12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
I don't get what all the fuss is about. Peterson's book is a ultimately just a grab-bag of old-school self-help advice. He tries to do too much and in too short of a book, but his ideas are not particularly radical.
Jordan Peterson's "12 Rules for Life" has been setting the internet on fire lately. The (failing?) New York Times just published a hit piece on the Canadian clinical psychologist and university lecturer, calling him a "celebrity in the men’s rights community" and his "retrograde" views on gender and personal responsibility. What was this guy actually saying? I figured I'd go straight to the source and see what all the fuss was about.
I was surprised to discover that Peterson doesn't actually say anything new and wasn't even particularly provocative. As an autodidact with a voracious appetite for classic literature, Peterson is all-in on the Western canon. His book is bursting with references to and analyses of the Bible, Milton (especially "Paradise Lost"), Nietzsche (particularly "The Genealogy of Morals"), Dostoevsky, and Freud (see "Civilization and Its Discontents").
Unsurprisingly for a psychologist, Peterson is especially big into Freud. He's got a particular fixation on the relationship between boys and their mothers and he repeatedly mentions the psychological damage and dependence that overprotective mothers can inflict. The Freud obsession is a bit old-school but not completely disqualifying. After all, the great Yale literary critic Harold Bloom has Freud prominently featured in his "Western Canon". And like Harold, Peterson takes no prisoners when it comes to the "school of resentment":
tweed-wearing, armchair-philosophizing, victim-identifying, pity-and-contempt-dispensing social-reformer types frequently did not like the poor, as they claimed. Instead, they just hated the rich. They disguised their resentment and jealousy with piety, sanctimony and self-righteousness.
This blatant antagonism towards the postmodern academic left is I think what has actually landed Peterson in the media firing line. He refuses to accept the moral relativism, nihilism, and scientism of the left, but he dismisses these views with a hand-wavy common sense rather than closely-reasoned argumentation. This is a mistake on his part, but again, this isn't a new argument either. Both "Higher Superstition" and "Kindly Inquisitors" are far superior demolitions of postmodern academia and its tyrannical tendencies.
Peterson also inveighs against the neo-Malthusians but again fails to really back up his claims. See "The Bet" for a more thorough treatment of the important and perennially-relevant neo-Malthusian vs. Cornucopian debate. Interestingly, there were also some echoes of David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity" - "Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource."
There's a fair dose of applied psychology in here as well. Peterson is a big fan of Carl Roger's conversational rule that "Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction." I had originally seen this idea in "Poor Charlie's Almanack" and hadn't realized it came from good old Carl! Peterson tosses in a bunch of child-rearing advice in too (mostly along the lines of "You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world").
In the end though, I don't get what all the fuss is about. Peterson's book is a ultimately just a grab-bag of old-school self-help advice. He tries to do too much and in too short of a book, but his ideas are not particularly radical. If you ask your grandma for life advice, she'll tell you essentially the same thing that Peterson does. Granted, his writing is awkward and his tone is a bit off-putting (he's prone to delusions of grandeur), but I found his philosophy on life to be pretty squarely in alignment with the Western canon. Does that make me a crypto-fascist?!
My highlights below.
But the story of the golden calf also reminds us that without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions — and there’s nothing freeing about that.
Wodek is a silver-haired, lion-maned hunter, always on the lookout for potential public intellectuals, who knows how to spot people who can really talk in front of a TV camera and who look authentic because they are (the camera picks up on that).
As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who loves literature, I was drawn to him because here was a clinician who also had given himself a great books education, and who not only loved soulful Russian novels, philosophy and ancient mythology, but who also seemed to treat them as his most treasured inheritance.
Though trained as a behaviourist, he was powerfully drawn to psychoanalysis with its focus on dreams, archetypes, the persistence of childhood conflicts in the adult, and the role of defences and rationalization in everyday life.
Paintings lionizing the Soviet revolutionary spirit completely filled every single wall, the ceilings, even the bathrooms. The paintings were not there because Jordan had any totalitarian sympathies, but because he wanted to remind himself of something he knew he and everyone would rather forget: that over a hundred million people were murdered in the name of utopia.
And then there were also the hours we’d spend discussing what I might call a lesser problem (lesser because rarer), the human capacity for evil for the sake of evil, the joy some people take in destroying others, captured famously by the seventeenth-century English poet John Milton in Paradise Lost.
Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to “make the world a better place” before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within.
Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.
In the West at least, millennials are living through a unique historical situation. They are, I believe, the first generation to have been so thoroughly taught two seemingly contradictory ideas about morality,
The first idea or teaching is that morality is relative, at best a personal “value judgment.”
And so a generation has been raised untutored in what was once called, aptly, “practical wisdom,” which guided previous generations. Millennials, often told they have received the finest education available anywhere, have actually suffered a form of serious intellectual and moral neglect.
Cultivating judgment about the difference between virtue and vice is the beginning of wisdom, something that can never be out of date.
And so we arrive at the second teaching that millennials have been bombarded with. They sign up for a humanities course, to study greatest books ever written. But they’re not assigned the books; instead they are given ideological attacks on them, based on some appalling simplification.
Moreover, by implying that values had a lesser reality than facts, science contributed in yet another way to moral relativism, for it treated “value” as secondary. (But the idea that we can easily separate facts and values was and remains naive; to some extent, one’s values determine what one will pay attention to, and what will count as a fact.)
Scccccratccch the most clever postmodern-relativist professor’s Mercedes with a key, and you will see how fast the mask of relativism (with its pretense that there can be neither right nor wrong) and the cloak of radical tolerance come off.
Because these really are rules. And the foremost rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.
For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way. And that’s much better than happiness.
This was partly because I had spent a very long time researching my first book: studying history, mythology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, child psychology, poetry, and large sections of the Bible. I read and perhaps even understood much of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Inferno. I integrated all of that, for better or worse, trying to address a perplexing problem: the reason or reasons for the nuclear standoff of the Cold War.
So: no value, no meaning. Between value systems, however, there is the possibility of conflict. We are thus eternally caught between the most diamantine rock and the hardest of places: loss of group-centred belief renders life chaotic, miserable, intolerable; presence of group-centred belief makes conflict with other groups inevitable. In the West, we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures, partly to decrease the danger of group conflict. But we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness, and that is no improvement at all.
How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.
RULE 1 - STAND UP STRAIGHT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK
In one of the more staggering demonstrations of the evolutionary continuity of life on Earth, Prozac even cheers up lobsters.
A million and a half separately titled books(!) sell each year in the US. However, only five hundred of these sell more than a hundred thousand copies.
Sometimes it is known as the Matthew Principle (Matthew 25:29), derived from what might be the harshest statement ever attributed to Christ: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.”
This means that dominance hierarchies have been an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted. A third of a billion years ago, brains and nervous systems were comparatively simple. Nonetheless, they already had the structure and neurochemistry necessary to process information about status and society. The importance of this fact can hardly be overstated.
If Mother Nature wasn’t so hell-bent on our destruction, it would be easier for us to exist in simple harmony with her dictates.
All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence — and the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real.
It is for such reasons that I always ask my clinical clients first about sleep. Do they wake up in the morning at approximately the time the typical person wakes up, and at the same time every day? If the answer is no, fixing that is the first thing I recommend. It doesn’t matter so much if they go to bed at the same time each evening, but waking up at a consistent hour is a necessity. Anxiety and depression cannot be easily treated if the sufferer has unpredictable daily routines. The systems that mediate negative emotion are tightly tied to the properly cyclical circadian rhythms.
The next thing I ask about is breakfast. I counsel my clients to eat a fat and protein-heavy breakfast as soon as possible after they awaken (no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip).
Many bureaucracies have petty authoritarians within them, generating unnecessary rules and procedures simply to express and cement power. Such people produce powerful undercurrents of resentment around them which, if expressed, would limit their expression of pathological power. It is in this manner that the willingness of the individual to stand up for him or herself protects everyone from the corruption of society.
There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.
That’s the other, far more optimistic lesson of Price’s law and the Pareto distribution: those who start to have will probably get more.
Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily.
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).
Dare to be dangerous.
RULE 2 - TREAT YOURSELF LIKE SOMEONE YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR HELPING
Recipients of transplants still suffer the effects of organ rejection, despite the existence and utility of these drugs. It’s not because the drugs fail (although they sometimes do). It’s more often because those prescribed the drugs do not take them. This beggars belief.
People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves.
Before the dawn of the scientific worldview, reality was construed differently. Being was understood as a place of action, not a place of things. It was understood as something more akin to story or drama.
Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. It is for this reason that we all have twice as many female ancestors as male (imagine that all the women who have ever lived have averaged one child. Now imagine that half the men who have ever lived have fathered two children, if they had any, while the other half fathered none). It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date.
Elkhonon Goldberg, student of the great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinization (the known, order).
And even if we had defeated all the snakes that beset us from without, reptilian and human alike, we would still not have been safe. Nor are we now. We have seen the enemy, after all, and he is us. The snake inhabits each of our souls. This is the reason, as far as I can tell, for the strange Christian insistence, made most explicit by John Milton, that the snake in the Garden of Eden was also Satan, the Spirit of Evil itself. The importance of this symbolic identification — its staggering brilliance — can hardly be overstated. It is through such millennia-long exercise of the imagination that the idea of abstracted moral concepts themselves, with all they entail, developed. Work beyond comprehension was invested into the idea of Good and Evil, and its surrounding, dream-like metaphor. The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will keep that out. Even if the fortress were thick enough, in principle, to keep everything bad whatsoever outside, it would immediately appear again within. As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.
Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?
But the capacity of women to shame men and render them self-conscious is still a primal force of nature.
Unlike other mammals, whose delicate abdomens are protected by the armour-like expanse of their backs, they were upright creatures, with the most vulnerable parts of their body presented to the world.
“Adam,” calls God, apparently forgetting that He can see through bushes, “Where are you?”
Only man could conceive of the rack, the iron maiden and the thumbscrew. Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate.
The original Man and Woman, existing in unbroken unity with their Creator, did not appear conscious (and certainly not self-conscious). Their eyes were not open. But, in their perfection, they were also less, not more, than their post-Fall counterparts. Their goodness was something bestowed, rather than deserved or earned. They exercised no choice. God knows, that’s easier. But maybe it’s not better than, for example, goodness genuinely earned.
And this is an amazing thing: the answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the Image of God — to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good — but to do so consciously, of our own free choice.
It is true that the idea of virtuous self-sacrifice is deeply embedded in Western culture (at least insofar as the West has been influenced by Christianity, which is based on the imitation of someone who performed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice).
It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.
It is much better for any relationship when both partners are strong.
As the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so brilliantly noted, “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”
RULE 3 - MAKE FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE WHO WANT THE BEST FOR YOU
I did not like teenage parties. I do not remember them nostalgically. They were dismal affairs. The lights were kept low. That kept self-consciousness to a minimum. The over-loud music made conversation impossible. There was little to talk about in any case. There were always a couple of the town psychopaths attending. Everybody drank and smoked too much. A dreary and oppressive sense of aimlessness hung over such occasions, and nothing ever happened
But not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise, although many do, and many manage it.
Imagine the case of someone supervising an exceptional team of workers, all of them striving towards a collectively held goal; imagine them hardworking, brilliant, creative and unified. But the person supervising is also responsible for someone troubled, who is performing poorly, elsewhere. In a fit of inspiration, the well-meaning manager moves that problematic person into the midst of his stellar team, hoping to improve him by example. What happens? — and the psychological literature is clear on this point. Does the errant interloper immediately straighten up and fly right? No. Instead, the entire team degenerates. The newcomer remains cynical, arrogant and neurotic. He complains. He shirks. He misses important meetings. His low-quality work causes delays, and must be redone by others. He still gets paid, however, just like his teammates. The hard workers who surround him start to feel betrayed. “Why am I breaking myself into pieces striving to finish this project,” each thinks, “when my new team member never breaks a sweat?”
Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It’s the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable.
Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power. It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty.
It’s not the existence of vice, or the indulgence in it, that requires explanation. Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too.
As the infamous father of the Simpson clan puts it, immediately prior to downing a jar of mayonnaise and vodka, “That’s a problem for Future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy!”
Maybe I should at least wait, to help you, until it’s clear that you want to be helped. Carl Rogers, the famous humanistic psychologist, believed it was impossible to start a therapeutic relationship if the person seeking help did not want to improve. Rogers believed it was impossible to convince someone to change for the better. The desire to improve was, instead, the precondition for progress.
Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement.
But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light. It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge.
RULE 4 - COMPARE YOURSELF TO WHO YOU WERE YESTERDAY, NOT TO WHO SOMEONE ELSE IS TODAY
Failure is the price we pay for standards and, because mediocrity has consequences both real and harsh, standards are necessary.
We are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be. A very small number of people produce very much of everything.
There will always be people better than you — that’s a cliché of nihilism, like the phrase, In a million years, who’s going to know the difference? The proper response to that statement is not, Well, then, everything is meaningless. It’s, Any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters.
The idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms. Value judgments are a precondition for action. Furthermore, every activity, once chosen, comes with its own internal standards of accomplishment. If something can be done at all, it can be done better or worse.
Consult your resentment. It’s a revelatory emotion, for all its pathology. It’s part of an evil triad: arrogance, deceit, and resentment. Nothing causes more harm than this underworld Trinity.
Religion concerns itself not with (mere) right and wrong but with good and evil themselves — with the archetypes of right and wrong. Religion concerns itself with domain of value, ultimate value. That is not the scientific domain. It’s not the territory of empirical description.
You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price).
The all-good God, in a post-Auschwitz world? It was for such reasons that the philosopher Nietzsche, perhaps the most astute critic ever to confront Christianity, considered New Testament God the worst literary crime in Western history. In Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote: In the Jewish ‘Old Testament’, the book of divine justice, there are men, things and speeches on such a grand style that Greek and Indian literature has nothing to compare with it. One stands with fear and reverence before those stupendous remains of what man was formerly, and one has sad thoughts about old Asia and its little out-pushed peninsula Europe... To have bound up this New Testament (a kind of ROCOCO of taste in every respect) along with the Old Testament into one book, as the “Bible,” as “The Book in Itself” is perhaps the greatest audacity and “sin against the spirit” which literary Europe has on its conscience.
In other words, you decide to act as if existence might be justified by its goodness — if only you behaved properly. And it is that decision, that declaration of existential faith, that allows you to overcome nihilism, and resentment, and arrogance.
It is instead the realization that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.
Aim high. Set your sights on the betterment of Being. Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good. There is habitable order to establish and beauty to bring into existence. There is evil to overcome, suffering to ameliorate, and yourself to better. It is this, in my reading, that is the culminating ethic of the canon of the West.
RULE 5 - DO NOT LET YOUR CHILDREN DO ANYTHING THAT MAKES YOU DISLIKE THEM
If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate? How is it propagated? It’s a one-sided, deeply ideological theory. Even more problematic is the insistence logically stemming from this presumption of social corruption that all individual problems, no matter how rare, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical. Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous.
Was it really a good thing, for example, to so dramatically liberalize the divorce laws in the 1960s? It’s not clear to me that the children whose lives were destabilized by the hypothetical freedom this attempt at liberation introduced would say so.
Rousseau was a fervent believer in the corrupting influence of human society and private ownership alike. He claimed that nothing was so gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state. At precisely the same time, noting his inability as a father, he abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time.
Careful perusal of a book as shocking and horrific as Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, which describes the brutal decimation of that Chinese city by the invading Japanese, will disenchant even a committed romantic.
The !Kung bushmen of Africa, romanticized in the 1950s by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as “the harmless people,” had a yearly murder rate of 40 per 100,000, which declined by more than 30% once they became subject to state authority.
But more often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents — if that — and parents are more, not less, than friends. Friends have very limited authority to correct. Every parent therefore needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children, after necessary corrective action has been taken, as the capacity of children to perceive or care about long-term consequences is very limited.
It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehavior. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgment.
We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, that creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement.
To his great and salutary shock, I picked him bodily off the playground structure, and threw him thirty feet down the field. No, I didn’t. I just took my daughter somewhere else. But it would have been better for him if I had.
People often get basic psychological questions backwards. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery.
A patient adult can defeat a two-year-old, hard as that is to believe. As the saying goes: “Old age and treachery can always overcome youth and skill.” This is partly because time lasts forever, when you’re two.
When someone does something you are trying to get them to do, reward them. No grudge after victory.
Kids do this frequently. Scared parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying.
Dad looked at me. He wanted to know. But he didn’t ask. And I didn’t tell. Don’t cast pearls before swine, as the old saying goes.
Given this, the fundamental moral question is not how to shelter children completely from misadventure and failure, so they never experience any fear or pain, but how to maximize their learning so that useful knowledge may be gained with minimal cost.
Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment far greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world — and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.
If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends. The research literature is quite clear on this.
Limit the rules. Then, figure out what to do when one of them gets broken.
So now we have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.
About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.
And then later, when the younger child confronts you (maybe even in adulthood), you’ll say, “I never knew it was like that.” You just didn’t want to know. So, you didn’t. You just rejected the responsibility of discipline, and justified it with a continual show of your niceness. Every gingerbread house has a witch inside it that devours children.
So here are a few practical hints: time out can be an extremely effective form of punishment, particularly if the misbehaving child is welcome as soon as he controls his temper. An angry child should sit by himself until he calms down. Then he should be allowed to return to normal life. That means the child wins — instead of his anger. The rule is “Come be with us as soon as you can behave properly.”
Here’s a fourth principle, one that is more particularly psychological: parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful. Very few people set out, consciously, to do a terrible job as father or mother, but bad parenting happens all the time. This is because people have a great capacity for evil, as well as good — and because they remain willfully blind to that fact.
Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world — merciful proxies, caring proxies — but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security.
RULE 6 - SET YOUR HOUSE IN PERFECT ORDER BEFORE YOU CRITICIZE THE WORLD
By June of 2016, unbelievable as it may seem, there had been one thousand mass killings (defined as four or more people shot in a single incident, excluding the shooter) in the US in twelve hundred and sixty days. That’s one such event on five of every six days for more than three years.
When the hurricane hit New Orleans, and the town sank under the waves, was that a natural disaster? The Dutch prepare their dikes for the worst storm in ten thousand years. Had New Orleans followed that example, no tragedy would have occurred. It’s not that no one knew. The Flood Control Act of 1965 mandated improvements in the levee system that held back Lake Pontchartrain. The system was to be completed by 1978. Forty years later, only 60 percent of the work had been done. Willful blindness and corruption took the city down. A hurricane is an act of God. But failure to prepare, when the necessity for preparation is well known — that’s sin.
RULE 7 - PURSUE WHAT IS MEANINGFUL (NOT WHAT IS EXPEDIENT)
When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words: that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. Recall, if you will, that the necessity for work is one of the curses placed by God upon Adam and his descendants in consequence of Original Sin. Adam’s waking to the fundamental constraints of his Being — his vulnerability, his eventual death — is equivalent to his discovery of the future. The future: that’s where you go to die (hopefully, not too soon). Your demise might be staved off through work; through the sacrifice of the now to gain benefit later. It is for this reason — among others, no doubt—that the concept of sacrifice is introduced in the Biblical chapter immediately following the drama of the Fall. There is little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human.
Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present — regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others — could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist.
Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings — often precisely those who have watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behavior. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book. Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgmental father.
What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice.
But here’s the rub: sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values (much more on this in Rule 10). If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go.
Socrates’ decision to accept his fate allowed him to put away mortal terror in the face of death itself, prior to and during the trial, after the sentence was handed down, and even later, during his execution. He saw that his life had been so rich and full that he could let it go, gracefully. He was given the opportunity to put his affairs in order. He saw that he could escape the terrible slow degeneration of the advancing years. He came to understand all that was happening to him as a gift from the gods. He was not therefore required to defend himself against his accusers — at least not with the aim of pronouncing his innocence, and escaping his fate. Instead, he turned the tables, addressing his judges in a manner that makes the reader understand precisely why the town council wanted this man dead. Then he took his poison, like a man. Socrates rejected expediency, and the necessity for manipulation that accompanied it. He chose instead, under the direst of conditions, to maintain his pursuit of the meaningful and the true.
Evil enters the world with self-consciousness.
“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” said the Roman playwright Terence: nothing human is alien to me.
“No tree can grow to Heaven,” adds the ever-terrifying Carl Gustav Jung, psychoanalyst extraordinaire, “unless its roots reach down to Hell.”
In the desert, Christ encounters Satan (see Luke 4:1–13 and Matthew 4:1–11). This story has a clear psychological meaning — a metaphorical meaning — in addition to whatever else material and metaphysical alike it might signify. It means that Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity. It means that Christ is eternally He who is willing to confront and deeply consider and risk the temptations posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature. It means that Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil — consciously, fully and voluntarily — in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world.
As the Tao te Ching has it: He who contrives, defeats his purpose; and he who is grasping, loses. The sage does not contrive to win, and therefore is not defeated; he is not grasping, so does not lose.
Christianity put forward, explicitly, the even more incomprehensible idea that the act of human ownership degraded the slaver (previously viewed as admirable nobility) as much or even more than the slave. We fail to understand how difficult such an idea is to grasp. We forget that the opposite was self-evident throughout most of human history.
Nietzsche described himself, with no serious overstatement, as philosophizing with a hammer.
Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life — to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh. Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.”
Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.
In his masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has his atheist superman, Ivan, tell a little story, “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Dostoevsky knew and admitted that Christianity had been defeated by the rational faculty — by the intellect, even — but (and this is of primary importance) he did not hide from that fact
Dostoevsky saw that the great, corrupt edifice of Christianity still managed to make room for the spirit of its Founder. That’s the gratitude of a wise and profound soul for the enduring wisdom of the West, despite its faults.
But the dogma is dead, at least to the modern Western mind. It perished along with God. What has emerged from behind its corpse, however — and this is an issue of central importance — is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing, utopian ideas.
Nietzsche, for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death. But this is the element of his thinking that appears weakest, psychologically: we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls. This was Carl Jung’s great discovery — made in no little part because of his intense study of the problems posed by Nietzsche.
We can, in Popper’s formulation, let our ideas die in our stead.
The socialism that soon afterward became so attractive to me as an alternative proved equally insubstantial; with time, I came to understand, through the great George Orwell, that much of such thinking found its motivation in hatred of the rich and successful, instead of true regard for the poor.
In his Gulag Archipelago, in the second part of the second volume, he discussed the Nuremburg trials, which he considered the most significant event of the twentieth century. The conclusion of those trials? There are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being. This is true essentially, cross-culturally — across time and place. These are evil actions. No excuses are available for engaging in them.
What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong.
And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.
In keeping with this observation is the fact that the word Set is an etymological precursor to the word Satan. See Murdock, D.M. (2009). Christ in Egypt: the Horus-Jesus connection.
RULE 8 - TELL THE TRUTH—OR, AT LEAST, DON'T LIE
What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.
Such speaking and thinking requires the arrogance and certainty that the English poet John Milton’s genius identified with Satan, God’s highest angel gone most spectacularly wrong. The faculty of rationality inclines dangerously to pride: all I know is all that needs to be known. Pride falls in love with its own creations, and tries to make them absolute.
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. It is a philosophy that both brings about and then justifies the endemic corruption of the world.
The prideful, rational mind, comfortable with its certainty, enamoured of its own brilliance, is easily tempted to ignore error, and to sweep dirt under the rug. Literary, existential philosophers, beginning with Søren Kierkegaard, conceived of this mode of Being as “inauthentic.”
“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity.
Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, drew a similar social-psychological conclusion: deceitful, inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism.
With love, encouragement, and character intact, a human being can be resilient beyond imagining. What cannot be borne, however, is the absolute ruin produced by tragedy and deception.
Lucifer, in Milton’s eyes — the spirit of reason — was the most wondrous angel brought forth from the void by God. This can be read psychologically. Reason is something alive. It lives in all of us. It’s older than any of us. It’s best understood as a personality, not a faculty. It has its aims, and its temptations, and its weaknesses. It flies higher and sees farther than any other spirit. But reason falls in love with itself, and worse. It falls in love with its own productions. It elevates them, and worships them as absolutes. Lucifer is, therefore, the spirit of totalitarianism. He is flung from Heaven into Hell because such elevation, such rebellion against the Highest and Incomprehensible, inevitably produces Hell.
What is going to save you? The totalitarian says, in essence, “You must rely on faith in what you already know.” But that is not what saves. What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know. That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be. The totalitarian denies the necessity for the individual to take ultimate responsibility for Being.
The American asks, “Why are there no demons here to keep everyone from escaping?” Satan replies, “This is where we put the Russians. If one tries to escape, the others pull him back in.”
The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n... Here we may reign secure, and in my choice To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
Osiris is tradition, aged and willfully blind. Horus, his son, could and would, by contrast, see. Horus was the god of attention. That is not the same as rationality. Because he paid attention, Horus could perceive and triumph against the evils of Set, his uncle, albeit at great cost. When Horus confronts Set, they have a terrible battle. Before Set’s defeat and banishment from the kingdom, he tears out one of his nephew’s eyes. But the eventually victorious Horus takes back the eye. Then he does something truly unexpected: he journeys voluntarily to the underworld and gives the eye to his father. What does this mean? First, that the encounter with malevolence and evil is of sufficient terror to damage even the vision of a god; second, that the attentive son can restore the vision of his father.
It is the act of seeing that informs the individual and updates the state. It was for this reason that Nietzsche said that a man’s worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate.
In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better.
But both victories had to be purchased at the cost of the conflict engendered by your truth. As Matthew 10:34 has it, citing Christ — emphasizing the role of the spoken Truth: “Think not that I have come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
For that, as Hitler stated so clearly, you need the lie: [I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.
Things fall apart: this is one of the great discoveries of humanity. And we speed the natural deterioration of great things through blindness, inaction and deceit. Without attention, culture degenerates and dies, and evil prevails.
Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource.
Truth will not come in the guise of opinions shared by others, as the truth is neither a collection of slogans nor an ideology. It will instead be personal. Your truth is something only you can tell, based as it is on the unique circumstances of your life. Apprehend your personal truth.
RULE 9 - ASSUME THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE LISTENING TO MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON'T
People like her are the reason that the many forms of psychotherapy currently practised all work. People can be so confused that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation. This is the bringing together of the disparate elements of their lives in a disciplined manner — any disciplined manner. So, if you have come apart at the seams (or if you never have been together at all) you can restructure your life on Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Rogerian or behavioural principles. At least then you make sense. At least then you’re coherent.
People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare — just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree.
He wanted those who practiced his method to uncover and eliminate some of their own worst blind spots and prejudices, so they would not practise corruptly. Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him.
He suggested that his readers conduct a short experiment when they next found themselves in a dispute: “Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: ‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’”
Of this, Rogers notes, “Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.” More salutary words have rarely been written.
This is partly because talking (and thinking) is often more about forgetting than about remembering. To discuss an event, particularly something emotional, like a death or serious illness, is to slowly choose what to leave behind.
RULE 10 - BE PRECISE IN YOUR SPEECH
Emergency — emergence(y). This is the sudden manifestation from somewhere unknown of some previously unknown phenomenon (from the Greek phainesthai, to “shine forth”).
What can possibly compare to the pleasures of sophisticated and well-practised martyrdom? “She’s such a saint, and married to such a terrible man. She deserved much better.” That’s a gratifying myth to live by, even if unconsciously chosen (the truth of the situation be damned).
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 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. (William Butler Yeats,” The Second Coming”)
If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganized and chaotic. Then it will grow bigger and swallow all order, all sense, and all predictability.
If you leave things vague, then you’ll never know what is one thing and what is another. Everything will bleed into everything else. This makes the world too complex to be managed. You have to consciously define the topic of a conversation, particularly when it is difficult — or it becomes about everything, and everything is too much. This is so frequently why couples cease communicating. Every argument degenerates into every problem that ever emerged in the past, every problem that exists now, and every terrible thing that is likely to happen in the future.
RULE 11 - DO NOT BOTHER CHILDREN WHEN THEY ARE SKATEBOARDING
They weren’t trying to be safe. They were trying to become competent — and it’s competence that makes people as safe as they can truly be.
He concluded that the tweed-wearing, armchair-philosophizing, victim-identifying, pity-and-contempt-dispensing social-reformer types frequently did not like the poor, as they claimed. Instead, they just hated the rich. They disguised their resentment and jealousy with piety, sanctimony and self-righteousness.
I believe it was Jung who developed the most surgically wicked of psychoanalytic dicta: if you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences—and infer the motivation.
If the consequences of placing skatestoppers on plant-boxes and sculpture bases, for example, is unhappy adolescent males and brutalist aesthetic disregard of beauty then, perhaps, that was the aim.
Self-Appointed Judges of the Human Race
It has not been long since the Earth seemed infinitely larger than the people who inhabited it. It was only in the late 1800s that the brilliant biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-95) — staunch defender of Darwin and Aldous Huxley’s grandfather — told the British Parliament that it was literally impossible for mankind to exhaust the oceans. Their power of generation was simply too great, as far as he could determine, compared to even the most assiduous human predations.
I have seen university students, particularly those in the humanities, suffer genuine declines in their mental health from being philosophically berated by such defenders of the planet for their existence as members of the human species. It’s worse, I think, for young men. As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect. Their ambitions make them plunderers of the planet. They’re not welcome. At the junior high, high school and university level, they’re falling behind educationally.
Girls can win by winning in their own hierarchy — by being good at what girls value, as girls. They can add to this victory by winning in the boys’ hierarchy. Boys, however, can only win by winning in the male hierarchy.
Boys can’t (won’t) play truly competitive games with girls. It isn’t clear how they can win. As the game turns into a girls’ game, therefore, the boys leave. Are the universities — particularly the humanities — about to become a girls’ game? Is this what we want?
The women at female-dominated institutes of higher education are finding it increasingly difficult to arrange a dating relationship of even moderate duration. In consequence, they must settle, if inclined, for a hook-up, or sequential hook-ups.
The increasingly short supply of university-educated men poses a problem of increasing severity for women who want to marry, as well as date. First, women have a strong proclivity to marry across or up the economic dominance hierarchy. They prefer a partner of equal or greater status. This holds true cross-culturally. The same does not hold, by the way, for men, who are perfectly willing to marry across or down (as the Pew data indicate), although they show a preference for somewhat younger mates.
There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women (and other select groups); successful only because of that domination and exclusion.
Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself — and then there would be nothing worth living for. We might instead note with gratitude that a complex, sophisticated culture allows for many games and many successful players, and that a well-structured culture allows the individuals that compose it to play and to win, in many different fashions.
France’s most famous mid-century philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was a well-known communist, although not a card-carrier, until he denounced the Soviet incursion into Hungary in 1956. He remained an advocate for Marxism, nonetheless, and did not finally break with the Soviet Union until 1968, when the Soviets violently suppressed the Czechoslovakians during the Prague Spring.
Sartre denounced Solzhenitsyn as a “dangerous element.”
Derrida famously said (although he denied it, later): “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”—often translated as “there is nothing outside the text.” His supporters say that is a mistranslation, and that the English equivalent should have been “there is no outside-text.” It remains difficult, either way, to read the statement as saying anything other than “everything is interpretation,” and that is how Derrida’s work has generally been interpreted. It is almost impossible to over-estimate the nihilistic and destructive nature of this philosophy. It puts the act of categorization itself in doubt. It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power.
There are no facts. Hierarchical position and reputation as a consequence of skill and competence? All definitions of skill and of competence are merely made up by those who benefit from them, to exclude others, and to benefit personally and selfishly.
But (and this is where you separate the metaphorical boys from the men, philosophically) the fact that power plays a role in human motivation does not mean that it plays the only role, or even the primary role.
I think, as well (on what might be considered the leftish side), that the incremental remake of university administrations into analogues of private corporations is a mistake. I think that the science of management is a pseudo-discipline. I believe that government can, sometimes, be a force for good, as well as the necessary arbiter of a small set of necessary rules. Nonetheless, I do not understand why our society is providing public funding to institutions and educators whose stated, conscious and explicit aim is the demolition of the culture that supports them. Such people have a perfect right to their opinions and actions, if they remain lawful. But they have no reasonable claim to public funding.
In societies that are well-functioning — not in comparison to a hypothetical utopia, but contrasted with other existing or historical cultures — competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status.
But that doesn’t mean that science — or even deconstructionism — is only about power. Why believe such a thing? Why insist upon it? Perhaps it’s this: if only power exists, then the use of power becomes fully justifiable
Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored (or rationalized away with another appalling post-modern claim: that logic itself — along with the techniques of science — is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system).
Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual.
Nothing inspires self-consciousness, undermines courage, and fosters feelings of nihilism and hatred more than that — except, perhaps, the too-tight embrace of too-caring mom.
It might be objected (as it was, with Disney’s more recent and deeply propagandistic Frozen) that a woman does not need a man to rescue her.
Men enforce a code of behaviour on each other, when working together. Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules. Don’t, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, be a girlie man. Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period. The harassment that is part of acceptance on a working crew is a test: are you tough, entertaining, competent and reliable? If not, go away. Simple as that.
Part of the reason that so many a working-class woman does not marry, now, as we have alluded to, is because she does not want to look after a man, struggling for employment, as well as her children.
When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination. Partly what this means for the future is that if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology. Fight Club, perhaps the most fascist popular film made in recent years by Hollywood, with the possible exception of the Iron Man series, provides a perfect example of such inevitable attraction.
When they quit school, they went to work as rig roughnecks when it was forty bloody degrees below zero. It wasn’t weakness that propelled so many out of the classroom, where a better future arguably awaited. It was strength.
RULE 12 - PET A CAT WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER ONE ON THE STREET
Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations — in the depths — it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick.
So how do you manage? Here are some things we learned: Set aside some time to talk and to think about the illness or other crisis and how it should be managed every day. Do not talk or think about it otherwise. If you do not limit its effect, you will become exhausted, and everything will spiral into the ground.
What shall I do when my enemy succeeds? Aim a little higher and be grateful for the lesson.
It is necessary to be strong in the face of death, because death is intrinsic to life. It is for this reason that I tell my students: aim to be the person at your father’s funeral that everyone, in their grief and misery, can rely on. There’s a worthy and noble ambition: strength in the face of adversity.