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 overview focuses on his chapter about avoiding lies. Check out the first part if you missed it.
The chapter has focused on the reasons to avoid lying, and Peterson makes a bold but intriguing claim that’s worth exploring on its own.
Only the most cynical, hopeless philosophy insists that reality could be improved through falsification. Such a philosophy judges Being and becoming alike, and deems them flawed. It denounces truth as insufficient and the honest man as deluded.Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
Peterson’s focus with regards to honesty is centered on the notion that the world is rarely, if ever, benefited by deception. Tying into Hayek’s economic theories, I believe that some of the reason for this is that people are essentially data collators; they find data and use that data to pursue their interests. In the case of deception, one intentionally denies information that could be helpful or beneficial to the world as a whole to suit their own interests.
In any case, sufficient lies lead to the point where everything that someone has done needs to be re-examined and potentially discarded, replaced with a new paradigm. Either the person must become open with their flawed behavior, or seek total denial and begin anew, sacrificing everything for the comfort of familiar patterns.
Peterson cites Solzhenitsyn and Kierkegaard to raise the point of self-deception. While I disagree with Peterson in his notion that self-deception is typically conscious, I concur with him that it is a major problem. He notes that in the Soviet regime, most citizens denied the nature of their own existence to prevent themselves from coming into opposition with the regime and ideologies they were trained to follow. It was Solzhenitsyn that broke this self-deception for many of them.
Peterson also cites Frankl, who said that an inauthentic life is one of the things that can breed the desire for social totalitarianism, as an individual grows fed up with their chosen lifestyles, built on fallacies, falling apart.
One example Peterson gives is that of the relationship between the over-sheltered child and their parent (he actually uses the example of a son and his mother). By preparing the son for failure, the mother can keep him around forever: and even further, she keeps the position of a martyr and caretaker for a child who she never prepared to face the world. All the while, the son finds himself victim of a society that never delivered him any opportunity at self-salvation, unaware that such things lie within himself and not in external forces.
Peterson is quick to point out that not every failure is the result of dishonesty; honest mistakes and circumstances can account for a large portion of dysfunction in a person’s life. One of the things that impacts how quickly someone can recover from or resist such hardships, however, is the degree to which they are honest with themselves with regards to their abilities and the causes of their problems: rather than blaming them on the world, they claim responsibility for them (something, again, that sounds very familiar to followers of Steven R. Covey’s Seven Habits) and are able to begin fixing the situations they find themselves in.
It is deceit that makes people miserable beyond what they can bear. It is deceit that fills human souls with resentment and vengefulness. It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao. It was deceit that killed hundreds of millions of people in the twentieth century.Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
One of the interesting things about deceit is the way that it needs to stay in motion. Things done right are done right; they are finished and last. Deceit requires effort. Denying something requires a continuation of denial, and each time that denial happens it becomes more and more easily repeated. Each time the denial happens, it also becomes more and more painful to undo.
So there are better paths than deception; one thing is to accept that individuals’ knowledge (and, indeed, the collective’s knowledge) is limited. Traditions can help with that, according to Peterson, but even they need to be monitored and assessed on their own merits, rather than merely adopted because they offer a path.
It is our responsibility to see what is before our eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible— even if the horror of seeing it damages our consciousness, and half-blinds us.Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
Peterson cites Nietzsche, who claims that the value of a man is related to how well he can handle the truth. When we see truth, and truly take a good look at it, it may be unpleasant; the world is not a generally pleasant place, despite what we may make it out to be, and the things that we consider good may indeed be incredibly deleterious to our own Being and our own society.
Things undertaken with the best intention may very well pave the road to Hell, and not just in the afterlife.
Nonetheless, ambitions are helpful. They give goals that cannot be based totally on fallacy, because they require action on your behalf. Using skill and effort can develop a person’s intellectual and moral muscles as they force themselves to confront problems, and allows them to really pay attention to who they are.
According to Peterson, a disciplined person can “feel a state of internal division and weakness” when they are doing something inauthentic; something that goes against what they know to be right. Without discipline, it follows that this knowledge is limited or perhaps unavailable.
Better yet, really paying attention may reveal that what a particular goal represents is not really what is desired; a honest pursuit will enable people to shift away from a dangerous or unfulfilling goal and toward a better one. To sift through the chaos of life, something needs to serve as a metric by which to organize.
Likewise, truth is needed to see when change is needed. Otherwise old things or idealistic things without substance are easily claimed as important.
Truth transcends the people who try to tell it; and the people who are trying to shout about what they have found may not have found truth in any meaningful way, but may be self-deceptive in their efforts, making an attempt to convince themselves that they have found truth by seeking validation from others.
Only by reflection and introspection can one find truth, and truth is worthless if it does not lead to action.
Reflections from 2021
One thing that’s interesting here is that I’ve read a lot of the books that Peterson has referenced either nearly simultaneously to reading 12 Rules for Life. Frankl in particular I read either immediately before or after; I’ve noticed that I was already on an economics trip and reading Hayek, though I now consider Hayek to be less useful than someone like a Rothbard or a Sowell for clarity.
The ironic thing here is that in this chapter Peterson describes self-deception as conscious (at least according to my 2018 reading, which may well have been confused), but in Beyond Order he takes a lengthy approach to self-deception. I suspect I’m reading my interest in the subject of self-deception and applying it to Jung here.
That opening quote still hits like a brick to the back of the head. The idea that only a person who believes that Being is worthy of condemnation would choose falsity over truth is a hard pill to swallow. But over the past several years I’ve come to more or less that conclusion.
It’s still a stark thing to confront, regardless of how truly I believe it. It forces one to realize the degree to which moral compromise seeps into our lives and corrupts us.
I’ll confess to probably not understanding Kierkegaard. I enjoy reading his work, but I haven’t really been able to draw any conclusions from it, nor do I particularly remember any bit of it (probably due to my inability to make meaning of it). However, Solzhenitsyn is someone who’s become very meaningful in my journey to where I am.
I won’t go into too much detail, but Gulag Archipelago is a must-read. The abridged edition is probably sufficient, even according to Solzehenitsyn himself, but I listened to the entire unabridged edition (more than once). It’s a descent into hell, but there’s value to be gleaned from it.
Some of this might be because as a neo-Tolstoyan who lives in the 21st century, it’s one of the primary links I have to other Tolstoyans. It forces anyone, but especially someone like me, who has to deal with the example of one’s spiritual fellows as an example, to confront the full depths of human depravity in a way that few other works can.
I think there’s truth in the inauthentic life leading to totalitarianism per Frankl–I don’t remember if this is something Peterson references or something I drew in from Frankl myself–but I think that it’s wrong in a degree.
The inauthentic life leads to much more than mere totalitarianism that can destroy us, and when totalitarianism is described as a “mere” in correlation to the depths of human suffering that’s a sign of just what sorts of hell the inauthentic life can bring about.
But that is not a subject for this juncture. Jung’s treatment of modernity and post-modernity as spiritually vacuous and insufficient for the purposes of life springs to mind.
Deceit and Misery
A good name for a rock band.
I think one thing that’s noteworthy about deceit is that it can is literally trickery or more metaphysically as that which defies the truth. In 2018 I think I missed this distinction.
The metaphysical defiance of truth is a complex thing, because it amounts to more than just a defiance of truth. It is a defiance of Truth, of Being. It is the anti-purpose.
The problem is that you cannot go very far from pursuing Truth before one winds up outside the boundaries of what works.
And there is nothing outside Truth. This doesn’t mean that everything is true, in the colloquial sense. It simply means that every false belief and every error leads to perdition, and there is no way around this because reality doesn’t conform to anything but Being itself.
It does not take long for those who choose not to live to drag everyone else down with them.
And this causes suffering. It seems more likely that it is impossible to live in true alignment with what ought to be lived than that it is possible to do so.
Confronting the Destroyer
A crisis that everyone who wrestles with the truth must face is that the interior of the human spirit is far from noble. We often dress it up in the air of nobility and provide ourselves with cover for our nakedness–to carry the Edenic comparison further, we all carry the sin of the Fall within us–but in the end we choose between two paths.
- We live in bliss, avoiding our confrontation with the Destroyer.
- We confront the Destroyer, who very often lives up to his name.
A confrontation with the Destroyer is a confrontation with the corruption of the world as it is found within oneself. It is much easier for someone who does not want to do the work to pretend that they are uncorrupted by the world.
This comes with dreadful consequences as an iterative practice, but these consequences can trace back to a causality other than the self, and certainly other than the self’s failure to confront the Destroyer.
The problem here is that the traces do not lead to the root of the problem. Metaphysical issues are difficult to diagnose, and they often hide themselves in spiritual depths.
Further, people aren’t really strong enough on their own to take on the Destroyer, and they know it. It’s an archetypal force and universal, and anyone who thinks that they alone can stand against the operation of the universe is foolish. As a Christian, I’d point to Christ as the source of strength necessary to confront the Destroyer, but there is probably something to be said for the ability of a person to understand the presence of the Destroyer without engaging with it.
The problem is that admitting that you have the thing that devours worlds inside your self (self here being a stand in for the joint ego and unconscious) takes a lot of bravery in its own right. It will force you to accept that your codes of behavior need to be based on something outside yourself, and that you might not even be a suitable judge to find those codes.