Authors: Jordan B. Peterson
In the desert, Christ encounters Satan (see Luke 4:1–13 and Matthew 4:1–11). This story has a clear psychological meaning—a metaphorical meaning—in addition to whatever else material and metaphysical alike it might signify. It means that Christ
is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity
. It means that Christ is eternally He who is willing to confront and deeply consider and risk the temptations posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature. It means that Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil—consciously, fully and voluntarily—in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world. This is nothing merely abstract (although it is abstract); nothing to be brushed over. It’s no merely intellectual matter.
Soldiers who develop post-traumatic stress disorder frequently develop it not because of something they saw, but because of something they did.
There are many demons, so to speak, on the battlefield. Involvement in warfare is something that can open a gateway to Hell. Now and then something climbs through and possesses some naive farm-boy from Iowa, and he turns monstrous. He does
something terrible. He rapes and kills the women and massacres the infants of My Lai. And he watches himself do it. And some dark part of him enjoys it—and that is the part that is most unforgettable. And, later, he will not know how to reconcile himself with the reality about himself and the world that was then revealed. And no wonder.
In the great and fundamental myths of ancient Egypt, the god Horus—often regarded as a precursor to Christ, historically and conceptually speaking
—experienced the same thing, when he confronted his evil uncle Set,
usurper of the throne of Osiris, Horus’s father. Horus, the all-seeing Egyptian falcon god, the Egyptian eye of supreme, eternal attention itself, has the courage to contend with Set’s true nature, meeting him in direct combat. In the struggle with his dread uncle, however, his consciousness is damaged. He loses an eye. This is despite his godly stature and his unparalleled capacity for vision. What would a mere man lose, who attempted the same thing? But perhaps he might gain in internal vision and understanding something proportional to what he loses in perception of the outside world.
Satan embodies the refusal of sacrifice; he is arrogance, incarnate; spite, deceit, and cruel, conscious malevolence. He is pure hatred of Man, God and Being. He will not humble himself, even when he knows full well that he should. Furthermore, he knows exactly what he is doing, obsessed with the desire for destruction, and does it deliberately, thoughtfully and completely. It has to be him, therefore—the very archetype of Evil—who confronts and tempts Christ, the archetype of Good. It must be him who offers to the Savior of Mankind, under the most trying of conditions, what all men most ardently desire.
Satan first tempts the starving Christ to quell His hunger by transforming the desert rocks into bread. Then he suggests that He throw Himself off a cliff, calling on God and the angels to break His fall. Christ responds to the first temptation by saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” What does this answer mean? It means that even under conditions of
extreme privation, there are more important things than food. To put it another way: Bread is of little use to the man who has betrayed his soul, even if he is currently starving.
Christ could clearly use his near-infinite power, as Satan indicates, to gain bread, now—to break his fast—even, in the broader sense, to gain wealth, in the world (which would theoretically solve the problem of bread, more permanently). But at what cost? And to what gain? Gluttony, in the midst of moral desolation? That’s the poorest and most miserable of feasts. Christ aims, therefore, at something higher: at the description of a mode of Being that would finally and forever solve the problem of hunger. If we all chose instead of expedience to dine on the Word of God? That would require each and every person to live, and produce, and sacrifice, and speak, and share in a manner that would permanently render the privation of hunger a thing of the past. And that’s how the problem of hunger in the privations of the desert is most truly and finally addressed.
There are other indications of this in the gospels, in dramatic, enacted form. Christ is continually portrayed as the purveyor of endless sustenance. He miraculously multiplies bread and fish. He turns water into wine. What does this mean? It’s a call to the pursuit of higher meaning as the mode of living that is simultaneously most practical and of highest quality. It’s a call portrayed in dramatic/literary form: live as the archetypal Saviour lives, and you and those around you will hunger no more. The beneficence of the world manifests itself to those who live properly. That’s better than bread. That’s better than the money that will buy bread. Thus Christ, the symbolically perfect individual, overcomes the first temptation. Two more follow.
“Throw yourself off that cliff,” Satan says, offering the next temptation. “If God exists, He will surely save you. If you are in fact his Son, God will surely save you.” Why would God not make Himself manifest, to rescue His only begotten Child from hunger and isolation
and the presence of great evil? But that establishes no pattern for life. It doesn’t even work as literature. The
deus ex machina
—the emergence of a divine force that magically rescues the hero from his predicament—is the cheapest trick in the hack writer’s playbook. It makes a mockery of independence, and courage, and destiny, and free will, and responsibility. Furthermore, God is in no wise a safety net for the blind. He’s not someone to be commanded to perform magic tricks, or forced into Self-revelation—not even by His own Son.
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7)—this answer, though rather brief, dispenses with the second temptation. Christ does not casually order or even dare ask God to intervene on his behalf. He refuses to dispense with His responsibility for the events of His own life. He refuses to demand that God prove His presence. He refuses, as well, to solve the problems of mortal vulnerability in a merely personal manner)—by compelling God to save Him—because that would not solve the problem for everyone else and for all time. There is also the echo of the rejection of the comforts of insanity in this forgone temptation. Easy but psychotic self-identification as the merely magical Messiah might well have been a genuine temptation under the harsh conditions of Christ’s sojourn in the desert. Instead He rejects the idea that salvation—or even survival, in the shorter term—depends on narcissistic displays of superiority and the commanding of God, even by His Son.
Finally comes the third temptation, the most compelling of all. Christ sees the kingdoms of the world laid before Him for the taking. That’s the siren call of earthly power: the opportunity to control and order everyone and everything. Christ is offered the pinnacle of the dominance hierarchy, the animalistic desire of every naked ape: the obedience of all, the most wondrous of estates, the power to build and to increase, the possibility of unlimited sensual gratification. That’s expedience, writ large. But that’s not all. Such expansion of status also provides unlimited opportunity for the inner darkness to reveal itself. The lust for blood, rape and destruction is very much part of power’s attraction. It is not only that men desire power so that they will no longer suffer. It is not only that they desire power so that they can
overcome subjugation to want, disease and death. Power also means the capacity to take vengeance, ensure submission, and crush enemies. Grant Cain enough power and he will not only kill Abel. He will torture him, first, imaginatively and endlessly. Then and only then will he kill him. Then he will come after everyone else.
There’s something above even the pinnacle of the highest of dominance hierarchies, access to which should not be sacrificed for mere proximal success. It’s a real place, too, although not to be conceptualized in the standard geographical sense of place we typically use to orient ourselves. I had a vision, once, of an immense landscape, spread for miles out to the horizon before me. I was high in the air, granted a bird’s-eye view. Everywhere I could see great stratified multi-storied pyramids of glass, some small, some large, some overlapping, some separate—all akin to modern skyscrapers; all full of people striving to reach each pyramid’s very pinnacle. But there was something above that pinnacle, a domain outside each pyramid, in which all were nested. That was the privileged position of the eye that could or perhaps chose to soar freely above the fray; that chose not to dominate any specific group or cause but instead to somehow simultaneously transcend all. That was attention, itself, pure and untrammeled: detached, alert, watchful attention, waiting to act when the time was right and the place had been established. As the Tao te Ching has it:
He who contrives, defeats his purpose;
and he who is grasping, loses.
The sage does not contrive to win,
and therefore is not defeated;
he is not grasping, so does not lose.
There is a powerful call to proper Being in the story of the third temptation. To obtain the greatest possible prize—the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, the resurrection of Paradise—the individual must conduct his or her life in a manner that requires the rejection of immediate gratification, of natural and perverse desires alike, no matter how powerfully and convincingly and realistically
those are offered, and dispense, as well with the temptations of evil. Evil amplifies the catastrophe of life, increasing dramatically the motivation for expediency already there because of the essential tragedy of Being. Sacrifice of the more prosaic sort can keep that tragedy at bay, more or less successfully, but it takes a special kind of sacrifice to defeat evil. It is the description of that special sacrifice that has preoccupied the Christian (and more than Christian) imagination for centuries. Why has it not had the desired effect? Why do we remain unconvinced that there is no better plan than lifting our heads skyward, aiming at the Good, and sacrificing everything to that ambition? Have we merely failed to understand, or have we fallen, wilfully or otherwise, off the path?
Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science.
It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them
) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification.
This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works.”
Whatever its limitations, the development of such doctrine prevented king, aristocrat and wealthy merchant alike from lording it morally over the commoner. In consequence, the metaphysical conception of the implicit transcendent worth of each and every soul established itself against impossible odds as the fundamental presupposition of Western law and society. That was not the case in the world of the past, and is not the case yet in most places in the world of the present. It is in fact nothing short of a miracle (and we should keep this fact firmly before our eyes) that the hierarchical slave-based societies of our ancestors reorganized themselves, under the sway of an ethical/religious revelation, such that the ownership and absolute domination of another person came to be viewed as wrong.
It would do us well to remember, as well, that the immediate utility of slavery is obvious, and that the argument that the strong should dominate the weak is compelling, convenient and eminently practical (at least for the strong). This means that a revolutionary critique of everything slave-owning societies valued was necessary before the practice could be even questioned, let alone halted (including the idea that wielding power and authority made the slave-owner noble; including the even more fundamental idea that the power wielded by the slave-owner was valid and even virtuous). Christianity made explicit the surprising claim that even the lowliest person had rights, genuine rights—and that sovereign and state were morally charged, at a fundamental level, to recognize those rights. Christianity put
forward, explicitly, the even more incomprehensible idea that the act of human ownership degraded the slaver (previously viewed as admiring nobility) much or even more than the slave. We fail to understand how difficult such an idea is to grasp. We forget that the opposite was self-evident throughout most of human history. We think that it is the desire to enslave and dominate that requires explanation. We have it backwards, yet again.