The Ethical Substance of Self-Help Culture

30 Jun


I’m currently working through Michel Foucault’s three-part History of Sexuality. In the introduction to the second volume, he tells us that his labors therein will be

“devoted to the manner in which sexual activity was problematized by philosophers and doctors in classical Greek culture of the fourth century B.C. […] The domain I will be analyzing is made up of texts written for the purpose of offering rules, opinions, and advice on how to behave as one should: “practical” texts, which are themselves objects of a “practice” in that they were designed to be read, learned, reflected upon, and texted out, and they were intended to constitute the eventual framework of everyday conduct. These texts thus served as functional devices that would enable individuals to question their own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, and to shape themselves as ethical subjects; in short, their function was “etho-poetic,” to transpose a word found in Plutarch.” (12-13)

While the sophistication and idiosyncracy of Foucault’s methodology defy easy emulation, his exploration of these practical/ethical texts of the ancient Greeks makes me wonder what might be gleaned from a similar critical inquiry into comparable literature in contemporary American society. What I’m thinking of in particular is the self-help aisle at your local bookstore — Robert Covey, Dr. Phil, Rick Warren, Deepak Chopra, Neil Strauss, Andrew Weil, et al. These are the “philosophers” Americans turn to if they want to “question their own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, and to shape themselves as ethical subjects”–the messages of these teachers have proven enormously popular, so why do people buy what they’re selling? What might a careful look into these books reveal about popular methods of performing work on ourselves (“self-improvement”)?


In 2007’s Infinitely Demanding, the philosopher Simon Critchley elaborates on Nietzsche’s concept of the European Buddhist. In positing this idea, Nietzsche had in mind his teacher Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s dissatisfaction with the increasingly secular and warlike 19th century European milieu led him to claim that the human will is the ultimate source of suffering in the world, its dissolution the only redeeming option. Schopenhauer spent the better part of his life shut in, writing pessimistic essays and tending to his poodles. Nietzsche railed against his old master‘s renunciant fatalism (choosing to stay shut in, writing vitriolic (albeit life-affirming) polemics instead).

Critchley sees the European Buddhist alive today as the passive nihilist. The passive nihilist, says Critchley, notices in one way or another that liberal democracy is not leading the world toward a more just, civilized state of affairs and that, at least for the thinking (wo)man, God is dead (and thoroughly decomposed). (S)he thus withdraws from civic engagement, choosing to focus on self-cultivation and general equanimity instead–practicing yoga, eating organic and/or rediscovering the inner child. “In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces,” says Critchley, “the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island.” (5)

While this category is a bit too simple (and Critchley can’t seem to decide whether the passive nihilist is really about tranquility or perpetual entertainment), I think it’d be worth developing for the purposes of the project suggested in pt. I of this post.


3 Responses to “The Ethical Substance of Self-Help Culture”

  1. b March 6, 2009 at 12:08 am #

    How to overcome being a passive nihilist?

  2. Ananda October 13, 2014 at 1:44 am #

    Schopenhauer was never a shut in. Indeed, he had a habit of walking for miles every day, and he dined out every night. He was misanthropic, enjoyed his own company and wrote in praise of solitude.

    People are overworked wage slaves, most hukans that one comes into contact with are best avoided, there is little sense of being a people amongst the denizens of the atomized society of the cities. Most do not have the motivation, energy, time, or sympathy for activism. Unless their own interests are directly affected, and they actually percieve this, most people will not lift a finger.

    Why drag Buddhism into this? It is the path to the ending of suffering.

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