Back when we were primates, we used to comb each other’s hair. We laid hands on one another. We pinched fleas and beheaded parasites and swept off dead skin.
We protected one another. This wasn’t strictly about hygiene. It was also a bonding ceremony. We maintained social order without ever saying a word. But eventually our population grew too large for such personal touches, and we had begun to flourish into proper language, so our expectations of community drifted into abstractions, metaphor, art, symbols, and, worst of all, political fanaticism. Imbued with consciousness, we discovered that life is endlessly complicated. Our response was to declare war.
I first met Jordan Peterson at Dave Rubin’s house in January 2018, shortly after the release of Peterson’s best-selling book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” He was a whir of a man. Radiating chaos. Chattering like the frog from Sesame Street. How exactly is a 54-year-old Canadian professor who just became gaspingly famous supposed to act?
If this is your first encounter with Jordan Peterson, welcome to the internet. May God have mercy on your soul. Because you’ve stumbled into a particularly volatile corner.
Allow me to be your Virgil.
Over the next four months, I shadowed Peterson sporadically for what would eventually become “The Long Distance Call,” titled after a verse from Paul Simon’s song “Boy in the Bubble.”
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
That’s how it felt to see Peterson in 2018. He was an enigma. The way he rode into Western consciousness like the squinting anti-hero of a Sergio Leone film: “Serpents? I bloody hate serpents.” But before we ever fully decided whether he was a hero or a villain he just sort of vanished. Which was odd, because for about two years, he’d been culturally ubiquitous.
Rumors bounced around Reddit and Twitter, among journalists: Cancer, drugs, rehab, psychosis, sirloins. It was all so outrageous and vague.
Then, halfway through 2020, the year that still might end us all, in the middle of a godforsaken pandemic that as of the publishing of this review still continues, Peterson re-emerged. At Babaroga Steakhouse in Belgrade of all places, to celebrate his birthday. If you believe in synchronicity, “Babaroga” translates to “bogeyman.”
There weren’t many other celebrations in June 2020. Just lots of fear and death. America was on fire, heartbroken, afraid. Lots of places were. Travel was restricted. Quarantines, lockdowns. People kept dying. Closer and closer. People you knew. So, Peterson plucking at Tomahawks on Instagram was a hell of a plot twist.
Then he got Covid. And Pneumonia. Hospitalized. Abyss. Somehow survived. Not much later, he announced the release of his third book, “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life”:
Jordan Peterson’s list of rules in Beyond OrderTwitter
Slowly, the details of his absence emerged. Basically, he had a lot of bad all at once. The pace and intensity of fame, the constant vitriol and love that engulfed him. He had his anxiety medication, clonazepam, upped when his wife of 30 years contracted terminal cancer. Then a series of moments — sometimes days on end — when he assumed he was going to die. Wanted to, maybe, who could tell. He bounced to various hospitals in the U.S. and Canada throughout 2019, fighting off the crippling anxiety and thoughts of self-destruction, hunted by insomnia, unable to dream, to escape or forget.
Most other reviews delightfully go through the rest of Peterson’s collapse, or couch it with boring praise, in the case of conservative media. Either way it’s tacky and banal.
Some critics have taken Peterson’s collapse as proof that he, a psychology professor and clinician with decades of practice who recently underwent real-world personal experience of everything he’d been studying, should not be writing books about self-improvement.
That’s like saying a poet shouldn’t write love poems because they’ve known heartbreak.
Love him or hate him, Peterson deserves an honest examination — for some reason love or hate seem to be the only two options we’re given when deciding how to feel about Peterson. Which is ridiculous, and hardly productive.
Peterson often resembles an aggressive goose. He has a history of tantrums that outshine the tantrums he’s reacting to. Although the initiating tantrum is often technically an ambush.
These skirmishes of the culture war — perhaps our greatest distraction — flesh out mostly online, mostly Twitter and Reddit, although the more fringe rhetoric circulates 4Chan and Tumblr.
Journalist Jesse Singal breaks this divide into “normies” and the “too-online”:
The Jordan Peterson phenomenon is one of the best examples of the divide between normies and the too-online. Millio… https://t.co/5AZF4brGbX
— Jesse Singal (@Jesse Singal)1606493562.0
“You need controversy,” Peterson said, during one of our 2018 interviews, in the dressing room after one of his shows, under a dead lightbulb.
Fame, he said, relies on public opinion. It’s about the constituent individuals choosing which humans rise to the top. Something about how valuation shapes hierarchies — Peterson relates most things hierarchically.
He then described fame as an outcome of an admiration-to-controversy ratio. In order to become famous, a person must cultivate an ever-widening balance of the two. On that particular night, Peterson rated himself at a 60-to-40, but admitted that it fluctuates constantly.
Which, it’s a near-satirically Peterson move to conceptualize fame as some unending game that spirals through our species, an array of data points.
“What’s the best percentage of controversy?” he asked. “It’s not zero, I can tell you that much.”
It’s never zero with Jordan Peterson.
When Penguin Random House Canada announced the release of “Beyond Order,” Penguin employees tried to stop its publication. They consider Peterson “an icon of hate speech and transphobia” and despise “the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy.”
This is dispiriting. Jordan Peterson’s last book was a constructive manual for self-help. This looks to be a sequel… https://t.co/c1x739gpKJ
— Conor Friedersdorf (@Conor Friedersdorf)1606256144.0
It’s a narrative you hear repeated but never proven. And it feeds into Peterson’s Fame Ratio: The people who want to attenuate him only give him further strength.
Just last week, Peterson went viral because of a comic book, Captain America, issue #28. In it, the Nazi supervillian Red Skull, “the New Leader of the Power Elite,” has brain-washed young white men over the internet with “his new theory of the world.” Then cut to a screen of Red Skull next to signs that say, “10 rules for life,” “CHAOS AND ORDER,” “KARL LUEGER’S GENIUS,” and “THE FEMINIST TRAP.”
Do I really live in a universe where Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a Captain America comic featuring a parody of my… https://t.co/CJeeGnc5NA
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@Dr Jordan B Peterson)1617682963.0
But this isn’t about liberals or moderates or centrists or Democrats or independents or socialists. This isn’t a rebuke of racial or social justice causes.
There are two combatants: Jordan Peterson and the Bourgeois Activist Class.
Think of Peterson’s previous book, “12 Rules for Life” (white cover, white font) and his latest book, “Beyond Order” (black cover, white font) as interlocking halves of the same totality. Contrary, yet unified.
Different yet selfsame.
Marxist philosopher Guy Debord closes “The Society of the Spectacle” with a choice, an ultimatum. Do you want Truth? Or spectacle? Truth? Or mass media, boredom, celebrity, endless consumption, lonely crowds, atomized people? We used to connect with each other, as a species. Now all we have is a constant flow of bad movies we’re never in.
“In a society where no one can any longer be recognized by others,” writes Debord, “every individual becomes unable to recognize his own reality.”
Over the course of six months, I wrote 11 drafts of this review, but deleted them all, because they failed to capture something beautiful and unique. I had written the same review as everyone else. And just as shallow. Like theirs, mine lacked a certain practicality. So I tried various styles and gimmicks. I wrote some stunning sentences, a few perfect, gorgeous phrases. Like any person should, I admired my handiwork in the quiet. Grinning at its completeness. Then, every time, it collapsed when I tried embracing it.
It wasn’t obvious that I had really considered Peterson’s ideas — or the ideas of his enemies — let alone put them to use, if only as part of my job. But this was more important than any job. This was a matter of saving the nation.
Like its predecessor, “Beyond Order” can be genred as Philosophical Self-Help. A postmodern version of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
I did not get the impression that Peterson ever excluded himself from statements like, “It is much more psychologically appropriate to assume that you are the enemy — that it is your weaknesses and insufficiencies that are damaging the world — than to assume saint-like goodness on the part of you and your party.”
Peterson mentions his own frailty, his obvious imperfection, repeatedly throughout the book. And not through grit teeth. Not every time.
His approach is a more radical version of Carl Rogers’ “Unconditional Positive Regard,” a “person-centered” counseling technique in which the therapist responds to what the patient tells them, however bad, with total acceptance. The goal is for the patient to cultivate a sense of responsibility for themselves.
The goal is meaning.
Meaning: The ultimate pursuit of Peterson’s philosophy, “something far deeper than mere thought — that orients us properly in life, so that we do not become overwhelmed by what is beyond us, or equally dangerously, stultified and stunted by dated, too narrow, or too pridefully paraded systems of value and belief.”
This isn’t a philosophy text, it’s about 50 years behind the prevailing ideas, and far too approachable. But for a self-help book, it is philosophical. Does that undermine its cultural status? Is it like saying “I saw an episode of Jerry Springer in which everyone wore tuxedos and recited ‘The Aeneid,’ so ‘The Jerry Springer Show!’ can now be considered high brow”? No, not for most people. But it’s part of the reason some of Peterson’s critics see him as a tradition that is fighting erosion.
“Beyond Order” averages a captivating line every few pages, a passage that echoes in you after you read it every chapter. Scattered throughout sections about mythology and hierarchies (I never want to hear about hierarchies again) and the mechanisms of storytelling, personal anecdotes, and LSD wisdom, are fitful sentences of creative intensity. And one tremendous idea — I won’t ruin it.
In his description of Nietzsche’s foreboding eye, Peterson writes, “The incomprehensible level of prophetic capacity remains a stellar example of how the artist and his institution brings to light the future far before others see it.” This has long been a subject of fascination, perhaps even obsession, for Peterson, the idea that a rare human emerges from each zeitgeist with an honest-to-God vision of the future. Does Peterson consider himself one of these visionaries?
More important, should we?
Anyone asking that question will likely have already said no.
The academic criticism of Peterson’s work is more erudite than what you’ll get from journalists, but often just as editorial, with an abrupt tone-change in reviews of his first book, 1999’s “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,” a recondite slog through most of Peterson’s favorite ideas. Some of the criticism borders on gleeful bullying, like Ben Whitham’s histrionic essay, “A postmodern neo-Marxist’s guide to free speech: Jordan Peterson, the alt-right and neo-fascism.”
(While academics and critics have mocked him for using the phrase “Neo-Marxist Postmodernists,” it doesn’t appear in “Beyond Order” a single time.)
But “Beyond Order” isn’t a book specifically for academics. It is a book for restless no ones, in need of a bucket of cold water. For husbands or wives who want to keep improving. For lost souls. For depressed people who can’t answer, “What next?” For atheists. For career-minded people who find themselves stuck and dissatisfied with the direction or pace of their advancement. For undergraduates. For drug addicts, alcoholics. For eating disorder patients. For preachers. For congregants. For people who can’t catch a f***ing break.
For hobby psychologists and amateur philosophers. For aesthetes. Yes, for young men, especially those in need of guidance. But, yes, for young women, too. Yes, for conservatives. But also for liberals, who ought to see what all the fuss is about. For first-time moms and dads, trying to raise a newborn during a pandemic without losing their minds — although, given the book’s length, they’d better go with the audiobook.
Yes and no
Philosopher Jacob Boehme wrote that all things are rooted in a Yes and a No.
For Peterson, Yes is Order — Yin, light, reality, the conscious, the King, Culture, Goodness.
No is Chaos — Yang, dark, potential, the unconscious, the Dragon, Nature, Hell.
He sees this Chaos and Order dualism as undergirding the structure of reality, where Life is the endless collision of opposites, a progression through contraries, dual forces at play, complementary negations, the life-affirming struggle of “an eternal dichotomy.”
He practices a science of contraries that, in the West, dates back to at least Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” and in the East for even longer, so old that nobody knows when it began or who got it started, a philosophy that begins with the pre-dawn silence that contained only nothingness.
Peterson’s intellectual father and mother, respectively, are Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung. In many ways, Peterson is a condensation of their largest ideas.
Like Jung, Peterson believes that “people find meaning in optimally balancing” any polarities. Peterson is also an Existentialist in his belief that life is bloody awful and ruthlessly absurd, but the point of it is to establish meaning, through individual dignity, personal love, and creative effort. Jean-Paul Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”
But, as an Existentialist, Peterson resembles the Christian Existentialist Paul Tillich more than Sartre. As Tillich writes in “The Courage to Be”: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Society of the Spectacle
Over a century ago, Nietzsche predicted 200 years of Nihilism. We have about 70 years left.
Of everything that I studied during my research for this review, “nonbeing” was the most destructive. Far worse than any political idea. Worse than any tragic stories. It led me into a two-week depressive episode. Surrounded by the negation of all life, or so it seemed. Absence. Nullity. Emptiness. I hated that place. I hated that feeling.
To be clear, my research on Nietzsche is what sent me into the spiral, not Peterson’s book.
Reading Nietzsche is like fiddling with a Ouija Board: You’ve got to be careful. Nietzsche is criminally misunderstood, and I’m no doubt guilty of that myself. He’s certainly not a Nihilist. Like Peterson, Nihilism was one of his greatest enemies. It’s just that his wild ideas can be so devastatingly transformative and hard to contain.
Peterson incorporates a lot of Nietzsche’s ideas. (Tell me this doesn’t sound like Peterson: “When a person wishes to become a hero, the serpent must previously have become a dragon, otherwise he lacks his proper enemy.”)
Peterson is fond of Hell as a personification of Bad as a totality, of all the most negative aspects of everything. His characterization of Hell resembles Dante’s, where Hell is the privation of humanity, the image of the human soul turned upside down, inside out, the rejection of love.
Dante’s Hell is full of victims. Self-pitying souls who choose pride over kindness and cry nonstop. (Performatively.) They whine and complain and blame any number of objects or people for their confinement. They boast about the reputation they left behind or the totally excusable sins they succumbed to.
They belong to the void. The negation. The world cratered into grey muddy emptiness. A loose tooth receding inwards.
This possibility terrifies us. If we went extinct, who would tell the indifferent universe how important we had been?
Anxiety often arises from the fear of nothingness. We’re afraid to die; but we’re anxious about the possibility that nothing will happen when we do. Just, zip, then Tony Soprano, no music, no light, no color. But, as anyone who’s whispered into a canyon knows, even total absence will resound with echo, the rippling arrival of one from zero.
What we say is always so much less encompassing and vast than what we leave unsaid, knowingly or not. What matters is the tumult and rise. As Rilke put it, “the darkness of each endless fall, / the shimmering light of each ascent.”
So if the Nietzschean chaos nearly destroyed me, the Jungian order led to restoration. Specifically Jung’s concept of Synchronicity, the meaningful coincidence of inner and outer events that aren’t causally connected, a harmony of parallels. Once I discovered Synchronicity, I was reborn into the world, like the fuzzy afterglow of LSD.
With this newfound clarity, I understood Peterson’s chaotic orderliness better. His admixture of spirituality and positivism.
So I emerged in the dark woods. Now I would need to rebuild myself. “Beyond Order” was there at that exact moment, with no-nonsense instructions, barks, really, cadet calls. I would have to undergo differentiation, to become an individual. We have no sense of direction without establishing differences.
Carl Jung, in the “Undiscovered Self”:
The psychology of the individual corresponds to the psychology of the nation. What the nation does is done also by the individual, and so long as the individual does it, the nation also does it. Only the change in the attitude of the individual is the beginning of the change in the psychology of the nation.
But Individualism alone can lead to horrific outcomes. Not as a concept, but as a weaponized ideology that disregards the wellbeing of the collective, often for insidious reasons. There is no individual without the collective. A baby cannot raise itself.
James Davison Hunter writes, “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.”
Jung achieved this through Mandalas, “circular patterns he etched into notebooks, and through them he observed his transformation.” He noticed that Madalas are common among people experiencing mental anguish. They signify an attempt at repair, a way to pull it together. Yet mandalas have also been used for centuries in Eastern religions for meditation, as a symbol, a relic, a microcosm of the universe.
It’s about the perfection of the all-containing circle. Mandalas always cohere to the harmony of the circle. It’s about the synthesis of so many various parts, like the Jungian archetype of the self, the totality of the personality and mind and spirit and soul, both its conscious and unconscious elements, a united totality like the Tao, a circle, a union of opposites, a play of light and shadow, contained in the whole, always there, resting at the center of it all.
Plato called the essence of thought the interior dialogue of the soul with itself. Hans-Georg Gadamer, described this inner world as “the mirror and the image of the divine Word.” Jung offers the possibility that the relationship between body and soul is a synchronistic one. That matter and mind are one and the same.
Left and right
With his previous book, “12 Rules for Life,” Peterson championed “the merits of a more conservative view of the world.” Chaos.
In “Beyond Order,” he “argues for the merits of a more liberal view.” Order.
Overall, he’s looking for “a balance between reasonable conservatism and revitalizing creativity.”
In Rule 11, he concludes that liberalism and conservatism “both are ‘correct’, but each of which tell only half the story.” He adds, “to develop a properly balanced view of the world of experiences, it is necessary to accept the reality of both elements in culture.”
At one point, he even says that “there is, of course, some value to Marx’s observations.”
The Bourgeois Activist Class obeys then enforces a certain cultural brutalism. French President Emmanuel Macron warned about the effect of “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States.” In a 2019 speech, former President Barack Obama rebuked the new movement: “I get a sense among certain young people on social media that the way of making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people.
They have even earned their own pejorative in Chinese: “Baizuo.”
The activist class overwhelmingly hates Peterson. We know this because we hear all of the Bourgeois Activist Class’s opinions. They’re elites masquerading as the proletariat.
Peterson rails against political correctness (q.v. “Rule 5: Do not do what you hate”), but most Americans don’t like political correctness. Only one demographic does. Take a guess. There aren’t that many of them, really.
From The Atlantic:
Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an “exhausted majority.” Their members “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation. Most members of the “exhausted majority,” and then some, dislike political correctness. Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24. On this particular issue, the woke are in a clear minority across all ages.
So they’re outnumbered, but they’re powerful, and they’re loud, because they have parked themselves next to all the cultural megaphones. A 2020 study in Science Advances determined that “journalists are overwhelmingly liberal — perhaps even more-so than surveys have suggested.” But they are not liberal at all, they are “far to the left of even the average (Twitter-using) American.” Which is quite a statement, considering Twitter itself leans disproportionately left.
In my experience, most of them are decent people, but they are tough to be around. In part because they’re impossible to criticize. They’re a cultural annoyance. But they have power because we’ve all handed it to them.
If the right actually engaged in the culture, they’d have no reason to complain. But at the moment, they aren’t contributing. They generally lack fine culture and hate-fear higher education but refuse to do anything about it.
They need to stop complaining about academia and just learn to engage with intellectual pursuits. More reading. More art. More film. More poetry.
Learn the big ideas, they aren’t all radical. And, when they are, learn them anyway. Actually learn them. Hans-Georg Gadamer: “A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him.”
But this quickly becomes a normative issue: If someone doesn’t respect your values, why the hell should you even so much as acknowledge theirs? As a country, we already live in their world. We already adhere to their value system. Part of the problem is that they not only ignore the values and needs of other people, they want a society that contains theirs and theirs alone.
Why should you have any respect for, or pay any attention to, anyone who thinks you are evil and your life is an abomination? Which actually brings us full circle. Because isn’t that is how conservatives feel about this situation? About the activist class themselves, not their broader causes. As in, “Life would just be easier if they weren’t such a nag.”
It wouldn’t. Their nagging serves an invaluable purpose. They keep us in motion. Humans need to be remodeled, or else life, collectively, can spiral into primitive darkness. After awhile, we begin to lose the fineries that make us so intricate and special.
I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the Peterson phenomenon from every angle, and the activist class seems to be the most heated aggressor. They’re demanding the most and offering the least. Chronologically, however, Peterson was the initial agitator. Otherwise he would still just be psychologist who’s a wacky figure among the Canadian professoriate, and not the most famous public intellectual of an entire generation.
Ultimately, all of us need to calm down with the politics. Politics should not make it into anyone’s top five values. It should stay somewhere near, “This is what my tattoo means.”
Peterson’s solution is helpful for all of this. He’s an agitator. A social gadfly. We need those people around. More important, they will emerge whether or not we want them to.
If something offends you, shrug and move on. Or laugh, if it’s funny. Or probe your unconscious to discover why exactly it offends you, then do something about it. What we have is a devaluation of values.
But also, we need to be cautious about who whispers in our ears. To pay attention to how they frame what they’re saying. In this case, it would be:
1. Jordan Peterson, embattled cultural icon and spiritual advisor v. Hateful anarchists devoted to total destruction, or
2. Fearless, righteous activists v. Jordan Peterson, megalomaniac super-villain aiming civilization backwards.
Because that’s what they’re fighting over: Civilization.
The Bourgeois Activist Class just expresses it with words like “whiteness” and “white supremacy,” and the right uses “Western civilization” and “traditional values.” One wants to transform it. One wants to preserve. In both cases, the argument concerns abstractions that neither side is willing to fully inspect, and not just the ideas of their enemy, although this is a massive problem: that both sides are OK with a straw man for an enemy, lacking all nuance and destined to fail.
Nietzsche: “It is not conflict of opinions that has made history so violent but conflict of belief in opinions, conflict of convictions.”
Here’s what we should all agree on: The Peterson experience is yours to have, to reject, or embrace. Yours to decide.
Many of my fellow journalists have been nasty to Peterson, and I find it problematic, and I feel morally compelled to call them out on it. Of course, Peterson has been nasty in return. Or maybe it was the other way around, in which case I feel morally compelled to call Peterson out, and so on. But too much has since happened for us to know. Meanwhile, conservative media’s eagerness to crown Peterson a conservative hero is equally misguided — at least make the fawning enjoyable to read. As a result, he seems too bored with conservative media to care. There’s no game to it. No play.
Would it be picayune to point out just how much the once-admirable Atlantic Magazine has helped develop this insane… https://t.co/UJBfXxoxBg
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@Dr Jordan B Peterson)1617595146.0
Because Peterson clearly benefits from the hit-pieces, or else he wouldn’t keep agreeing to them. And the activist class gets the satisfaction of having hunted a monster. Nietzsche: “He who lives for the sake of combating an enemy has an interest in seeing that his enemy stays alive.”
Although at times I wonder if they realize this, that they need Peterson alive in order to further their cause, or, more accurately, to help them achieve what passes for profitable fame in this backwoods of an industry. Why else would they be so excessively vitriolic? And, more important, why so Machiavellian? Lately, their cause precedes the truth. Their personal truths supersede actual Truth.
Like the idea that Peterson is an alt-right goon. When, in reality, it’s pushing it to characterize him as conservative. According to Helen Lewis, staff writer at The Atlantic, Peterson’s “conservative principles” include “self-reliance and responsibility.” Another of Peterson’s conservative principles: Valuing marriage.
Why do you hate me so much @helenlewis? I have tried to be a good man. https://t.co/ZhrecqZGU8
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@Dr Jordan B Peterson)1614777603.0
He airs a couple gripes about climate change activists. Doesn’t like the growing corporatized overreach of human resources. He’s one of those anti-academia academics.
But for every supposed conservative idea, he offers as many or more that are inherently liberal. And, even if he didn’t, why would it be a problem?
Several journalists have attacked Peterson’s daughter, and with such obvious, menacing hatred, such internalized misogyny.
I hope nobody is as evil as she and her father are portrayed. I hope nobody is as bigoted as the depictions of his fans.
One reviewer called Peterson “a Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for gormless dimwits.”
Gormless dimwits. What a nasty thing to say about anyone. It’s an abuse of great intellect, that hatred.
But hypocrisy is probably the most consistent insult he faces, always aimed at his character. Which is a fairly typical move in politics and corporate media. Almost as common as the hypocrisy itself, which, as I mentioned in the intro, is not exclusive to the liberal branch of corporate media.
If you’ve read only reviews for “Beyond Order,” you’d assume that he doesn’t address this issue, or else reviewers wouldn’t have accused him of hypocrisy. But he does. “Rule 8: Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.” Specifically, he discusses this meme. Why does the “Clean your room before you try to change the world” guy, who has earned fame trying to change the world, have a messy room?
There is something directly synchronistic and meaningful about that objection because I am not in proper order at that moment myself, and my condition undoubtedly found its reflection in the state of my office. More piled up every day, as I traveled, and everything collected around me … and I put many other things in order during the time my office was degenerating, but I still have a moral obligation in to get back in there and put it right. And the problem is not just that I want to clean up the mess. I also want to make it beautiful: my room, my house, and then, perhaps, in whatever way I can manage, the community.
Despite all this political talk, “Beyond Order” isn’t a political text. Peterson devotes maybe 50 of its 400 pages to politics.
On the subject of God, as well as Truth, Peterson is often accused of equivocation, of hiding banal ideas behind superfluous language. They say his opacity is intentional, that Peterson is performing a magic trick in which the audience convinced themselves he’s a genius, and that his prolixity is just one more hubristic distraction. His supporters see his “I contain multitudes” approach as part of his humanistic maximalism.
When explaining a concept, he doesn’t do himself any favors by choosing a literary approach over a straightforward definition. Yet these literary flourishes lead to some of the book’s most exciting moments.
Stylistically, Peterson is performing something like Flannary O’Connor’s process: “I write to discover what I know.” Nietzsche actually encouraged this approach: “Partial knowledge is more triumphant than complete knowledge; it takes things to be simpler than they are, and so makes its theory more popular and convincing.” So much of higher thought is actually transcendental speculation. In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”
Personally, I prefer to read thinkers and writers whose ideas are too large for me to ever fully comprehend.
Either way, it’s disingenuous to portray Peterson as a smug know-it-all. There’s a lot to learn from Peterson. It’s a lot of sifting. Sometimes it’s a slog, not often, but sometimes. He provides a lot of information, constantly. Some of it may never apply to you. When it does, it has the potential to improve your life.
As always, it’s just a matter of being humble enough to listen. To admit that you don’t know most of what’s knowable, let alone all that just isn’t. You don’t have to go full hemlock on it like Socrates. But it’s actually comforting to admit your own vast inadequacy.
Basically, Peterson’s greatest fight is between nothingness and God. He wants to navigate “the deadly play of opposites,” an inevitable “reality of existence that sees us belittled and undone repeatedly, so that you can find your own unique path to The Highest Good.”
The Highest Good means God. Or God as Peterson defines “God.” Which is the absolute presence of all that is good, anywhere, ever.
Once again, he’s borrowing from Jung, who had an equally complicated vision of God, and playing around with creativity and language as he does.
According to Peterson, you arrive at that Highest Good through courage and love.
In this, he accomplishes something remarkable: He characterizes play in all its potential, as a force of creation, far more than as part of any game. It’s an idea he’s been toying with for years. And he finally lands it. And he does it by embracing the chaos of art.
“Rule 8: Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.”
“Beyond Order” is worth buying for this chapter alone. It could’ve easily run as a standalone essay. In it, he borders on the ineffable, the terrain of creation and art. His description of the mysteries of performance and creativity is wonderful, lovely. He examines the justifiable religiosity of art. Art as a spiritual act, an activity of grace.
His overarching metaphor is the journey, as always, but differently this time. The primary tool is the map. And the quest leads us toward meaning. There is no art without relentless, often dehumanizing, pursuit.
It’s the same interplay we see on repeat.
He forgoes the assumption within the philosophy of aesthetics that beauty, and taste, is part of a formal process, a matter of education, a hobby for the intellectual elites.
Instead, he tells us that every single person needs to maintain a relationship with art. To experience it regularly.
And he’s right. Because art is one form of Truth. There are three: art, history, and language.
In other words: Story.
My wife is a counselor. She’s the one who helped me realize what this review needed to be. She told me about acceptance and commitment therapy.
“A, C, T,” she said. “Accept your thoughts and emotions. Choose a valued direction. Take action.”
What matters to you? Who are you, as a unique person, but also as part of what Czeklaw Milosz called “the always childish book of our species”?
Think about recent events. Did you act in accordance with those values?
When you cultivate a life that feeds your values, you grow, you habituate meaning. But when you are disconnected from your values, you wander in anxiety or depression. You lose track of meaning.
How do those same values accord with the values of the community you live in? The state. The nation. And so on, and so on, on up to the collective. That’s everything. How do you square against everything in existence?
What about the rest of history? Do your values find complement in previous eras? What about humans as a totality?
Which is older: You? Or love?
Do you see the cruelty and magnificence of the world around you? Do you adore the cinema light of your dreams and the intricacy of each heartbreak and every peaceful moment, too? Can you sense the energy you bring to your life, to life itself? And when you look around, as your existence unfolds, who else is there beside you?
Now the barrier between art and reality is gone. We are thriving in the animate lifeform. We are the reflections of ourselves and what we believe. Our language is the continuation of all of our histories and accidents and error.
In a poem, Jorie Graham describes love as “the stillest motion gets.” I understand this with my entire being. I laugh when the timing is just right, Michael Scott, and smile with love for my family and friends, and treasure their great multiplicity. I sigh gently when I hear the grace of a piano as my 1-year-old daughter clobbers across the floor, with her wild eyes and perfect as the evening unfolds softly outside.
Rilke believed that by speaking, by saying the names of things, of anything, everything, we allow God to spirit through us.
This suddenly new version of myself fully understands this. Does your suddenly new version of yourself understand this, too? I float motionless like midwinter leaves clinging to a branch. Do you also float like this?
We used to comb each other’s hair. Why don’t we anymore?
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