Werner Stegmaier

The Art of Living as an art of orientation

Translated by Reinhard G. Mueller and Werner Stegmaier

The Art of Living in Economic, Moral and Religious Leeways

It is an attractive idea to make an art out of one’s life, and to not just to manage it in its economic, moral, and religious conditions, but to shape it – at least in part – according to aesthetic criteria. The economic, moral, and religious conditions in modern, enlightened, and highly developed societies as we know them today have so far permitted doing so: The economic hardships have, despite all crises, become less difficult; public morals have pluralized in many countries and become more flexible; religions are rather oriented to spiritual experiences than dogmas. The lives of if not all people, then at least large parts of such privileged societies can enter into greater freedom, enjoy it and be self-sufficient in the free spaces guaranteed by politics based on the rule of law and with the resources generated in socially restrained markets.

Michel Foucault, who developed the idea of an “aesthetics of existence,” did not limit it to modern conditions but, on the contrary, derived it from his analysis of forms of life in antiquity and late antiquity – especially with regard to how people dealt with sexuality. But here, too, it was a matter of privileged social classes: An aesthetics of existence was more natural to aristocrats, who wanted to distinguish themselves from each other in their ways of life and who were thus constantly competing with each other; at royal courts, where everything revolved around the ruler, this competition became the main occupation of the nobility anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, the aesthetic way of life is not dependent only on wealth and power. It is also possible through modesty and seclusion, as exemplified by some of the ancient sages and later by monks and nuns in monastic devotion to God.

In today’s societies, the idea of an aesthetic art of living is also an expression of liberation – after fierce class struggles, brutal totalitarianisms, devastating world wars and decades of threatening nuclear war. While the art of living reached its peak in the aristocratic competition for distinction, which drew on the hard labor of broad lower classes, it may now be boosted by the successful economic competition of more balanced societies, which now, however, outsource arduous and poorly paid labor to other countries. As far as the latter aspect is disregarded, even the materially lavish enjoyment of life loses its former morally and religiously offensive smell of luxury.


The Alluring Model of Visual Art

‘Free spaces’ or ‘leeways’ (Spielräume) permit unregulated behavior within regulated limits. Art has always been granted such free play within limits, without which it cannot produce anything remarkable. The boundaries may be narrower or wider in different cultures and ages; in modern democratic states they are larger than ever and guaranteed by law. Nevertheless, the creative freedom of art is limited by its respective means of creation: paper and pencil or screen and keyboard in literature; instruments and notation systems in music; human bodies in dance and acting; earths, woods, stones, metals in sculpture; paints, canvases and easels in painting – new materials and techniques are continually found and invented. For the art of living, the model of visual art, painting and sculpture, are guiding. This evokes the idea of having one’s life in front of one like a canvas or a block of marble, which one can turn to or away from, and which one can work on freely according to one’s own ideas. At the same time, this is the model of Western science: one views oneself in ‘theoretical’ distance to one’s object – ‘theory’ understood in the broad sense of ‘pure viewing’ – and thereby assumes a position independent of the object. However, this does not apply to one’s own life; one does not have it in front of one like a block of marble, but it is simultaneously the basic condition for one’s artistic activity; the respective living conditions, however eased they may be, constrain it. Human life certainly leaves room for its shaping, but hardly for modeling it like a free-standing statue. The model of fine arts must not obscure how narrow the leeway for the art of living is for human beings.


The Art of Living under Conditions of Life: Paradoxes of Self-Reference

In other words, one’s own life is not the object of a subject; in the art of living, one cannot keep subject and object apart. In an art of living under the conditions of life, life refers to itself. If concepts are used self-referentially, tautologies arise on the one hand, paradoxes on the other; this has made the concept of life particularly interesting for philosophy. A tautology confirms a concept in a way (“life is life”; “art is art”; “truth is truth”), but can also make it empty (“a rose is a rose is a rose”). A paradox, on the other hand, troubles logical thinking: when the famous Cretan says that all Cretans lie, and thus lies and tells the truth at the same time, one is faced with statements that are equally correct and yet mutually exclusive. One can, in order to escape the logical trouble, simply prohibit the self-reference of terms. But one can also make use of it and thereby gain new possibilities of orientation. For if paradoxes lead to contradictory statements, one has alternatives from which one can think further. As such, one can view human life as being conditioned everywhere and at the same time as self-determining; and one can think of life as a whole that encompasses all life at all times and at the same time as a certain life at a certain time that can only be observed at a certain time. The paradox is hidden in the distinction between whole and part: the part can only be understood from the whole, but the whole can only be observed from its parts.

The two alternatives in the self-referential concept of life – on the one hand being-conditioned, on the other condition-setting; on the one hand being only a part, on the other being the whole – open up and delimit precisely the scope in which the art of living is located. However, the concept of leeway itself is paradoxical, insofar as it encompasses regulated and unregulated behavior at the same time. But leeways can also be self-referential, in that they in turn shift within leeways, as happens ‘in real life’ all the time, e.g., when one occupies free spaces step by step; eventually, such shifts within limits may change the whole thing over time. They involve time, and time has always been paradoxical for logical thinking: already Aristotle has noted that ‘now’ is always the same and always different. But if everything ‘has its time’ or ‘is in time’ – and both life and art certainly are – everything one tries to hold on to must eventually turn out to be paradoxical. In the art of living, the paradoxes of life, leeway, and time come together. This makes it particularly interesting logically and philosophically.

Moreover, contingency is a basic feature of life; despite all the regularities that can be stated scientifically, life is full of coincidences – i.e., events that cannot be explained scientifically according to laws. But even in contingency, continuity can develop. Life does not run randomly as it may appear, neither life as a whole nor an individual life. This is ensured by the temporalization of self-referentiality itself, the so-called recursivity: life processes are fed by life processes; whatever is generated by life processes goes back into new life processes. Life
thus runs continuously and discontinuously at the same time; it is – an age-old paradox – always the same and always different at the same time.


Orientation Art as a Precondition and Core of the Art of Living

Recursivity can be observed comprehensibly and plausibly in everyday orientation. Every new orientation in every new situation works with prior orientation experiences made in prior situations. On the other hand, the mere fact that one has oriented oneself sufficiently in a situation already changes the situation; one now feels more secure. But orientation is not only a striking example of a process of life, it is much more, namely the first need of all living beings: Animals and humans can only live and survive if they can orient themselves sufficiently in their life situations, that is: know their way around, cope with the problems of the respective situation, and thus successfully master it. Even the search for food and shelter requires sufficient orientation. And orientation, as an orientation “to” something, always operates within leeways: it constantly has to decide which footholds offered in the respective situation it will hold on to and which direction is to be taken within the leeway the footholds provide; with every successful or unsuccessful orientation decision, the leeway can shift again. In this way our orientation copes with time and uses that which is paradoxical for logic creatively.

Orientation deals with something that is clearly distinguishable from it, but is not an object of a subject – the ‘situation’ that is at stake that it is involved with. One orients oneself in each case about a situation in the situation; there is no theoretical distance; orientation and situation always change in connection with each other. Therein, no subject can be isolated; orientation always operates as a whole with all its physical, psychological, and communicative components, which come into play differently from case to case. If one defines orientation as the achievement of finding one’s way in a situation and make out promising opportunities for actions to master the situation, [Endnote 1] then we’re also always concerned both with the situation and the success of orientation in it, at the same time. But since every situation is different and may have to be mastered with different means, there can be no universal criteria for a successful orientation in a situation. Thus, orientation is also a kind of art.

In sum, orientation not only fulfills all conditions of the art of living, but the art of living itself is not conceivable without the art of orientation; it is based on the art of orientation. The art of orientation may not only be its precondition, but also its core. For the art of living cannot be more than the art of ‘mastering’ life, of ‘making the best’ out of the conditions of life as they arise over time and change with time within leeways – in the sense that one can be satisfied with it, take pleasure in it, enjoy it and therefore ‘affirm’ it. The art of living and the art of orientation are not true or false, but ‘succeed’ or fail. That the art of living is singular and creative becomes clear in the art of orientation: it must react anew to every new situation and can only do so from its point of view, in its horizon and perspective; even if children are initially relieved of their orientation decisions, in time they must make them themselves and take responsibility for them. And like the art of living, the art of orientation relies on neither final criteria nor final certainties without therefore being completely uncertain; orientation, as life, has sufficient means to stabilize itself. Orientation, as the example of Michel de Montaigne already showed centuries ago, needs as little as the art of living metaphysical preconditions and does not have to take refuge in high ideals. A philosophy of orientation can stick to everyday observations of how orientation actually takes place.


Orientation Art as a Critical Concept of the Art of Living

Even if orientation art is the core of the art of living, their terms do not simply coincide. Orientation can also be understood as a critical concept of life and orientation art as a critical concept of the art of living.

First of all, one can survey neither life as a whole nor one’s own life, except in retrospect and even then only by means of strong simplifications, abbreviations, and alignments; a successful orientation is limited to a surveyable situation. The future is open, also for the art of living. Speaking with Foucault of a ‘life goal’ is therefore problematic: a life need not have a goal, and if one sets goals for one’s life, one can and often enough must change them under new conditions. So-called ‘life designs’ and ‘life plans’ can rarely be sustained for a whole life and, on the contrary, often lead to ‘life disappointments.’ Instead, one orients oneself in every life situation in different time horizons, i.e., short, medium, or long term: for instance, in the short term, how to get from A to B in the most favorable way; in the medium term, one’s plans for the next days and weeks; in the long term, how to secure a good life in old age. Some of these plans will hold true, others not. Thus, in order not to undergo too many surprises and disappointments, even a long-term art of living must critically keep within the framework of temporary orientations and, in crucial situations, see whether and to what extent previously successful orientation decisions continue to prove themselves, e.g., if you can further rely on your own abilities, other people, or certain legal guarantees.

Foucault primarily dealt with power structures. If his background idea was to find ways to regain power over oneself under existing power relations, then doing so in fact begins with ‘mastering’ specific situations, and a situation can in turn be short-, medium- or long-term, depending on what one deals with. Power becomes noticeable in situations that we are unable to master ourselves, i.e., that ‘overwhelm’ us. As an individual, you can overcome social or even cultural power relations only to a certain degree, but you can often create new leeways within them and in opposition to them, thereby undermining or subverting existing power over time and hence preparing targeted resistance and revolts. Here, too, the art of living is first of all a clever art of orientation.

After all, just as in life, you can also lose your orientation, fall into disorientation, which appears in the short term as fear, in the medium term as despair, and in the long term as depression. We experience them, and we can then learn from them for subsequent orientations. From time immemorial, preparing for death has been an important part of the art of living. But one does not experience death itself; one cannot say anything about it and one cannot learn from it. One can only imagine it, and today one will mostly imagine it as the ultimate ceasing of one’s orientation. Short-term and temporary ceasing of one’s own orientation is known from falling asleep and from states of unconsciousness over which one has no power and from which one may not awake again. When you wake up, you experience, if you pay attention, how your orientation gradually builds up again and now perhaps in a different way than before you fell asleep: Now, you have ‘slept on’ your experiences and problems.

Thus, according to the three factors time, power, and loss of self, the art of living is an art of orientation. It could be helpful to limit also the concept of the art of living critically to this, if one does not want to lull oneself into illusions and experience disappointments with the whole idea of the art of living.


Self- and Other-Orientation of the Art of Living: Orientation to Other Orientations

The concept of the art of living can not only be critically limited through that of the art of orientation, but also enriched in several dimensions.

Looking at the ‘use of pleasures’ and the ‘concern for oneself’ in later antiquity, Foucault conceived of the theme of the art of living in a strongly self-centered way. The retreat to the self was enforced by the transition from urban democracies to the empires of Alexander and the Romans, which instated strong authorities and clearly limited the possibilities of political participation and influence, especially in the provinces. While the artful ‘care for oneself’ remained a matter for the privileged, Christianity in its beginnings turned primarily to the less privileged and less free, including women and slaves, and it did so with a life concept of charity, the fulfillment through service to others, and it thus opposed self-reference and other-reference. Nietzsche, in his Genealogy of Morality, based on this the shaping of European culture through ‘ascetic ideals’ that combine both the concern for others and self-fulfillment, both under the control of a ‘dominant morality’ to whose rule all together are subjected equally.

Even if this rule today leaves far more leeways, it nevertheless still shapes modern enlightened societies, for instance in the will for their ever-further democratization. Both the art of orientation and the art of living are now subject to this condition. They include – what Nietzsche strongly opposed – an almost unconditional affirmation of equality and reciprocity, institutionalized by law and state. In turn, law and state, especially in European societies, guarantee comprehensive care for individuals insofar as they are unable to care for themselves in economic and health hardships, and increasingly regulate education, the basic conditions of the economy, a certain balance among incomes, and so on. The art of living as that of shaping one’s own life has thus largely become a concern of the state; the leeway for self-determination is partly restricted by it, partly made superfluous. Most of those benefiting from state services accept and welcome this. In doing so, they accept a strong other-reference in their orientations’ self-reference.

However: In human (and animal) orientation, other-reference is always already integrated in it, not only through the constant reference of the orientation to the respective situation, but also through the reference to other living beings with their orientations: Since they can be both helpful and dangerous, others are of special concern in every situation of
orientation. This other-reference is not altruistic ‘selflessness’: Since every orientation depends on a certain point of view with a certain perspective in a certain horizon, people constantly look to each other in their situations in order to discover promising possibilities of action which they themselves did not see. Others are not only competitors in life, but also offer, voluntarily or involuntarily, help. They may contribute well-proven orientation experiences in comparable situations of orientation; orienting oneself to other orientations can thus facilitate, accelerate, and abbreviate one’s own orientation efforts. As a child and adolescent, one is of course dependent on others, parents and families, teachers, instructors, etc., in order to learn how to orient oneself in the world; but even later one needs advisors of all kinds in many areas of life, e.g., craftsmen, doctors, lawyers. Even if you can orient yourself well in your own matters, you still must rely on others, above all to use complex technology. In doing so, you usually orient yourself again to others who themselves rely on such techniques while most people assume that experts sufficiently have checked everything. In this way, one remains calm or calms down when fear arises. In the art of orientation and life as a whole, it is reassuring when others orient themselves and live in a comparable way, and it is unsettling when one remains alone with one’s orientation and way of life. The art of orientation and living finds its hold largely by orienting to other orientations. Only on this basis can one dare one’s own life experiments. And sometimes one has to do so: because if all orient themselves (more or less) to each other, all together may go astray.


Horizontal Differentiation: Life Worlds – Orientation Worlds

Everyday orientation differentiates the self-reference and other-reference of orientation in a horizontal and vertical way: horizontally in what the term ‘life-worlds’ has come to mean, which are worlds of orientation at the same time, vertically by distinguishing superiority and inferiority in orientation, for which Nietzsche used the term of ‘rank order.’ Both structure the art of living in its basic features.

Orientation worlds differ by weighting other-reference beyond self-reference:

1. In the individual life- or orientation world of one’s own body, one’s hygiene, sexuality, health, and diet, everyone (as far as he or she is not dependent on the permanent help of others) basically takes care of himself or herself and seeks (under the respective basic societal conditions) to follow his or her own wishes, plans, and life rhythms, to make of his or her life what he or she wants. This is the area that Foucault claimed for the art of living.

2. Most people, however, live at the same time in interindividual or communal life- and orientation worlds, in which one adapts to the living conditions and needs of people with whom one has chosen to ‘share one’s life’: the friends you make, the family you start, the colleagues you prefer to work with, and the acquaintances you visit and that visit you and with whom you do things together with, and so on. These life- or orientation worlds, which each have their own rules and are interconnected with one another, are altogether strongly oriented to others: The individual art of living must fit into those of others.

3. In the societal life and orientation world, everyone has to adjust to the living conditions and needs of people they did not choose themselves: from classmates via colleagues, club and party members, etc. all the way to the members of the whole society in which one lives. In the growing distance, complexity, and intransparency, interindividual proximity and trust among people whom you personally know is lost. At the same time you gain new freedom to shape your own life through far more diverse social offerings – under conventions, norms, and laws over which you have little influence for the most part, but according to which you are sanctioned if you do not comply with them. Thus, in the societal life- and orientation world, self- and other-reference interweave and mutually intensify.

4. The global orientation world you share with all people on earth, whom you do not know for the most part and whose cultures are unfamiliar. Here you experience otherness in the highest degree, but here your own orientation also gains its widest horizon. The concern for yourself can here become a concern for the living conditions of people on the whole earth, and your own rhythms of the art of living become unimportant compared to universal obligations.

Nevertheless, these rhythms remain present. One switches between life worlds when changing communication partners and places, but also when the concerns of one orientation world suddenly become urgent in another (e.g., when your baby phone goes off while you are at work in your factory or in your office). In general, one always tries to meet the needs of one’s individual life first, and only expands one’s horizons of orientation when specific concerns and needs prompt one to do so. The individual life- and orientation world remains, so to speak, the home of all the others, but one leaves it time and again in the short, medium, or long term. The broadest horizon, i.e., the universal one, does not, as idealistic philosophies would make us believe, have something like a self-evident priority over the narrower, i.e., the individual, interindividual, and cultural ones; on the contrary, one usually needs special reasons to give priority to it.


Vertical Differentiation: Superior and Inferior Orientations – Rank Orders in the Art of Living

The vertical differentiation of an art of living understood as an art of orientation likewise does away with popular prejudices. Orientations, which are limited to respective standpoints, horizons and perspectives and therefore seek connections to other orientations, can choose which orientations they want to hold onto in each case. If one does not already presuppose an entity of ‘reason’ (Vernunft) that is to be the same for everyone and common to all, but accepts that our abilities of orientation, judgment, and decision-making differ greatly, then the superiorities and inferiorities among orientations become apparent: This person will be able to orient him or herself better in this regard, but another is better in that regard, and they will both hold onto that orientation from which they expect greater security. If a group of hikers gets lost in the high mountains and someone can read maps, estimate the points of the compass, and better than others distinguish between accessible and inaccessible paths, the rest of the group will follow him or her; if someone comes to a clear judgment when everyone else is uncertain, the debate will focus on him or her; if someone can propose a decision in an economically or politically difficult situation that promises to solve the problems, it will be gladly accepted. In such cases, someone ‘provides’ an orientation, and the others ‘place’ or ‘put’ their trust in him or her. Nevertheless, they are free in following their own decisions.

Nietzsche highly estimated the value of ‘rank’, which is crucial in the art of living as an art of orientation and which the Enlightenment, concentrated on the one reason of all human beings, risked losing sight of. In one’s orientation to other orientations, humans always distinguish degrees of others’ abilities of orientation, judgment, and decision-making – even
among Enlightenment thinkers and scientists and so likewise in the art of living. We are more attentive to some than to others: they receive more attention; their judgment is more valid; and they have higher authority. This may pertain only to specific situations; however, a person can also permanently attract stronger attention and gain higher authority, even if he or she does not strive for it. Through rank distinctions or, using Nietzsche’s term, ‘rank orders,’ our orientation itself is oriented and relieved and abbreviated: one does not need to look in each case for yet other persons who can help with their superior orientation experiences (if they have done a good job, one always prefers this craftsperson, this doctor, this lawyer, this marriage counselor). The rank or authority in orientation, however, which someone has is always limited to certain fields (a good doctor does not have to be a good marriage counselor). The orientation superiorities and inferiorities can be different (also among life partners) in different fields and balance each other out on the whole, so that they do not automatically justify hierarchies. The art of living certainly involves the ability to balance such different orientation competences to thereby make them welcome for each side.

Nevertheless, clear and lasting superiority in orientation can also grant power. Contrary to the prejudice that power is ‘intrinsically evil,’ power is indeed appreciated as long as it establishes order and enables stable leadership, without which groups and societies cannot exist. This is true from the power of janitors all the way up to the power of a country’s president. In principle, power apparatuses are made up according to orientation superiority and inferiority: Whoever has the greater overview, insight, judgement and decision-making ability is supposed to be superior in the apparatus or should be superior in it. Power becomes ‘evil’ only when it is no longer used for orientation tasks but is abused in the self-interest of those exercising it, and one can usually clearly distinguish the two. But superiors, too, are always dependent on the specific orientation experiences of those who ‘work for’ them; thus, in formally fixed hierarchies, an informal balance of power often occurs in power apparatuses.

Rank distinctions, which are observed and used in the art of orientation and life, nevertheless do not exclude different assessments. Already in the interindividual, but at the latest in the global or universal orientation world, in our political culture the dignity of every human being has priority, and here it is also explicitly asserted, especially when a human being is helpless in his or her orientation due to a temporary emergency, illness, disability, or age. Even though the art of orientation and living must pay attention to differences of orientation capacities, it is not fixated on them.


Ethics of the Art of Living – Ethics of the Art of Orientation

Morally, the art of living as an art of orientation does not submit to the dogma of equality. Since orientation is always singular, one can only demand reciprocity in the fulfillment of legal and moral norms in the respective society. Here too, Nietzsche suggested the crucial keyword, that of a ‘noble morality,’ which he explicitly did not connect with any social classes. A morality is noble if it can accept other morals beyond its own and is willing to reflect and question its own standards against those of others. It observes reciprocity, but does not expect it from others. It knows the limits of one’s own moral points of view, horizons, and perspectives. It leaves behind the moral fixations and in this way allows us to recognize them as such. Instead, in a noble morality the specific virtues of orientation are practiced, such as circumspection and foresight when exploring the situation, consideration for other moral orientations and precaution against violating them, forbearance where little consideration is given to one’s own concerns, and confidence that different moral orientations can coexist and cooperate through these virtues.



Sovereign Orientation – Sovereign Art of Living

Such an orientation, which proves to be a long-term art of living, is called ‘sovereign.’ Sovereign is he or she who masters even surprising situations, pragmatic and moral ones as well, with an ease and certainty that wins even aesthetic admiration – of those who themselves have the rank to respect and recognize it.


1 Werner Stegmaier, What is Orientation? A Philosophical Investigation, translated by Reinhard G. Mueller, Berlin/Boston 2019, 5.


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