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 just finished the chapter dedicated to the fifth rule. This new chapter focuses on the idea of ideology.
As expected from Peterson, who has given this subject a great deal of thought, there are lots of interesting and novel ideas, even for someone who is familiar with a lot of his source materials and the general field of study. He takes a very humble tone about his own abilities, but there’s a reason he’s so popular and it’s the intellectual caliber he brings to this sort of thing.
The First Danger of Ideology: Entitlement
Entitlement is perhaps not a perfect word to describe the initial and pernicious effect of ideology, but it may well be the best one.
The hazard is as thus:
Because I am a good person, good things belong to me.
This is not even the right way to word it. The relationship is more metaphysical and metaphorical; that which is good correlates with other things which are good, and the package should come as one. There is little room in the ideologically possessed mind to separate the idea of one good from another.
We have spent too much time, for example (much of the last fifty years), clamoring about rights, and we are no longer asking enough of the young people we are socializing.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One reason entitlement is so dangerous is because it leaves people aimless. If one believes that mere goodness leads to a good life, then the causal link between action and result is absent. It is not enough to be good, one must be good and act on that goodness, and even then that is no guarantee because the world does not always repay goodness in kind in the short-term (or even in the long-term, which is part of the tragic nature of reality).
This overlooks other complications, of course, but those come later.
The other danger of entitlement is that when one expects nothing from the world it is much easier not to become embittered and resentful. As much as we portray cynics who expect doom and gloom as being negative about the world, they may actually be more resilient in hardship so long as they can orient themselves toward a goal.
This may be surprising because I’m an absolute pacifist, but I don’t believe in the existence of rights, at least as they’re typically conceived of.
Everyone has responsibilities, and those responsibilities include how you treat other people as locations of the divine. The existence of rights, if we bother to pay attention to it, is merely an understanding of the things which human responsibilities toward other humans preclude.
For instance, everyone has a right to live, but it is perhaps more correct to say that every person has a responsibility to respect the life of other people.
Whether or not you agree with this conception, there is a reason I orient myself toward it, and it’s rather simple.
Responsibilities serve as clear and concrete directors of action. They aren’t subject to utilitarian balancing or clever workarounds. There is no way that your responsibility toward someone else can comes second to the notional greater good. You can’t steal for the sake of yourself or for others, because it violates your responsibility to the person you’d steal from. You can’t lie because it violates your responsibility to be truthful.
This is important to keep in mind when considering entitlement because one thing that entitled people do when they don’t get their way is to insist that they have a right to that which they will not receive. We see this in economics with people who demand things that don’t even exist, which should show just how dysfunctional ideology can cause a person to think and behave.
The Second Danger of Ideology: On Nietzsche and Lucifer
I have read bits and pieces of Nietzsche, but not his entire work or even substantial portions of any single book he wrote, at least that I can remember. I think I had to read Ecce Homo in my undergrad, or at least parts of it, but I do not recall most of the text.
However, I am familiar enough to know that Nietzsche is often misunderstood. My familiarity with Stirner, who Nietzsche was accused of plagiarizing–probably falsely both from the perspective of scholarship consensus and my estimation–is much greater and I prefer Stirner’s perspective to Nietzsche’s, at least in my somewhat idiosyncratic take. Stirner is not a clear writer and revels in showing off his complexities without explaining them, but rejects the nihilistic rejection of value that Nietzsche feels is inevitable (or, rather, had passed unnoticed but would soon become known).
As the purpose of human life became uncertain outside the purposeful structure of monotheistic thought and the meaningful world it proposed, we would experience an existentially devastating rise in nihilism, Nietzsche believed. Alternatively, he suggested, people would turn to identification with rigid, totalitarian ideology: the substitute of human ideas for the transcendent Father of All Creation.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
It’s often that we see Milton’s figure of Lucifer conflated with nihilism, but I think it is totalitarianism that serves him better. After all, it is not to be free that Lucifer descends to Hell but rather to be king!
Ideology can take the form of nihilism, of course. There are existentialists who delve into it at length, and we can see such examples in the likes of the dadaists and the bomb-throwing anarchists of the early 20th century (including the one who sparked the first World War), but nihilism is self-defeating. It lacks the elements to perpetuate itself, at least at scale, because its consequences in personal life so weaken that a true nihilist–as opposed to someone who might express nihilistic tenets while operating on unconscious foundations of belief–has no reason to evangelize their beliefs.
Totalitarianism was the drumbeat of the 20th century, and it seems poised to be the drumbeat of the 21st. Perhaps it is even traceable back to the 19th century and earlier to the French Revolution. Certainly Bonapartism was an early example. It is likely to be a natural process within humanity when the traditional beliefs fall aside and there is no longer a living God to raise spirits above the worldly and material.
The Third Danger of Ideology: The Narrow Framework
One issue with ideology is that it establishes in-group and out-group dichotomies and understandings of the world based on simplifications.
This leads to problems when the understanding of friend and enemy dominates over the understanding of human dignity. There may be some place for friend/enemy distinctions (for instance, I would never put a totalitarian regime in the friend camp, and would put it squarely in the enemy camp), but it’s not helpful as a view to the world overall.
The communists produced a worldview that was attractive to fair-minded people, as well as those who were envious and cruel.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
When a totalitarian framework possesses people, it limits their ability to think clearly. The in-group becomes righteous and dissent is intolerable.
I’ve noticed this trend in contemporary thought, in part because I’m interesting (read “eccentric”).
However, I’m going to wrap up this post here because I suspect that there will be similar stuff in the next section.