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 four parts because of its length, but also because I think this is such a significant topic that it deserves extra treatment.
This particular section focuses on two things: the role of the individual (and the two orientations that they often fall into–the hero and the adversary), and the way to avoid resentment. While I am only looking at a very short length of the book (I am reading on Kindle, but it is probably less than ten pages worth of print), I think it might be the most important part.
The hero is the axiomatic version of the beneficial individual. Just as the wise king and the nurturing mother represent things functioning as they ought, the hero is the individual living their purpose.
So, there exists a hero and an adversary; a wise king and a tyrant; a positive and negative maternal figure; and chaos itself.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Chaos is the fabric that underpins reality. It is not so much that chaos is mercurial (though it often can be) but that it is undefined that creates the issue. At least something that is understood and undergoes a transmutation still has a historical connection to something comprehensible.
The hero’s role is to essentially mediate between chaos and order. By venturing into the unknown and making it known, they are fulfilling something like the role of humanity.
Of course, it may not be that humans have a teleological purpose in exploring the unknown, even if there is a divinely ordained path for them to follow.
But it seems to be evident both philosophically and practically that turning the unknown into the known is a worthwhile pursuit. It permits us to have a better quality of life, for one thing, but it also allows us to deal with problems as they arise and avoid the pitfalls that our progenitors fell victim to.
The hero is not always a creator and not always a revolutionary. They are not even always noteworthy, at least in a societal sense. But they are invaluable.
One element of the hero is that they engage in right action, or at least strive to engage in right action–the former is more likely in archetypal depictions of the hero in fiction, the latter is the best most people get to achieve in reality–and this is really the best antidote to all the suffering in the world.
It is not simple, of course. Few people would admit to engaging in wrong action, or at least willfully doing so. They may justify being enthralled by their character flaws, but at least they consider some element of themselves as doing good.
The hero does not accept this. The hero seeks–or must, by nature of circumstance, move toward–improvement of the self. This means humility, honesty, and an outlook toward the world that permits the idea that things, while unfair, are not hopeless.
Peterson doesn’t explore the concept of the adversary at great length compared to the figure of the hero, but I think it’s an important space to investigate.
The adversary is a Miltonian figure. They are Lucifer deciding that it is better to be the king of hell than a servant in heaven.
Embodying the adversary has a certain romantic appeal. It is certainly the case that when one conceives of the world as wicked and destructive, opposition to that world is not so obviously bad.
The consequence of this, however, is the destruction of that which is not wicked, the wheat thrown out with the chaff.
Nature is dichotomous. While it is certainly often destructive and wicked, it is not always so.
I am careful not to paint things as benign, and even more careful about painting them as benevolent.
The world does not operate in that way.
But to believe that things are malevolent is a step that leads as far away from truth as the belief that things are benevolent (and Peterson discusses this later, so I’ll bring it up again when I get to his comments on the source of resentment in a moment).
The consequence of embodying the adversary is that you become a force of malevolence.
If a man kills a killer, it does not reduce the number of killers in the world.
At the very best, a “benevolent” adversary accomplishes no amelioration of the suffering that he detests. Even if he is correct at identifying a source of problems and destroying them, there will never be a shortage of problems.
The hero is necessary, not the adversary (but do not conflate the adversary, an antagonistic figure, with the archetypal Destroyer who can play the role of the hero in certain situations). This is because the hero can establish something new, where the adversary is defined in opposition to that which exists. Even the Destroyer in a heroic role seeks to create room for growth, whereas the adversary is blind to this potential.
The issue with resentment is that it is a logical approach to the world.
The world is unfair.
Now, the world has not made any explicit promises. That does not reduce its unfairness. Odds are that some people are going to suffer more than others. Because values are subjective, even if it doled the suffering out equally there would be people to whom the suffering is more dear than others.
In any case, suffering does not correlate inversely with virtue. It correlates, albeit not exclusively, with vice, but the cunning or powerful can offset this suffering to others.
And even those with the ability to escape suffering can become resentful.
You are resentful because of the absolute unknown and its terrors, because nature conspires against you, because you are a victim of the tyrannical element of culture, and because of the malevolence of yourself and other individuals. That is reason enough.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Resentment is nothing more than giving up on the world. It is also nothing less, and that should be terrifying.
Resentment is the belief that no change in the action of an individual can reduce suffering.
And this seems right, given that virtue does not always reduce suffering. It may even increase suffering, since someone who earnestly seeks to sacrifice in pursuit of a better future may still be wrong about the qualities of their investment and merely give up something that could have been good for a hope that never materializes.
But the embrace of resentment always leads to greater vice, and therefore greater suffering. There is no way around it. The end of striving is not mere stasis, but a continual degradation.
The solution to resentment is heroism.
This is not such a simple task. It is difficult to become a hero. It requires sacrifice and risk, and that is not a cheap option.
It almost certainly requires a role model, though there might be rare people who come to it through some other external force. We would not generally consider it an intrinsic quality of people.
But the reason why heroism is important is that there are things outside the individual which people can tap into when they align themselves with the diligent pursuit of absolute truth and virtue.
And then there is the other half of the story: the treasure that the dragon hoards, the benevolent element of nature, the security and shelter provided by society and culture, and the strength of the individual. Those are your weapons in times of trouble.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
When people become integrated in a Jungian sense, or overcome their vices and foster their virtues, or follow the path of Christ, they are engaging with things that go beyond themselves and transcend the mundane world.
The benefits of this are great, because even though they do not eliminate suffering from the world, they may create pockets of reality in which suffering is manageable and good things are present.
And that’s enough to build a wall against resentment.
It’s the difference between being Abel and being Cain, and that has a significance much greater than simply being the murdered or the murderer.
The reason for this is that when you act with scorn toward the world you receive back something similar. You may be scorned by the world for all your good efforts, but at least you have not amplified that scorn when you behave in the proper fashion.
Further, there is something transcendent in the hero. It is likely to function first at the level of the individual, and someone like myself would dispute whether it can even function at any collective level. It is something that is prone to echo and ripple outward from people who actually adopt the heroic mantle, but this is more of a matter of emulation than any mystical change in the world.
Becoming the hero means taking some part of the unknown and making it known. When you do that there is a much better chance that what comes out of the chaos is useful to you, and by extension useful to other people. We do not benefit when things ambush us in the dark.