about religion except to see it as having a utilitarian function by providing social cement to cultivate civilisational belonging. His short monograph In the Shadow of Mount Sinai shows how the three great monotheisms (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) enable a people “to surpass itself with the help of a programmatic institution [e.g. the Church] that demands total belonging and a strict oath of allegiance to an ethical and cultural project”. Whether viewed culturally, socially, or theologically, this account of how religious institutions work in complex societies is very simplistic.
Sloterdijk’s eventful life, colourful style, intellectual ambition, provocative diagnoses, and even more controversial prescriptions are endlessly fascinating. But, in spite of Couture’s best efforts, his allusive and often labyrinthine authorship remains a challenge to be met rather than an adventure to be relished.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.