Posts Tagged ‘Nietzsche’

How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.


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The individual must be educated to such a high degree that he would rather have his throat cut than tell a lie, and would think it easier to be slashed with a sword or pierced with a spear than to utter calumny or be carried away by wrath.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 136)

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality from under one’s feet.

(Twilight of the Gods: Friedrich Nietzsche)

There are two kinds of book that normally cause me problems: books about physics and books about philosophy. My shelves are populated with many such volumes whose bookmarks stall about halfway through, just about where good intentions foundered on the rocks of complete incomprehension.

At last, though, I’ve found a philosophy book that I could finish and not only that: I could follow its main lines of argument relatively easily and immediately see their relevance to our problems today. This is the book.

Neiman’s starting point is to renege on the ‘non-interference pact’ in which philosophers agree not to meddle with the details of history as it unfolds and historians sign up not to interfere with morality. She sees it as critical that philosophical acumen is brought to bear on political realities. Once she has asserted her right to participate in the debate, she proceeds to argue that the typical understanding of the relationship between religion and morality is flawed. In her view, though deeply intertwined, they are essentially independent. Her position, though, is not simplistic (page 112):

To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil.

While I still think it is possible and rational to argue the case for a different relationship between religion and morality, one which places our idea of God not just our idea of good at centre stage, her position leads to some interesting possibilities not least a revision of the current distortion of the enlightenment viewpoint. This is typically seen to be atheist with a potentially lethal utopian view of the power of reason (see John Gray’s Black Mass for an eloquent example of this view). By contrast she contends (page 126):

The Enlightment took aim not at reverence, but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed progress is necessary, only that it is possible.

She goes on to add that the Enlightenment also confronted torture and inherited privilege. She sees it as referring back to Plato’s belief that truth, beauty and goodness are connected. She goes onto examine in detail its commitment to ‘happiness, reason, reverence, and hope.’

She focuses on the thinking of Kant, for example the way he treats the discrepancies between is and ought. She summarises this by saying (page 153):

Ideals are not measured by whether they conform to reality: reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals.

She argues that (page 158-159):

The gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be is too great to be bridged by good intentions. . . . . Ideas are like horizons – goals towards which you can move but never actually attain.

She is wonderfully clear about the relationship between happiness, virtue and social progress (page 177):

Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.

She sees this as an essential corrective to self-righteous abuses of power, especially if we focus on the other person’s concept of happiness not our own. This is very close to the Bahá’í view where we are urged to focus on ploughing our own furrow straight rather than causing ourselves to stray off line by picking holes in our neighbour’s ploughing.

She seeks to correct what she regards as a fundamental misconception of the Enlightenment view of reason (page 190):

One nearly constant theme [of the Enlightenment] was the idea that reason is not omnipotent.

Nor, she feels (page 194), was reason set up as opposed to feeling but rather to its bête noire: ‘authority based on revelation, superstition, and fanaticism.’ Reason, she argues, is what enables us not to be restricted by our biology: we have become able to create our own ends, and should not simply become means to other people’s ends (pages 202-203).

She follows this analysis with detailed examinations of examples through which she seeks to rehabilitate the tarnished concepts of heroism and evil. Her treatment of these nicely complements Zimbardo’s psychological approach, which he explores in depth in The Lucifer Effect.

At the end of the 450 pages of this excellent and supremely accessible book, where does she leave us?

Other posts on this blog, for example on the nature of reflection and the limits of reason, explain in depth why I can’t accept as a complete and adequate explanation her view that reason alone is the means for our transcendence. However, much else that she derives from this argument is compelling.

For example, a key point she makes is that moral conviction and a sense of evil have been highjacked by powerful interests and thereby devalued in the public eye. They need to be reclaimed and put to proper use if we are to understand the nature of the realities that confront us and which demand appropriate and proportional responses.

We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to fear that certain actions – whether we privately feel guilty about them or not – could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.

She concludes her analysis, before moving on to considering particular examples, by stating in ringing terms (page 380):

Evil presents an unacceptable gap between ideals and reality; judging something to be evil is a way of setting limits on what we are willing to endure. The language of good and evil is vulnerable to exploitation because it’s the most powerful language we have. . . . . To abandon talk of evil is to leave that weapon in the hands of those who are least equipped to use it.

This book raises serious and important issues and reflects deeply upon them. While I do not agree with everything she says, I respect the way she says it and have to acknowledge that she has significantly deepened my understanding of these themes.

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the direction our civilisation is taking. And it’s readable enough for me to have finished it – no mean achievement for any author writing from a philosophical perspective.

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