Authors: Jordan B. Peterson
We rebel against our own totalitarianism, as much as that of others. I cannot merely order myself to action, and neither can you. “I will stop procrastinating,” I say, but I don’t. “I will eat properly,” I say, but I don’t. “I will end my drunken misbehavior,” I say, but I don’t. I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect (particularly if that intellect is possessed by an ideology). I have a nature, and so do you, and so do we all. We must discover that nature, and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves. What is it, that we most truly are? What is it that we could most truly become, knowing who we most truly are? We must get to the very bottom of things before such questions can be truly answered.
Three hundred years before Nietzsche, the great French philosopher René Descartes set out on an intellectual mission to take his doubt seriously, to break things apart, to get to what was essential—to see if he could establish, or discover, a single proposition impervious to his skepticism. He was searching for the foundation stone on which proper
Being could be established. Descartes found it, as far as he was concerned, in the “I” who thinks—the “I” who was aware—as expressed in his famous dictum,
cogito ergo sum
(I think, therefore I am). But that “I” had been conceptualized long before. Thousands of years ago, the aware “I” was the all-seeing eye of Horus, the great Egyptian son-and-sun-god, who renewed the state by attending to and then confronting its inevitable corruption. Before that, it was the creator-God Marduk of the Mesopotamians, whose eyes encircled his head and who spoke forth words of world-engendering magic. During the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the Word that speaks order into Being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularized the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put. But what exactly is that self?
We can understand, to some degree, its horrors, if we wish to, but its goodness remains more difficult to define. The self is the great actor of evil who strode about the stage of Being as Nazi and Stalinist alike; who produced Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the multiplicity of the Soviet gulags. And all of that must be considered with dread seriousness. But what is its opposite? What is the good that is the necessary counterpart of that evil; that is made more corporeal and comprehensible by the very existence of that evil? And here we can state with conviction and clarity that even the rational intellect—that faculty so beloved of those who hold traditional wisdom in contempt—is at minimum something closely and necessarily akin to the archetypal dying and eternally resurrected god, the eternal savior of humanity, the Logos itself. The philosopher of science Karl Popper, certainly no mystic, regarded thinking itself as a logical extension of the Darwinian process. A creature that cannot think must solely embody its Being. It can merely act out its nature, concretely, in the here-and-now. If it cannot manifest in its behavior what the environment demands while doing so, it will simply die. But that is not true of human beings. We can produce abstracted representations of potential modes of Being. We can produce an idea in the theatre of the imagination. We can test it out against our other ideas, the ideas of others, or the world itself. If
it falls short, we can let it go. We can, in Popper’s formulation, let our ideas die in our stead.
Then the essential part, the creator of those ideas, can continue onward, now untrammeled, by comparison, with error.
Faith in the part of us that continues across those deaths is a prerequisite to thinking itself.
Now, an idea is not the same thing as a fact. A fact is something that is dead, in and of itself. It has no consciousness, no will to power, no motivation, no action. There are billions of dead facts. The internet is a graveyard of dead facts. But an idea that grips a person is alive. It wants to express itself, to live in the world. It is for this reason that the depth psychologists—Freud and Jung paramount among them—insisted that the human psyche was a battleground for ideas.
An idea has an aim. It wants something. It posits a value structure.
An idea believes that what it is aiming for is better than what it has now. It reduces the world to those things that aid or impede its realization, and it reduces everything else to irrelevance. An idea defines figure against ground.
An idea is a personality, not a fact
. When it manifests itself within a person, it has a strong proclivity to make of that person its avatar: to impel that person to act it out. Sometimes, that impulsion (possession is another word) can be so strong that the person will die, rather than allowing the idea to perish. This is, generally speaking, a bad decision, given that it is often the case that only the idea need die, and that the person with the idea can stop being its avatar, change his or her ways, and continue.
To use the dramatic conceptualization of our ancestors: It is the most fundamental convictions that must die—must be sacrificed—when the relationship with God has been disrupted (when the presence of undue and often intolerable suffering, for example, indicates that something has to change). This is to say nothing other than that the future can be made better if the proper sacrifices take place in the present. No other animal has ever figured this out, and it took us untold hundreds of thousands of years to do it. It took further eons of observation and hero-worship, and then millennia of study, to distill that idea into a story. It then took additional vast stretches of time to assess that story, to incorporate it, so that we now can simply say, “If
you are disciplined and privilege the future over the present you can change the structure of reality in your favour.”
But how best to do that?
In 1984, I started down the same road as Descartes. I did not know it was the same road at the time, and I am not claiming kinship with Descartes, who is rightly regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. But I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking. The socialism that soon afterward became so attractive to me as an alternative proved equally insubstantial; with time, I came to understand, through the great George Orwell, that much of such thinking found its motivation in hatred of the rich and successful, instead of true regard for the poor. Besides, the socialists were more intrinsically capitalist than the capitalists. They believed just as strongly in money. They just thought that if different people had the money, the problems plaguing humanity would vanish. This is simply untrue. There are many problems that money does not solve, and others that it makes worse. Rich people still divorce each other, and alienate themselves from their children, and suffer from existential angst, and develop cancer and dementia, and die alone and unloved. Recovering addicts cursed with money blow it all in a frenzy of snorting and drunkenness. And boredom weighs heavily on people who have nothing to do.
I was simultaneously tormented by the fact of the Cold War. It obsessed me. It gave me nightmares. It drove me into the desert, into the long night of the human soul. I could not understand how it had come to pass that the world’s two great factions aimed mutual assured destruction at each other. Was one system just as arbitrary and corrupt as the other? Was it a mere matter of opinion? Were all value structures merely the clothing of power?
Was everyone crazy?
Just exactly what happened in the twentieth century, anyway? How was it that so many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies? How was it that we discovered something
worse, much worse, than the aristocracy and corrupt religious beliefs that communism and fascism sought so rationally to supplant? No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell. Like Descartes, I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.
I once read of a particularly insidious practice at Auschwitz. A guard would force an inmate to carry a hundred-pound sack of wet salt from one side of the large compound to the other—and then to carry it back.
Arbeit macht frei
, said the sign over the camp entrance—“Work will set you free”—and the freedom was death. Carrying the salt was an act of pointless torment. It was a piece of malevolent art. It allowed me to realize with certainty that some actions are wrong.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, definitively and profoundly, about the horrors of the twentieth century, the tens of millions who were stripped of employment, family, identity and life. In his
, in the second part of the second volume, he discussed the Nuremburg trials, which he considered the most significant event of the twentieth century. The conclusion of those trials?
There are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being.
This is true essentially, cross-culturally—across time and place.
These are evil actions. No excuses are available for engaging in them.
To dehumanize a fellow being, to reduce him or her to the status of a parasite, to torture and to slaughter with no consideration of individual innocence or guilt, to make an art form of pain—that is wrong.
What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands,
perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that
is not good
, then there is something that
. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced—then the good is whatever is diametrically opposed to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.
It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.
Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. That’s a state, and a state of mind, at the same time.
Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable—although it could remain poorly arranged and internally
self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what the person acted out. It was what the person believed most deeply. Something enacted is not a fact, or even a set of facts. Instead, it’s a personality—or, more precisely, a choice between two opposing personalities. It’s Sherlock Holmes or Moriarty. It’s Batman or the Joker. It’s Superman or Lex Luthor, Charles Francis Xavier or Magneto, and Thor or Loki. It’s Abel or Cain—and it’s Christ or Satan. If it’s working for the ennobling of Being, for the establishment of Paradise, then it’s Christ. If it’s working for the destruction of Being, for the generation and propagation of unnecessary suffering and pain, then it’s Satan. That’s the inescapable, archetypal reality.
Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.
If you act properly, your actions allow you to be psychologically integrated now, and tomorrow, and into the future, while you benefit yourself, your family, and the broader world around you. Everything will stack up and align along a single axis. Everything will come together. This produces maximal meaning. This stacking up is a place in space and time whose existence we can detect with our ability to experience more than is simply revealed here and now by our senses, which are obviously limited to their information-gathering and representational capacity. Meaning trumps expedience. Meaning gratifies all impulses, now and forever. That’s why we can detect it.