Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 23, Life is Suffering. Don't Make it Worse.

We continue with Peterson's reflections on Satan and the nature of evil from Maps of Meaning

Recall, this discussion in the book is exploring the "two brothers" archetype, the eternally "twined" choice between Christ and Satan. (To be clear, these "choice twins" are symbolized differently in different religions.) 

Peterson describes the satanic option before us this way:

Evil is voluntary rejection of the process that makes life tolerable, justified by observation of life's terrible difficulty. This rejection is presumptuous, premature, because it is based on acceptance of a provisional judgment as final: "everything is insufficient, and is therefore without worth, and nothing whatsoever can be done to rectify the situation." Judgment of this sort precludes all hope of cure...Suffering cannot be disbelieved away, however: rejection of the process that constantly renews the positive aspect of the "constituent elements of experience" merely ensures that their negative counterparts gain the upper hand. Such additional torture--added to that already considered sufficient to bring about hatred for life--is sure to produce a character motivated to perform acts worse than mere suicide.

If you know the work of Jordan Peterson you know that this is an important piece of his message and worldview. If we consider Peterson a preacher, this is the climax of his sermon to the world. 

If you've been following this series you're well aware of Peterson's central message: Order the chaos. Slay the dragon. But layered on top of that message is Peterson's view of evil and the satanic.

Here we encounter an existential theme in Peterson's worldview: Life is suffering. By "chaos" Peterson often means pain. And in the face of that suffering we stand before a choice. I can act to make things better, or I can act to make things worse. I can make life easier, or harder. And not just for myself, for everyone in my sphere of influence. 

Life is suffering, will you act to add  "additional torture"?

Let's imaginatively step into what Peterson is describing. My life is a mess. A dead end. Not worth living. I stare into a nihilistic void. All is pain and ashes. My marriage, my family, my relationships, my job. The day I'm facing is intolerable. I've come to hate life. I stare at existence and the dragon stares coldly back at me. 

At this fork in the road I face a choice. The "twin" choice of the brothers. Christ or Satan? 

On the one hand, I can act heroically, moving into the void in a way that moves life toward order and wholeness. I can do my small part to make life easier and more tolerable. For myself and others. I can ease the pain. Soothe the suffering. I can act redemptively. I can push back the darkness. I can slay the dragon.

The other choice before me is the satanic. I can choose evil, "the voluntary rejection of the process that makes life tolerable." I can bitch at my wife. Yell at my kids. Nurture resentment at my asshole boss. I can actively participate in making life worse, for me any everyone. I can nihilistically tear everything down. I can let the dragon win. I can cultivate and nurture hatred for life. I can add additional torture.

If you really want to see Peterson get on a soapbox with his audiences, here is it. Are you going to make life better or worse? Are you going to affirm or hate existence? Life is suffering, don't make it worse. That's the fundamental choice facing you every moment and every day. Are you going to act heroically or add additional torture?

This message is the pathos of Jordan Peterson, where his heart steps into his philosophy. I'm well aware Peterson is a polarizing character, but he really does, to my eye, seem to feel the pain and suffering of life. His clinical practice has attuned him to the suffering of his clients. He's a philosopher who openly weeps when he's talking about this choice we face. This is why he's so compassionate toward young men becoming hopeless and nihilistic, hating life more and more. He feels their pain. 

How to classify the thought of Jordan Peterson? The label that comes to me today is that Peterson is an agonistic existentialist. What do I mean by that? Well, a lot of existentialism--life is meaningless and full of suffering--can tip into the nihilistic, cynical, detached, hedonic, or ironic. But Peterson sees those choices as evil. Satanic. Hatred of life. 

Peterson's existentialism is, by contrast, agonistic. The word "agonistic" comes from the Greek word "contest." As Peterson has described it, life is a contest, an arena of heroic performance. I like how William James describes this agonistic existentialism:

If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

True, life is suffering. But that suffering is a call to the heroic. Enter the arena as a contestant. Get up and make your bed. Don't make life worse, make it better. You're in a fight. 

Don't let the dragon win.

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