Revisiting 12 Rules for Life: Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient

Note: This is a repost of a blog series that I started in January 2018. Because this was prior to the blog being syndicated on PeakD, and it was some of my most-viewed content on the old blog. I’m going to be editing these slightly, but I’m also going to be adding my own thoughts as I re-read what I wrote. You can find the original post here.

For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). This chapter, covering Peterson’s seventh rule, builds heavily on previous chapters and helps combine a lot of the previous ideas together.

As I’ve said a couple times before, this isn’t a review. I’m just using this post as a way to reflect on what I’ve read and commit it to memory (though readers are more than welcome to use it to pique their interest in the book or compare it to their own findings). A full review should be coming once I finish the book.

It’s nice to have a moment in this book to really reflect and put everything together; Peterson’s writing is typically accessible, with moments of complexity and depth that slow down the flow and require a lot of thought. Even with reading reflections, I have to be honest that some of the parts of the book have been going quick for me and I was hoping for a recap.

At the same time, this chapter is rich with Biblical metaphor, so it might be something that a lot of people wind up disliking because of what it is. However, it serves as a nice little breather before Peterson moves on to his next topics.

Here’s some brief highlights:

  • Sacrifice is linked to the notion of preparation; by putting something away now, we prepare for later.
    • This is then expanded to giving these resources to other people, or even to causes (or deities).
    • Because the behaviors associated with sacrifice are so beneficial, even a wasted sacrifice predicts success.

Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgmental father. That’s a good start. But two additional, archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work— which is sacrifice now, to gain later.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

One of the things that I found really interesting about this section is how devotion and sacrifice are linked with preparation and pro-social behavior. This isn’t a huge jump, but I’d always considered them to be independent but aligned while Peterson argues that they are all sort of manifestations of the same phenomenon. I think he makes a pretty good point as he develops this argument.

We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

I like the notion of Peterson’s bargaining. I was reading some of Hayek’s works on evolutionary economics a few months ago, and it sort of laid out this baseline about how people make decisions economically, but it didn’t really present any sort of argument that aligned with how things like sacrifice work out (except, of course, “for the furthering of offspring, which is really a biological imperative”, but that argument’s a little thin sometimes).

  • The real nature of sacrifice is the resistance of temptation; avoiding the act of evil.
    • Evil is defined as unnecessary suffering.

Conscious human malevolence can break the spirit even tragedy could not shake. I remember discovering (with her) that one of my clients had been shocked into years of serious post-traumatic stress disorder— daily physical shaking and terror, and chronic nightly insomnia— by the mere expression on her enraged, drunken boyfriend’s face. His “fallen countenance” (Genesis 4: 5) indicated his clear and conscious desire to do her harm.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

Peterson’s work is heavily influenced by the horrors of the 20th century (though in a refreshing twist, he does not succumb to the nihilism that many have embraced), and it is interesting to see how he has been building analogies between the greatest horrors that people can commit and the everyday life of people. While I think there’s some danger there, I think that he does a good job of talking about peoples’ “inner demons” that need to be confronted in order for people to really become what they could be.

I read something today about how “The Last Jedi” is considered by many people to be the worst of the Star Wars films because it breaks with the archetypes (something I’d agree with, though I actually felt the film was passable with some weak points), but I think there is also another point to be made along these lines. Peterson’s argument in this book is simple: “You can rise above the chaos if you are able to know your limits and overcome them.”

Star Wars was always about overcoming limits; it was about the boy from a desert planet who went beyond what anyone could expect to make the galaxy a better place (twice, though it wasn’t quite successful with the prequels).

“The Last Jedi” just didn’t provide that for a lot of people, and I think that’s why we see so much of a backlash against it: gone is the space opera swords and sorcery, and instead in its place is a critique of the way the universe works. Instead of bearing a message of hope, it has a confused and unclear message that is equal parts dark and light.

It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted they would).

In a sense, I suppose that the backlash against “The Last Jedi” could really come back to this Nietzschean sense of God’s death; in an increasingly skeptical and secular society, the only hope is to have a collective belief in a brighter future (or return to the old religious ways, but there are many people for whom that is not considered an acceptable outcome), and the direction that the plot took is more aligned with the nihilism that the earlier Star Wars movies embraced.

  • The problem with solving problems is that we forget that those problems existed.
    • For instance, with organized Christianity there was a backlash against what was seen as undue social control.
    • Order and sacrifice are necessary to even build what we would consider free will: those who cannot resist temptation don’t really live a life, merely follow currents.
    • Christianity as a philosophical movement ended slavery and changed the view of the value of human life in the Western world.

This means that the central problem of life— the dealing with its brute facts— is not merely what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering, but what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering and evil— the conscious and voluntary and vengeful source of the worst suffering.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

This is an interesting point, and I think it’s a little above my pay grade, but that’s never stopped me before.

While I find the premise of this interesting, it’s worth noting that one of the things that Peterson says is that, in essence, we’ll always find new problems over the horizon. Nobody who read his work seriously would take that as a defeatist statement, but rather there’s an interesting point to be had here.

What problems have we forgotten about? Where are our abandoned primordial struggles?

This one will probably linger with me for a while, since it’s not only a compelling thought but a worrying one: we are so future-oriented we forget our past.

  • Sacrifice is part of the things that make people advanced; they begin to consider things beyond simply what are known and instead have a mind for what is hoped for.
    • Likewise, the lack of sacrifice is often a sign that something is wrong. It can mean that we have exploited others to achieve our goals, or that we are settling for things that are not what they could be.

Expedience— that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s covering the blood you just spilled with a carpet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

Peterson’s most dramatic language in the chapter comes up when he talks about this notion of expedience, and how people will ignore the consequences of their actions if there is a perceived greater end (the end justifies the means, in other words).

I think that this is something that we need to be especially aware of in today’s society. We are so unerringly driven, and encouraged to be in such a fashion active in our society, that we forget that we need to approach our lives in a way that respects our existence in the universe; it may be appropriate to make great changes, but it can also lead to great death, chaos, and evil to forget what is truly important and sacrifice the wrong things.

Reflections from 2021

This is my best overview so far. I think I was pretty frustrated with a lot of the things that I’d done in the previous reflections and chose to make this one a lot better.

Now, there is an odd tangent into Star Wars about halfway through. I’ll still stand by it (Star Wars was my favorite sci-fi franchise for a long time), but it’s interesting because I think there’s actually a better level of understanding demonstrated by that ability to link to something outside the text. I’d made a few oblique references in past reflections, but I’d never gone so far to generalize things to my more traditional field of study (e.g. storytelling).

One thing that I notice is that Peterson really tries to make everything stand on its own in each chapter, but he’s also building everything together in a way that you can’t really remove one chapter and expect the work to make sense. A critic might say that he’s saying one thing twelve different ways–or twenty-four ways, if you count Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link)–but I think there’s more to it than that.

I think that one of Peterson’s struggles is that what he tries to explain is perhaps beyond human. He might also be in error on some points (though it is worth noting here that it is perhaps better to err with a significant thrust toward truth than not to endeavor at all), but I think that there’s an element of that in everything.

What I get the vision of when I assess Peterson’s work is a grand cathedral dome. It is large enough that it needs to be held up by several pillars and it is painted with magnificent images, but you can’t see all of it from within it. Of course, I have some advantage here because I’m familiar with a lot of the myths and Biblical stories that Peterson draws from, and I also have a background (now, though not at the time of this piece’s writing) in Carl Jung and other similar thinkers.

A result of this is that I may be at a point sufficiently beneath the dome to see it in something that approaches its entirety. However, the danger of that lies in begrudging the painter his scaffold as he decorates. I am certainly in disagreement with Jung on many points, but that does not mean that I disrespect him. I simply believe that he saw through his own perspective, as Peterson does. Peterson may have a greater advantage because of the time in which he lives and the single-mindedness in which he has pursued his life goals falling in a somewhat less esoteric domain than Jung’s.

Sacrifice

One place where Peterson hits the mark with high resolution, as far as I can tell, is in his concept of sacrifice. There is something about sacrifice that we run away from in this modern era.

When we slow down and think about it, sacrifice is the act of setting something apart and making it holy. In fact, if something is holy it is often said to be set aside for a divine purpose.

Let us consider the idea of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is that which we have but do not use for petty benefit. We set aside it for some good (in the moral sense) which typically comes in the future and which has greater value.

One prerequisite for sacrifice is a developed structure of values. It is not enough to know what is good in a vague sense, that knowledge must be concrete enough to serve as a conduit to action.

For instance, and I know I bang on about this, I am a pacifist. I have set all violence aside (and I define violence fairly broadly because of my Tolstoyan influences) because I believe that doing so creates a much greater good than what I could achieve if I justified my actions and sought my greatest advantage.

Of course, one could protest that this is the right way to live, but I think people don’t understand that the rejection of violence is also the rejection of any control over others beyond the word–and further, a constraint to only truthful words.

This requires a fair amount of consciousness about one’s own actions. If deception is essentially indistinguishable from a violation of pacifism, since it is an attempt to force others to take a course of action that you could not honestly articulate is in line with their interests, this is not a mere injunction against lying.

Rather, it’s a cause for self-examination.

And even in a less extreme case, self-examination is what we do when we sacrifice for the future or for a greater good. Because it requires us to align action to virtues, we must understand our values in order to sacrifice effectively.

Nihilism

The antithesis of sacrifice is nihilism.

And I think people do not understand nihilism very well. Nihilism is the deliberate absence of values. This is obviously destructive, but it does not usually manifest in the ways that its critics would argue.

The average nihilist does not shoot the archduke of Austria or throw bombs in Haymarket Square.

Rather, they do not live up to their potential. The absence of values justifies almost any way of life, which is comforting in many ways. But it prevents sacrifice from ever holding any meaning.

If we were to return to Star Wars for a moment, I think the problem with Star Wars is not that people rejected it but that it rejected itself. There were moments in the sequel trilogy that I enjoyed, though I think you could probably still cut all three movies down into the runtime of a single movie and be equally coherent while keeping all the good stuff.

The problem is that it had no overarching spirit. There were occasional beats intended to show inspiration and resolve, but the question was always, “resolve to do what?” It was limp in the backbone. As much as the acting and special effects tried to carry it through, it ran into the limit to the use of purpose as a commodity good.

We cannot purchase purpose wholesale and off-brand. It must be discovered and understood, then turned into a concrete value. I think that this is one of the major values of religion, though I’m religious myself so there might be a cop-out here.

But off-brand purpose is not what we saw in the original trilogy. Almost every action was part of a dichotomy between rebellion and an evil empire that really amounted to a conflict of liberty versus power.

Naive as its friend-good enemy-bad storytelling may have been, it was still infinitely more meaningful because it gave something worthy of sacrifice to consider.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.