An analysis of rule 7, “Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)”, the most complex chapter of “12 Rules for Life”.
Looking for the video on the article? Here it is:
We are in the middle of our search for the 12 truths behind the 12 rules for life in Jordan Peterson’s recent bestselling book (see the chapter on rules 1 to 3 and the chapter on rules 3 to 6). In this article we are going to look at rule 7. This chapter was so complex that I decided to dedicate a full article to it.
In this chapter, Peterson analyzes three fundamental problems:
- The tragedy of suffering
- The temptation of evil
- The death of God
For each of these problems, he exposes two fundamental attitudes towards them. Let’s look at them, one by one.
The Tragedy of Suffering
To exist is to have a story, a direction, values. When you don’t get what you value, you suffer. Which means: a certain degree of suffering will be present for as long as you will exist.
How to deal with this? One approach is to follow your impulse to avoid the suffering. This is a losing strategy:
- you immediately make yourself weaker and more prone to running away next time,
- whatever short-term pleasure or alleviation of suffering you get will feel empty, and
- your behavior will make future suffering more likely.
The opposite approach is to voluntarily face your suffering, more precisely, to proactively choose what kind of suffering you will expose yourself to, by letting go of something you value for something you value more: a sacrifice. As a result,
- you will grow a stronger character (and the self-respect associated with it),
- the suffering you face will be imbued with meaning, and
- the probability of future wellbeing will be higher.
The Temptation of Evil
In comes a suffering of higher order. You act in the world and things don’t go well. Why? Perhaps your sacrifices weren’t successful for some external reason. Perhaps your sacrifices were half-assed. Perhaps you refused to sacrifice and are now reaping the consequences. Meanwhile, other people seem to be successful in the world. Whether they deserve it is not clear. Are your efforts insufficient or is it the world that is flawed, corrupt and evil?
A temptation emerges: to diminish and deny, to blame, fight and ultimately destroy the things you value and weren’t able to get (and, perhaps, the people who are associated with those things). They are the source of your suffering, after all! The problem is that you won’t just stop valuing those things, therefore actually making things worse. And when suffering strikes, you will be exposed to its full force, without the shield of something meaningful to strive for. Ultimately, the only way to stop valuing is to stop existing (and some people do reach that conclusion).
The alternative approach is to take on even more responsibility. Become fully aware of the temptation within you to act against your own values. Become fully responsible for your own proclivity for evil. But it’s even deeper than that.
There is nothing you can or should do to constrain the evil in other people’s hearts. In fact, your desire to do so is positively evil, a desire to jump into other people’s sacred freedom to choose what they are about. “Resist not evil”. What to do instead? Act as if you were the source of all evil. This is what it is to “take on responsibility for the world’s sins”.
The Death of God
The last section of this chapter talks about a more recent and perhaps more historically contingent problem, albeit an extremely deep one. It is Nietzsche’s observation that the Christian worldview disciplined the European mind. This discipline gave rise to the scientific method, which in turn undermined the founding dogmas of Christian belief, thus bringing about the death of God.
Here, too, there are different ways to deal with this problem. The first way is to try to ground your life in thought. There are two possible outcomes to this “luciferian arrogance”.
- You might fail to find a rational system that satisfies you, perhaps recognizing that there is no way you can rationally ground your axioms (you need axioms to bootstrap a rational system), and end up nihilistic and hopeless.
- You might be “successful” in generating such a totalizing rational system (read: ideology). The problem with such systems is that they don’t allow for exceptions. If you act them out, anything that doesn’t conform can’t be accepted. If your system is supposed to make you happy you have to repress any nonfitting kind of suffering. If your utopia is the best possible good, people who don’t fit in have to be reshaped or, if resistant to such remodeling, eliminated. The ultimate effect of these systems is dehumanization.
The alternative way is to give up on grounding your life in thought, to give up on creating an intellectual system to act out (which can also be an excuse to wait before you can act), and instead ground your life in meaningful action. Meaning is not something you derive logically, but something that manifests in your embodied experience in the present moment. The most compelling and obvious meaning we know is the absolute negative meaning of suffering for its own sake as found in concentration camps. Let’s work to get away from that. But also in your everyday life your suffering points at something you can work at or that you can learn to bear with dignity. Allow yourself to be guided by the meanings manifesting within you. Reason then takes its natural place as the tool you can use to negotiate between those meanings and integrate them into a system that works harmoniously, always keeping in mind that such a system is never complete i.e. there will always be new meanings cropping up in need to be integrated. With each step we walk with meaning we will be one step further away from unnecessary suffering and one step closer to our full “humanization”, one step closer towards manifesting the ever-receding and ever-beckoning vision of Heaven on Earth.
Conclusion – the Core of the Core
I believe that this chapter, to a certain degree, represents the core of Peterson’s worldview. Here is the core of the core, and the truth at the bottom of this chapter:
Your stance in life is all that ultimately counts. It is more important than your beliefs, more important than your goals, and more important than your achievements. This is the way we treat ourselves. This is the way we treat each other. And this is what actually has the best outcomes, at a personal and societal level.
Expediency, at a fundamental level, is to let action follow thought. You first think about the world, how it works and how you can achieve what you want, then you bend and model your words and actions to achieve it. As you act this way you bend your character, lose your integrity and corrupt the social system within which you operate, and both your soul and the world as a whole inch closer to hell.
Meaning is to let thought follow and inform meaningful action. Your fundamental stance and aim in life has to precede and be independent of any fact about how the world works. Suffering is inevitable? There is evil in the world? There is no way you can accurately and completely model the world, how it ought to be and how to get there? Tough luck. Are you going to aim at the good nonetheless and do what manifests to you as the hard but right thing to do in spite of all of it? That’s all that counts.
This is why Rule 7 is “Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)”
Stay tuned for the next 3 truths about life, coming soon.