Authors: Jordan B. Peterson
Even well-lived lives can, of course, be warped and hurt and twisted by illness and infirmity and uncontrollable catastrophe. Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, like cancer, all involve biological factors beyond the individual’s immediate control. The difficulties intrinsic to life itself are sufficient to weaken and overwhelm each of us, pushing us beyond our limits, breaking us at our weakest point. Not even the best-lived life provides an absolute defence against vulnerability. But the family that fights in the ruins of their earthquake-devastated dwelling place is much less likely to rebuild than the family made strong by mutual trust and devotion. Any natural weakness or existential challenge, no matter how minor, can be magnified into a serious crisis with enough deceit in the individual, family or culture.
The honest human spirit may continually fail in its attempts to bring about Paradise on Earth. It may manage, however, to reduce the suffering attendant on existence to bearable levels. The tragedy of Being is the consequence of our limitations and the vulnerability defining human experience. It may even be the price we pay for Being itself—since existence must be limited, to be at all.
I have seen a husband adapt honestly and courageously while his wife descended into terminal dementia. He made the necessary
adjustments, step by step. He accepted help when he needed it. He refused to deny her sad deterioration and in that manner adapted gracefully to it. I saw the family of that same woman come together in a supporting and sustaining manner as she lay dying, and gain newfound connections with each other—brother, sisters, grandchildren and father—as partial but genuine compensation for their loss. I have seen my teenage daughter live through the destruction of her hip and her ankle and survive two years of continual, intense pain and emerge with her spirit intact. I watched her younger brother voluntarily and without resentment sacrifice many opportunities for friendship and social engagement to stand by her and us while she suffered. With love, encouragement, and character intact, a human being can be resilient beyond imagining. What cannot be borne, however, is the absolute ruin produced by tragedy and deception.
The capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimize, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalize, bias, exaggerate and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, that centuries of pre-scientific thought, concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation—to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.
We can turn to the great poet John Milton, once again, to clarify just what this means. Over thousands of years of history, the Western world wrapped a dream-like fantasy about the nature of evil around its central religious core. That fantasy had a protagonist, an adversarial personality, absolutely dedicated to the corruption of Being. Milton took it upon himself to organize, dramatize and articulate the essence of this collective dream, and gave it life, in the figure of Satan—Lucifer, the “light bearer.” He writes of Lucifer’s primal temptation, and its immediate consequences:
He trusted to have equaled the most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Raised impious War in Heaven and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire …
Lucifer, in Milton’s eyes—the spirit of reason—was the most wondrous angel brought forth from the void by God. This can be read psychologically. Reason is something alive. It lives in all of us. It’s older than any of us. It’s best understood as a personality, not a faculty. It has its aims, and its temptations, and its weaknesses. It flies higher and sees farther than any other spirit. But reason falls in love with itself, and worse. It falls in love with its own productions. It elevates them, and worships them as absolutes. Lucifer is, therefore, the spirit of totalitarianism. He is flung from Heaven into Hell because such elevation, such rebellion against the Highest and Incomprehensible, inevitably produces Hell.
To say it again: it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its own capacity and its own productions and to claim that in the face of its theories nothing transcendent or outside its domain need exist. This means that all important facts have been discovered. This means that nothing important remains unknown. But most importantly, it means denial of the necessity for courageous individual confrontation with Being. What is going to save you? The totalitarian says, in essence, “You must rely on faith in what you already know.” But that is not what saves.
What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know.
That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be. The totalitarian denies the necessity for the individual to take ultimate responsibility for Being.
That denial is the meaning of rebellion against “the most High.” That is what
means: Everything that needs to be discovered has been discovered. Everything will unfold precisely as planned. All problems will vanish, forever, once the perfect system is accepted.
Milton’s great poem was a prophecy. As rationality rose ascendant from the ashes of Christianity, the great threat of total systems accompanied it. Communism, in particular, was attractive not so much to oppressed workers, its hypothetical beneficiaries, but to intellectuals—to those whose arrogant pride in intellect assured them they were always right. But the promised utopia never emerged. Instead humanity experienced the inferno of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the citizens of those states were required to betray their own experience, turn against their fellow citizens, and die in the tens of millions.
There is an old Soviet joke. An American dies and goes to hell. Satan himself shows him around. They pass a large cauldron. The American peers in. It’s full of suffering souls, burning in hot pitch. As they struggle to leave the pot, low-ranking devils, sitting on the rim, pitchfork them back in. The American is properly shocked. Satan says, “That’s where we put sinful Englishmen.” The tour continues. Soon the duo approaches a second cauldron. It’s slightly larger, and slightly hotter. The American peers in. It is also full of suffering souls, all wearing berets. Devils are pitchforking would-be escapees back into this cauldron, as well. “That’s where we put sinful Frenchmen,” Satan says. In the distance is a third cauldron. It’s much bigger, and is glowing, white hot. The American can barely get near it. Nonetheless, at Satan’s insistence, he approaches it and peers in. It is absolutely packed with souls, barely visible, under the surface of the boiling liquid. Now and then, however, one clambers out of the pitch and desperately reaches for the rim. Oddly, there are no devils sitting on the edge of this giant pot, but the clamberer disappears back under the surface anyway. The American asks, “Why are there no demons here to keep everyone from escaping?” Satan replies, “This is where we put the Russians. If one tries to escape, the others pull him back in.”
Milton believed that stubborn refusal to change in the face of error not only meant ejection from heaven, and subsequent degeneration into an ever-deepening hell, but the rejection of redemption itself. Satan knows full well that even if he was willing to seek reconciliation,
and God willing to grant it, he would only rebel again, because he will not change. Perhaps it is this prideful stubbornness that constitutes the mysterious unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost:
… Farewell happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be changed by Place or Time.
This is no afterlife fantasy. This is no perverse realm of post-existence torture for political enemies. This is an abstract idea, and abstractions are often more real than what they represent. The idea that hell exists in some metaphysical manner is not only ancient, and pervasive; it’s true. Hell is eternal. It has always existed. It exists now. It’s the most barren, hopeless and malevolent subdivision of the underworld of chaos, where disappointed and resentful people forever dwell.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
Those who have lied enough, in word and action, live there, in hell—now. Take a walk down any busy urban street. Keep your eyes open and pay attention. You will see people who are there, now. These are the people to whom you instinctively give a wide berth. These are the people who are immediately angered if you direct your gaze toward them, although sometimes they will instead turn away in shame. I saw a horribly damaged street alcoholic do exactly that in the presence of my young daughter. He wanted above all to avoid seeing his degraded state incontrovertibly reflected in her eyes.
It is deceit that makes people miserable beyond what they can bear. It is deceit that fills human souls with resentment and vengefulness. It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao. It was deceit that killed hundreds of millions of people in the twentieth century. It was deceit that almost doomed civilization itself. It is deceit that still threatens us, most profoundly, today.
What happens if, instead, we decide to stop lying? What does this even mean? We are limited in our knowledge, after all. We must make decisions, here and now, even though the best means and the best goals can never be discerned with certainty. An aim, an ambition, provides the structure necessary for action. An aim provides a destination, a point of contrast against the present, and a framework, within which all things can be evaluated. An aim defines progress and makes such progress exciting. An aim reduces anxiety, because if you have no aim everything can mean anything or nothing, and neither of those two options makes for a tranquil spirit. Thus, we have to think, and plan, and limit, and posit, in order to live at all. How then to envision the future, and establish our direction, without falling prey to the temptation of totalitarian certainty?
Some reliance on tradition can help us establish our aims. It is reasonable to do what other people have always done, unless we have a very good reason not to. It is reasonable to become educated and work and find love and have a family. That is how culture maintains itself. But it is necessary to aim at your target, however traditional, with your eyes wide open. You have a direction, but it might be wrong. You have a plan, but it might be ill-formed. You may have been led astray by your own ignorance—and, worse, by your own unrevealed corruption. You must make friends, therefore, with what you don’t know, instead of what you know. You must remain awake to catch yourself in the act. You must remove the beam in your own eye, before
you concern yourself with the mote in your brother’s. And in this way, you strengthen your own spirit, so it can tolerate the burden of existence, and you rejuvenate the state.
The ancient Egyptians had already figured this out thousands of years ago, although their knowledge remained embodied in dramatic form.
They worshipped Osiris, mythological founder of the state and the god of tradition. Osiris, however, was vulnerable to overthrow and banishment to the underworld by Set, his evil, scheming brother. The Egyptians represented in story the fact that social organizations ossify with time, and tend towards willful blindness. Osiris would not see his brother’s true character, even though he could have. Set waits and, at an opportune moment, attacks. He hacks Osiris into pieces, and scatters the divine remains through the kingdom. He sends his brother’s spirit to the underworld. He makes it very difficult for Osiris to pull himself back together.
Fortunately, the great king did not have to deal with Set on his own. The Egyptians also worshipped Horus, the son of Osiris. Horus took the twin forms of a falcon, the most visually acute of all creatures, and the still-famous hieroglyphic single Egyptian eye (as alluded to in Rule 7). Osiris is tradition, aged and willfully blind. Horus, his son, could and would, by contrast, see. Horus was the god of attention. That is not the same as rationality. Because he paid attention, Horus could perceive and triumph against the evils of Set, his uncle, albeit at great cost. When Horus confronts Set, they have a terrible battle. Before Set’s defeat and banishment from the kingdom, he tears out one of his nephew’s eyes. But the eventually victorious Horus takes back the eye. Then he does something truly unexpected:
he journeys voluntarily to the underworld and gives the eye to his father.
What does this mean? First, that the encounter with malevolence and evil is of sufficient terror to damage even the vision of a god; second,
that the attentive son can restore the vision of his father.
Culture is always in a near-dead state, even though it was established by the spirit of great people in the past. But the present is not the past. The wisdom of the past thus deteriorates, or becomes outdated, in proportion to the genuine difference between the conditions of the present
and the past. That is a mere consequence of the passage of time, and the change that passage inevitably brings. But it is also the case that culture and its wisdom is additionally vulnerable to corruption—to voluntary, willful blindness and Mephistophelean intrigue. Thus, the inevitable functional decline of the institutions granted to us by our ancestors is sped along by our misbehavior—our missing of the mark—in the present.