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. I am splitting this chapter into three parts because of its length, but also because I think this is such a significant topic that it deserves extra treatment.
This section of the chapter relates to the premise only in an abstract sense, but deals with figuring out how to deal with the world in a way that prevents bitterness.
The first element of this is in dealing with the improvement necessary to act forthrightly within the world.
Well, you already know a lot of things you need to know, although you do not know nearly enough. You understand that, because life is not as good as it could be, and because you are going to die. Obviously, under such conditions, you should learn more.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
This can be thought of as the pathway to humility.
The goal of striving is two-fold. To understand new things, and to understand the degree of what you do not know.
As someone who has dedicated most of my life to gathering knowledge, I think that this is the right way to sum it up.
Anyone who has had encounters with the sublime–and I have several times–will quickly understand that there are big things in the universe.
It’s easy to take these for granted. We do not appreciate the magnitude of the world which contains us, especially in modernity when the globe is essentially open to our travels (or at least the parts of the world that are aligned with our own polity’s regime).
We do not explore it enough.
While the initial thought might be that exploring the world builds contempt, the truth is complicated.
The world is not as noble as we often make it out to be–but that is the subject of the next section.
But we are not so noble ourselves. And compared to the world, we are small.
The chance that we understand the world, despite the advances we have made in understanding the empirically exposed rules that govern it, is nil.
There is the benevolence of nature… there is also the absolute horror that goes along with that: destruction, disease, suffering, and death.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Nature is one place where we often go astray.
As moderns, we think of nature as something that we have lost. People can go quite far down this path, to the point of extremism.
They cite the atomization, the loss of tradition, and the moral decadence and base hedonism of the modern world.
Surely it would be better if such a thing did not exist?
But this is a comparison between two evils. The downsides of modern society are prevalent in the past as well, in the sense that people have always had moral failings and a tendency to eschew traditions unless they are necessary for survival.
And the natural state of man is not something that most people would return to. It is hunger and fear.
The challenge that confronts utopians is this:
You cannot return to a past for solutions to the present, and your solutions for the future have been untested.
I’ve noticed that people tend toward believing that the past is a mythical place of wonders. Perhaps this is the new opiate of the masses, to borrow a concept from Marx (which I normally avoid).
It is certainly true that there is life, and birth, in nature. But there is also death, and sickness, in abundance.
Do not believe that things have gotten worse unless you are prepared to sacrifice all you have. This is the antidote to self-deception.
One consequence of the utopian view of nature is that it leads us to believe that the world is good and that all corruption is both anthropogenic and recent, or at least semi-recent (or recent in geological time-scales, in a sort of inversion of young Earth creationism).
This leads to sentimentality, and the belief that the world is good, almost as surely as a white-washed and self-serving view of God.
Excess sentimentality is an illness, a developmental failure, and a curse to children and others who need our care (but not too much of it).Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem with this is that you come to be surprised by reality.
At the very least, those with the wrong view of nature may believe that people are wicked or society is irredeemably flawed.
The cost of this sort of self-deception is high, but it at least correlates with the truth that there is nothing which is wholly good.
Those who believe that everything is good cannot work suffering into their framework.
The consequence of this is complete disintegration. Not only is it impossible to develop the strength needed to confront the world, but one does not even acknowledge this as a goal!
This flows into Peterson’s chapter better than it does in my own analysis, but Peterson uses the dream as a way of understanding the process of knowledge formation.
The dream serves as the first cognitive step… in transforming that unknown into actionable and even articulable knowledge.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
This is a deeply Jungian notion, and I am in alignment with Jung and Peterson in my own views. Heck, I’ve written out the dream analysis process, so I won’t go too deep into the details of how that works here.
One thing to consider about dreams is that they are a manifestation of confusion. We are always trying to reconcile information, and while we are good at categorizing it–we must be, to engage with the world–we cannot do so perfectly.
There are always unconsidered aspects to any complex topic, and our own limitations are an added factor.
They may be mistaken, of course, if the premises that lead up to them do not derive from truth.
But psychologically they seem to be inerrant, which is a point Peterson makes (along with Jung, who differs from Freud). Puzzling out the meaning of a dream is a way to understand a partially clear but pivotally important point.
This ties into both the notion of deceit and the notion of arrogance. One must be humble enough to recognize incomplete knowledge and honest enough to seek the conclusions regardless of convenience to analyze a dream.
Culture is a manifestation of past and present knowledge and wisdom, a common foundation on which to anchor future discoveries.
The danger is that it is an artifice. It is not something which is natural, nor can it be compared easily to the world.
This is important, because faulty culture leads us astray.
If the map you are using is missing part of the world, you are going to be utterly unprepared when that absent element makes itself manifest.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem with culture is two-fold.
- It must be preserved.
- It must be updated.
There is a scarcity of resources and time to truly preserve culture (mediocre art is offensive–not because of lack of skill, but because the unskilled competes with the valuable), and the endeavor of preservation can be a horrible burden.
But it is necessary, because preserved culture prevents the horrors of nature (the things that go bump in the night) from interjecting their presence to our daily world.
But culture must not be static. Not only is this irreconcilable with freedom, it is also contrary to the needs of civilization.
The problem with stasis is that the world continues to change around culture. Imagine having an honor culture that permitted people to duel in the streets that also had to deal with people posting on social media.
There would be no end to senseless (by our standards) bloodshed. The practical consequences would be grave, even if some problems that we have would not emerge.
The consequence of this is that culture cannot be the realm of the individual. An individual may have an outsized influence compared to the average contributor to culture, but they are never capable of living in their own world–at least not without renouncing everything else that comes with other people.