Yesterday I did an exploration of the first chapter of Beyond Order, Jordan Peterson’s follow-up book to 12 Rules for Life. You can read it here. I’ve made the executive decision that in the future I’m probably going to split each of these into two parts, because I have a lot of other things that I need to be focusing on simultaneously and part of the point of this series is to take a deep dive into the book. Also, WordPress was slowing down as I was wrapping up yesterday, which turned the writing process a tad painful.
I’m reading the Kindle version (Amazon affiliate link), and I’ve been enjoying the experience. I’m not sure what exactly it is, but it seems like the layout and formatting of Beyond Order was done to a much higher standard than most other Kindle books in a way that I can’t quite explain. It’s slick on my tablet.
Who are you?
The opening of this chapter focuses on orienting ourselves in the world, and this trend continues through most of the first chapter.
Peterson is an expert on this with his future authoring program, but another thing that I’d point to as an example of this is the link between his work here and in Maps of Meaning (and the lecture series based on that book/class).
Who are you? And, more importantly, who could you be, if you were everything you could conceivably be?Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
A lot of this chapter will be familiar to people who are already familiar with Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (Amazon affiliate link).
He identifies the individual with the hero, which is something that I now appreciate as a semi-novel approach from Peterson. There’s a little of that in Jung, but a lot of it comes from Joseph Campbell. However, Peterson articulates it more directly in a way that could be summed up as follows:
The goal of life is to undertake a heroic endeavor that reduces suffering and creates beauty.
It’s worth taking a brief foray into aesthetics. Beauty is something that is good, in the sense that it creates pleasure while causing no harm. While this applies to things like art, it also applies to actions that might surprise someone not used to aesthetics.
Peterson’s views could almost be compared to the Romantic idea of the sublime in the sense that it is that which creates awe.
The distinction here would be that beauty brings happiness and ameliorates suffering.
My take on this is that it doesn’t always confront evil directly, but the choice to pursue beauty is an option that forces the exclusion of evil. Not only will inauthenticity and destruction ruin beauty, evil is directly contrary to beauty.
Take-away: Figure out something big and far off, but attainable, that you can do that makes the world a better place.
The Power of Stories
After going into the idea of orientation in the universe, Peterson talks about the power of stories.
Stories become unforgettable when they communicate sophisticated modes of being—complex problems and equally complex solutions—that we perceive, consciously, in pieces, but cannot fully articulate.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
A lot of this will be familiar to people with exposure to Maps of Meaning, but Peterson refines his past work and expresses himself in some superb ways here.
One point he makes slightly earlier in the chapter is that humans carry dormant potential, at which point the idea of stories becomes more important.
Stories are essentially psychological exercise, and deal with a lot of the things that we have to face by showing virtues to develop and pitfalls to avoid.
I think that this point was actually in Chapter 1, but it is relevant here:
Peterson shares an anecdote about his granddaughter identifying with Pocahontas after seeing the Disney movie and playing with a toy, because she realized Pocahontas was a woman figure (but not a mother or child figure) that she should identify with.
The reason that’s important is that there are heroic narratives that can be even greater than mere self-identification, in the sense that they are sublime and consuming.
Another point Peterson raises is that people can’t always articulate things. Stories provide us with experiences beyond our own direct realization.
One power of the aesthetic of beauty as seen in stories is that it provides a clue of how to act. Goodness, or right action, can require a greater articulation than is possible. By cultivating a taste for beauty, understood as the absence of evil, one moves toward goodness before the ability to comprehend it.
The forms that we take over the course of our lives are dormant, according to Peterson, and fiction provides us with power to take up our responsibilities and reach our potential.
Take-away: Find the hero within yourself.
As a reader of Jung and Peterson, the section on alchemy is well-trod territory for me. I have Alexander Roob’s Alchemy and Mysticism (Amazon affiliate link) as a permanent fixture on my desk, though I will confess to not having fully read through it yet.
Here he embarks into territory that is an expansion of his work in Maps of Meaning and draws upon the depth psychologists’ surveys of medieval and ancient thought.
The alchemists regarded the materia prima as the fundamental substance from which everything else—matter and spirit included, equally—emerged, or was derived. You can profitably consider that primal element the potential we face when we confront the future, including our future selves—or the potential we cannot help upbraiding ourselves and others for wasting.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One reason the study of alchemy is of such value to people hoping to understand the human condition stems from their elevated way of thinking about the world as material and spiritual.
Neither is truly independent from the other, at least outside the Gnostic traditions, but there are distinctive domains that belong to each. The materia prima is the bridge between.
Peterson uses this to illustrate the relationship between information and potential in a way that I’m not sure I understand well enough to explain.
However, one of the key ideas here is that things are more active in our psyche than we give them credit for.
Prior to the development of modern science, superstition was pretty widespread, and we probably would prefer to live now rather than then (barring some sacrifices we made along the way).
But there’s a significant point to regarding alchemy that sets it apart from superstition.
I believe this is in Maps of Meaning, but somewhere I was reading about the difference between pre-modern and modern thought. Alternatively, it could have been in Jung’s work, or perhaps even drawn from both.
Alchemy was a systematic school of analytical thought that believed that actions flow out of things.
Newton, an alchemist himself, sealed the fate of alchemy when he realized that there were extrinsic forces that operated upon things, rather than things acting in the world.
Before we had the scientific method, it was perfectly logical to view everything as deliberate agents, even if we didn’t recognize them as equally conscious as us.
The materia prima, then, is an actor. It is not dull. It is not inert. When we view it as a metaphor for human potential, it is saying that we are bearers of both physical and spiritually significant power.
Take-away: The power to act is intrinsic to us, and we should use it for good.
To bring everything to an end, I want to consider the image of Mercurius that Peterson uses to show the nature of external potential.
If we hold the materia prima, Mercurius is the world that has its own meaning and shifting state.
This means that ultimately we cannot live in safety (perhaps ever), and further that we cannot merely will things into existence. People are powerful, but power has its limits.