Jordan Peterson’s Gnomic Book, Or The Return of Wisdom

In a treatise written nearly seventeen hundred years ago, Gregory of Nyssa makes this important observation: “To say there are ‘many human beings’ is a common abuse of language. Granted that there is a plurality who share in the same human nature – yet in all of them, humanity is one.”

Ancient words of wisdom that speak directly to our times, where “plurality” is the oft-repeated watchword. In our addiction to “progress” we’ve made “plurality” a political virtue, and implemented it as, “multiculturalism,” along with its eager handmaid, “identity-politics.”

Gregory understood long ago, just as we no longer do, that shattering humanity into tribes is the very denial of humanity, where individuals no longer exist – only racial types.

This was the terrible experiment of the last century. But, as with all supposed lessons from history – we end up learning nothing whatsoever. Herodotus was right – history moves in great cycles, because humanity is always bent on repeating all the mistakes of the past – in newer more fulsome ways.

And Gregory also knew that human beings lose their humanity when they no longer understand how to be good. We’ve now confused goodness with modes of self-indulgence, so that altruism is done because it makes us feel good. If goodness is nothing more than feeding some sort of urge, or getting the brain to release feel-good chemicals (endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine), we’re progressed into bestial instinct.

But in our time, even the appeal to bestiality is a good unto itself, where anything that prohibits pleasure is the real evil.

Plurality is an abuse not only of language, but of mankind. What we’ve now fashioned is not progress, but a particular kind of slavery, in that we’re unable to raise ourselves to our humanity, because we no longer know what that could be.

As for all the calls for “culture,” or even the war-cry of “culture-war,” we should heed the words of Simone Weil: “Culture – as we know it – is an instrument manipulated by teachers for manufacturing more teachers, who, in their turn, will manufacture still more teachers.”

How can there be any culture without humanity – and here we must remind ourselves that “humanity” is the moral unity of all human beings. Thus political acts, such as, multiculturalism, are immoral because they destroy humanity.

We’ve come to that point in our “progress,” where we’ve become rather efficient consequentialists (a term created by that brilliant philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe), where morality is nothing more than what seems right at a particular moment.

This has led to all kinds of silliness, like relativism, where everyone has his/her own “truth” that the world, for some reason, really needs to know.

And, because the West is thoroughly consequentialist, the endless cries for justice are nothing but pointless caterwauling, for how can there be justice where relativism reigns supreme (as Anscombe precisely showed)?

But, as many are now happy to point out, humans no longer need the old morality of Christianity; they are now smart enough to fashion their own (with the help of the government, of course, to echo a Monty Python skit about silly walks).

Thus, where the West now finds itself is in an utter state of confusion, or what the ancient philosophers knew as chaos (a term Peterson, rather refreshingly, prefers as well). Order is unthinkable now because order demands morality.

Here, Peterson delves into the mythic realm when he points out that order is masculine and chaos is feminine. This can lead to all kinds of rich hermeneutics on the devastation role of feminism on society and culture, but that would lead us away from wisdom.

In abeyance to chaos, the West can now only fashion idols and fetishes, for it no longer has any root in the moral ground of its history.

Rootlessness is death, and those that imbibe the dictates of secularism (for secularism is nothing more than a political embodiment of chaos) are simply the living dead, who can no longer say why they live, other than to consume, and have a good time, because “anything goes.” We live, indeed, in a Dark Age.

But each barren wilderness must also have its voice crying out the truth, of what has been lost, or what lies in ruins, forgotten – a voice calling us to turn back to the despoiled path which may yet lead us back to our humanity, from where we may again take up the task of building civilization.

This wandering away from truth is the result of the abandonment of masculinity by men – hence the sudden rise of transgenderism.

Such a voice indeed echoes in Jordan Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which is an effortless, graceful, and lively amalgam of wisdom, anecdote and life-lessons.

One of the many, many traditions that the West has lost is that of gnomic, or wisdom, literature. Novels once added to this tradition, but the novelists of today are nothing other than hectoring hucksters (all-too-often females) of the latest social-engineering fad.

And it’s pointless even speaking of poetry today; once the queen of intellectual life, it’s now a foul-mouthed drab on Grub Street, showing not even a hint of its former beauty – a beauty that charmed Homer into metered perfection and comforted the good Boethius all the way to his horrible execution.

As wisdom literature, Peterson’s book hearkens back to the stark realism of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, while relating modern-day parables about the necessity of virtue.

Peterson is attempting the heroic – namely, the inoculation against nihilism and then the introduction of good, wholesome ideas. He succeeds wonderfully well (though confided by the limits of just the one book). And one hopes that this is but the opening shot of a longer and deeper engagement with the malaise of nihilism that afflicts our age.

Many are the naysayers, eager to ululate their defiance, for whom rootlessness and inhumanity are progress. However, Peterson is not interested in addressing them, or even “converting” them to his cause.

Rather, he has taken on himself the task of being the true prophet who must relentlessly point his finger at the moral failings of our age. And these are truly many.

Thus, when we seek virtue, we end up promoting depravity (the tiresome stress on sexuality). When we demand kindness, we set loose unkindness (identity politics). When we hanker after freedom we succumb to slavery (the protection of rights). When we seek to do good, we cannot define the good and thereby unleash horrors (abortion, transgenderism, sexualization of children). When we try to speak of virtue, we implement censorship (the control of “hate speech,” the legal proscription of words and pronouns).

In other words, the West seeks morality, goodness, virtue in all the wrong places, because it no longer understands what these qualities of the soul are. So, instead of “social justice” there is only social chaos (tribalism, multiculturalism, a desultory sort of globalism, a divided, atomized citizenry, and a weakened body politic, where Liberal must destroy Conservative).

This is not what was supposed to happen when the whole world became a Global Village. It was all supposed to be a Utopia of happy humans, moving freely across the face of the planet, where countries and borders did not exist, and where all the people were safely ensconced in the arms of a benevolent government that existed solely to make each person happy and content.

Thus, the “chaos” that Peterson seeks to address in his book is the chaos of the soul, in that each person who now lives in the West must decide where his allegiance lies – with the state, or with humanity (as Gregory defines it). There is no longer a middle ground:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. (“The Second Coming.” W.B. Yeats)

There is so much to correct, so much to set aright. But Peterson’s book is a good starting point – and a rather heartening gesture of defiance at the deformity of this world.

Beginning with the very title, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, we are invited to turn back from our consequentialist tendencies, we are urged recoup our humanity by learning the practice of virtue.

It is here that the “12 Rules” begin to make sense. They are as follows:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you’re responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday and not to who someone else is today.
  5. Do not let your children do something that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful and not what is expedient.
  8. Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they’re skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

When these rules are considered as typologies, a pattern emerges – they fall into three larger categories, namely, the ethical, the physical, and the metaphysical.

In the ethical “ledger” appear Rules 2, 5, 8, and 12. Under the physical, Rules 1, 6, 10, and 11. And under the metaphysical, Rules 3, 4, 7, and 9.

In this way, like Gregory, Peterson is addressing the whole person, because he is addressing the humanity in each of us. It is this humanity that nihilism has so very efficiently sundered from each individual – by problematizing truth and thus denying meaning as a central value to human life.

This modern-day heresy is quickly destroyed by Peterson – “…the meaning of life without positive value is not simply neutral.” And a little later…”We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair…it is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world.”

Given the “epic” scope of his book, how chaos is to be vanquished by order, Peterson understands that he wrestles “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

Therefore, what he offers is the armor with which humanity must gird itself in order to win in the great struggle – which is the replacement of bad ideas with good ideas.

So, it isn’t surprising that Peterson’s oracular book depends so much on the Bible and on Dostoevsky, the former is the magnificent palace in which the West once housed itself, and the latter is one the keenest observers of this vast, but lost, splendor.

The Bible is Scripture and therefore encodes ethics that transform our passions into selflessness. In the realm of the physical, the Bible teaches discipline and the proper management of the self. And in metaphysics, the Bible explains the true purpose of life, which is to nurture the eternal life of the soul.

And Dostoevsky, in his work, understands that without ethics and metaphysics, without God, humans are only animals, who have only nihilism to cling to. ”Without God, everything is possible, even cannibalism,” Dostoevsky famously observed.

Therefore to write is to have a telos (a moral purpose). Writing without a telos is simply, “words, words, words” (to borrow a phrase from Byron).

And what is the telos of Peterson’s book? Here again, Gregory’s ideas become visible. (Of course, I have no way of knowing if Peterson has read any Gregory of Nyssa – but given the fact that Carl Jung looms large in Peterson’s thought, we can proceed on the assumption that good ideas return to mankind when they are sorely needed, so that these good ideas may once again correct and guide people into their telos, which is humanity itself).

Thus, Gregory, like Peterson, speaks of freedom, not in the debased manner of today (as some political agenda), but in its proper sense – that freedom is the expression, or even the consequence, of love. In other words, true freedom can only come with true love. And what is this true love? The Golden Rule. This is also the beginning of wisdom. This is why the Bible states that God is love.

Because Peterson is adding to the great tradition of wisdom literature, what he offers in the pages of his book is also something very ancient, yet always immediate – namely, human life as first enstatic and then ecstatic; or, how we are to proceed from enstasy to ecstasy.

Enstasy is that discipline of examining your life, as if from a distance. (This is the true Classical basis of Hindu and Buddhist meditational practices). Gregory explains: “So when people look at themselves they see in themselves the One they are seeking…‘The Kingdom of God is within…’” This is precisely the essence of Peterson’s book.

Ecstasy (a term severely misunderstood) is the discipline of examining our life as integral to the entire world. When we learn to transcend our particular suffering, we become truly human. Gregory puts it this way…”The fire that is hidden and as it were smothered by the ashes of this world…will blaze forth and with its divinity burn up the husk of death…What is hidden within will cover up completely what is seen on the outside.” It is this fire that Peterson tends and stokes in his book.

Thus, it would be wrong to say that Peterson’s book is simply to be read for “lessons” (though it may be read this way). Rather, it is a truly gnomic book, a book of wisdom, and therefore a book of love. The rules, the anecdotes, the distillation of many years of learning found in its pages are the slow doling out of this love. And this true love burns away all the dross of chaos.

Here, again, is Gregory…”When perfect love has driven our fear, or fear has been transformed into love, then everything that has been saved will be a unity growing together…”

Peterson offers something much needed in this barren age – the return to wisdom, for good ideas alone can create the good world. And wisdom alone is the perfect antidote to chaos.

 

The photo shows, “Under the Yoke,” by Eero Järnefelt, painted in 1893.