I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. Although Peterson did not intend for all the chapters in the book to build on each other, this final chapter seems like a summary of many of the previous elements in the book.
The core focus of this section, which is a reflection on the final part of the final body chapter, is on the reasons why striving for the good is so important despite the presence of truly horrible things in the world.
Striving Against Despair
What is the proper way to define good?
If you’re religious, the answer is simple:
You act in accordance with God’s will.
Of course, we do not know God’s will, at least not perfectly. We certainly can take an educated guess. However, there are always things that are simply beyond our capacity to understand, and the consequence of this is that we can never know for a fact that our actions are perfectly right.
This can serve as a problem, especially where things are not significant enough to be governed by religious doctrine but require an element of moral thought.
Peterson posits a rough way to formulate goodness, which is to take the despairing evil (per the image of Mephistopheles) and do the exact opposite of that.
The failings in the adversary’s logic do not mean that constructing an unshakable viewpoint to counter it is a simple matter. In the most straightforward sense, identifying that vision of objection and vengefulness is useful, in the way that negative space in a painting is useful: it defines the positive, by contrast.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Now, I have a few critiques of this, though it’s certainly correct in some ways.
The absence of one sort of evil is not the absence of all evil. The belief that this is true comes from simplified and dualistic thought and has major pitfalls both in its value as a doctrine and a practical strategy.
Further, it is not so clear that things function in axiomatic dichotomies, though they may be interesting to explore in such a fashion. Good is not necessarily the antithesis of evil, because every single thing has its own defined qualities. The only cases where we can strictly define things as opposites would be in the sense of left versus right, or other strictly physical descriptors. Hot and cold are opposites because they are different measurements of an objectively similar thing, but even this lacks resolution (e.g. there are vastly differing degrees of hot and cold) and is useful only as an abstraction.
This is not to say that there is no value in dichotomies, but we should be careful not to make overly concrete that which is abstract.
Simplification is a necessary cognitive process, but it is only a step.
It’s also worth noting that I am critiquing Peterson by saying something that I suspect he’d agree with, but simply wasn’t the focus in this passage.
However, the question of goodness is something that is fundamentally world-altering, and getting it wrong can have radical consequences.
It is one thing to accept that people might be evil–there are certainly enough butchers in the 20th century that seem to have been aware of their own moral failings and not particularly concerned with justifying them except as a matter of historical necessity–but one danger is that striving for goodness in the antithesis of evil is not always true.
For instance, I strongly oppose communism. It’s led to totalitarian regimes everywhere it’s tried, and many of its underpinning philosophies are inimical to human flourishing.
But I do not think of myself as an anti-communist, because a definition by negation is unhelpful as a tool for striving toward virtue.
The Need to Recognize Evil
The temptation to become embittered is great and real. It requires a genuine moral effort not to take that path, assuming that you are not—or are no longer—naive. The gratitude associated with that state of Being is predicated on ignorance and inexperience. That is not virtue.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Remember that it is not sufficient to “be good” to succeed in life.
The reason for this is that you are not fully capable of being good. It is not so much that you must fail, but that you will fail, or at the very least your best effort will be insufficient.
Recognizing this is the difference between naively pursuing an unobtainable goal and having the hardness and resolve to demand less than you deserve so that you can serve good rather than become bogged down in cycles of bitterness and resentment.
And that’s where gratitude comes in.
“Life is awful, but I am still here and that’s something.”
Of course, this is not a full factor of it. There are things (which Peterson discusses later in the chapter and I will reflect on likewise), that are worth cherishing, and because we cherish them we have invented something like gratitude by default.
The reason naivete is contrary to true gratitude is that it is incredibly fragile. It is a lack of exposure to the tragedy of life.
I, as a pacifist, detest people who are contingent pacifists (e.g. pacifist except for certain situations) or who are absolute pacifists like myself but don’t recognize their own capacity for violence.
The reason for this is simple:
First, there is no merit in saying that you disapprove of things when you don’t like them. This is not as relevant to the task at hand, but is a major flaw in contingent pacifism.
More important, if you do not conceive of yourself as someone who is capable of wickedness, you do not really earn any virtue by steering clear of it.
The proper way to orient yourself in the world is to develop virtue. This does not mean that you deceive yourself about your vices or avoid developing power that you might abuse.
That’s the equivalent of being grateful while naïve. The consequences of “goodness” without virtue are dire because once you get power (or, in this case, once you are disabused of a universal and short-sighted belief in inherent goodness) you wind up turning it to bad ends.
And the consequence of being powerless (or so sheltered that nothing bad ever enters your cognitive schema) is essentially an inability to live. It is a premature death, different only in the maintenance of biological functions from any number of horrible fates.
The solution to the potentially shattering recognition of suffering’s inextricable relationship with reality is something that we might call love, though it is not love in the traditional sense.
We could call it the recognition of the divine or the encounter with the sublime, but this leaves out our element of the relationship.
Love seems the best way to describe this.
What is Love?
Love is accepting something, warts and all, as worthy of pursuit. This is not so radical as it may seem at first, but it still requires a few pivotal definitions.
First, love isn’t about settling. For love to have a relationship to gratitude, it is important that we recognize something as good.
It doesn’t have to be purely good, but it has to be good in the common and low sense–it needs to be a net contributor to the universe.
For instance, I think of house cats as something worth loving. They may be fickle little creatures, and they’re certainly entropic forces as all living creatures are, but they are also something greater.
They are companions that don’t really have any strict desire for a relationship. We’ve successfully bred most dogs to care about people, but cats don’t have the same inherent qualities.
Despite this, cats like us. They’re not always terribly friendly, but there’s something underlying the mammal biology that makes us compatible as companions for each other.
And as a result, we can interact with them.
I think that’s a better metaphor for love because you can’t own a cat like you can own a dog, and this is closer to how we relate to the universe overall.
We don’t really own many things. We may have property rights assigned to things, but that’s still not fully owning and mastering them. For instance, I don’t really own my car. It’s a magic box that gets me from one place to another. I might be casually familiar with some of the broad strokes of its operation (like putting gas in the tank if I want to go places), but the actual function of the machine is beyond me.
Some people have the level of mastery to own things, but they’ll only ever have this mastery over a subset of things in their lives. We can surmise (rightly or not, but it is sufficient for this conversation to say that it’s true in the majority of cases) that people love the things they truly own. This is seen by their devotion to it.
But you need to be able to accept that you don’t own something while still loving it to act for good.
How else could one love a spouse, or a child, or any other sort of acquaintance?
It is nigh-impossible to master another person, and doing so is immoral. Barring the finer philosophical points of self-ownership and the responsibilities one has to respect the image of God in others, the fact remains that once you go into conflict with something you don’t own it, and you will always be in conflict with other people in one way or another.
This is a consequence of the universe, but it doesn’t have to be a conflict that you exacerbate and make worse. You can strive to end conflicts through win-win solutions as soon as you spot them coming, and that will make things better.
If it is resentment and bitterness and the consequent hatred that emerges from that tempting us toward the torment and destruction of everything that lives and suffers, then perhaps it is active love that aims at its betterment.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The desire to leave a situation with everyone better for it is love. It’s hard to feel that all the time, especially because it requires a lot of thought.
You don’t love something passively. We call that taking it for granted, and it’s the sort of thing people associate with regret.
There’s a test to see if you love something, and it’s not a happy test. It’s that you would mourn it when it’s gone.
Mourning and Gratitude
There is a deep part of us that makes the decision, when we grieve for someone we have lost, that their existence was worthwhile, despite it all. Maybe that is a reflection of an even more fundamental decision: Being itself is worth having, despite it all. Gratitude is therefore the process of consciously and courageously attempting thankfulness in the face of the catastrophe of life.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One thing that is interesting and Peterson doesn’t bring up is the Stoic idea of contemplating loss.
You start from the premise that everything you love will one day be gone, and then think about what the proper way to comport yourself in that light will be.
I don’t want to give it transcendental credence or anything, but the technique has some validity and can help you figure out what you really find important.
To get back to Peterson’s point, when you mourn something you are making a statement–or more properly acting out a memorial–that it was good.
This is the sort of low good that I talked about earlier; it’s not the unachievable archetypal good that is the realm of the divine.
And that may seem like it’s less worthy of love, but it’s actually important to love the low good. The low good expresses human potential, it is a deliberate effort to stave off hell.
But it is not divine, and the tragedy of this is that it must in the end pass away.
As a Christian, I believe that those who earnestly follow Christ will achieve the low good in worldly life, and the divine good in the resurrection.
The low good is chosen, deliberately, despite the fact that it cannot redeem the world.
It can only make a stand against it, bring about an effort to make the world less like what it would be without any good at all.
And we mourn it because it was successful, and we seek to perpetuate it into the future.
As morbid as it sounds, you will know you are grateful when you grieve. You shouldn’t seek out suffering, of course. And Peterson himself points out that fake grief is not the same thing as the real deal. It has to flow from the integrated whole, not a deception or controlling influence.
But when it occurs in your life, or when you contemplate the loss of something, you should feel it dearly. There is an etymological correlation between the word dear and expense that has roots in Norse that is relevant here.
The loss of something good should feel expensive, even if it does not create any material uncertainty.
That is mourning, and by extension gratitude.
This hasn’t been a particularly happy note to end Beyond Order on, but it’s something of a sublime one. I don’t know that I’ve done Peterson’s work justice as I reflect on it, and that’s not really the point.
I’m simply sifting through my thoughts on what he wrote, and it has been interesting.
Gratitude in particular is something that I don’t think we pay enough attention to.
I’ve heard it said that people have a duty to be happy. I don’t think this is entirely wrong in a sense, but I think it can make things worse due to its simplification.
You have a duty to be grateful. You should appreciate the things that make life bearable and uplift the human spirit (to say nothing of permitting us to flee the material conditions that plagued us before the advent of such handy inventions as fire and society).
Gratitude is what makes it possible to confront the world forthrightly, because it is the process of identifying that which is good.