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 found this chapter interesting because it follows Peterson’s tradition of taking an unexpected approach to traditional problems.
Normally, one would expect some focus on aesthetics in a chapter with a title like this, and while Peterson certainly appreciates the idea of aesthetics he does not lay out a particular ideal. That’s probably for the best, though some hints at what Peterson likes (namely the poetry of William Blake) shine through.
Make It Beautiful
The first reason to engage with beauty is that it is virtuous. It is the product of striving, which itself holds a certain value for purifying and edifying the spirit. Not that all art is morally uplifting–I think of the likes of Rosseau when I say this–but it helps to try.
If the choice is between listening to the guy who tried, and listening to the guy who didn’t try, the odds are in your favor when you go with the person who actually tried to change the world. for the better It doesn’t take much discernment (though sadly it’s a skill some people entirely lack) to see who is making a legitimate effort and who is driven by bitterness and resentment, as one of Nietzsche’s tarantulas preaches life in order to destroy.
If you study art (and literature and the humanities), you do it so that you can familiarize yourself with the collected wisdom of our civilization. This is a very good idea—a veritable necessity—because people have been working out how to live for a very long time.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
There’s some power here. The previous chapter talked about the role of tradition in our lives, namely how we should adhere to it as novices and seek to explore its edges and reform it as masters (I may read a little of myself into Peterson’s argument here).
Lacking anything else, a pursuit of beauty is an attempt to recognize the good in life. I’ve written about that before, but it contains an element of the positive archetypal Fool.
The role of the Fool is to transcend the tragedy of life by presenting something better that we can choose to live by.
When you consider it that way, the point of pursuing beauty is to overcome the misery that can consume our lives.
However, art is often an attempt to communicate value. We point at (with our fingers and our eyes) things we find interesting or important. Those who create art have made something to orient toward, and they have chosen their subject from among all other possible subjects.
This resonates to me as a writer, since my own writing focuses on things that I consider important. I’m not so heavy-handed as to address my philosophy openly in my fiction (barring some of it touches on things that I would consider dangerous for readers if I stated it directly; there are some things that must be earned and not given).
The Power of Beauty
Another thing about beauty is that it has its own innate power. It’s not always clear to me how best to describe this. I’ve already gone on at length about heroic striving, and beauty is something heroic.
You will speak more precisely, and other people will become more likely to listen to and cooperate productively with you, as you will with them. You will become more your own person, and less a dull and hapless tool…Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The strength that comes from looking for beauty is important. For all the things that heroic striving can do within you, beauty functions without.
Appreciating beauty changes how you present yourself in the world, and I say this as someone who wears a t-shirt and jeans all the time.
The difference is that beauty is a connection. It’s got an element of preference, but understanding a preference is important. When you share preferences (or perhaps more appropriately have compatible preferences) with someone else, you have a bond between them.
One cost of modern atomized society is that people lack aesthetic preferences. They may have stated preferences, and revealed preferences, within the context of human action.
But these are economic, not aesthetic, preferences. They involve the functioning of the household (see the roots of the word economics), the bare necessities of life.
Aesthetics move beyond that.
It is simple to see something as pretty or cool or easy on the eyes.
But formulating a conception and working relationship with beauty involves making a preference, and those preferences can be a bridge between people.
The Loss of Perception
Like all relationships, one’s relationship with beauty must be maintained.
One’s relationship with beauty shifts. Because appreciating beauty is an interaction, we become practiced in our acts of connection until they become rote and lose their meaning.
And this is a natural consequence, in part, of learning to reject things and prioritize. What once seemed important will, at some point, seem less important than something new and on the cutting edge.
I knew perfectly well that I was missing out on beauty and meaning and engagement, regardless of whatever advantages in efficiency my impatience brought. I was narrow, sharp, and focused, and did not waste time, but the price I paid for that was the blindness demanded by efficiency, accomplishment, and order.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The consequences of becoming efficient are that things which are inefficient fall away.
And the cost of aesthetics is often setting aside efficiency. Unless you find beauty in the efficient–I love both sleek and minimal lines and boxy utilitarianism, so my personal preferences for simplicity and abstraction follow this path–this can make life rather difficult.
And even if your preferences align with efficiency most of the time, you won’t always have the opportunity to engage with beauty while pursuing other values.
The result is that one must consciously and actively pursue beauty, because failing to do so means jeopardizing your connections (see above) and therefore becoming isolated and alone.