Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient

For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). This chapter, covering Peterson’s seventh rule, builds heavily on previous chapters and helps combine a lot of the previous ideas together.

As I’ve said a couple times before, this isn’t a review. I’m just using this post as a way to reflect on what I’ve read and commit it to memory (though readers are more than welcome to use it to pique their interest in the book or compare it to their own findings). A full review should be coming once I finish the book.

It’s nice to have a moment in this book to really reflect and put everything together; Peterson’s writing is typically accessible, with moments of complexity and depth that slow down the flow and require a lot of thought. Even with reading reflections, I have to be honest that some of the parts of the book have been going quick for me and I was hoping for a recap.

At the same time, this chapter is rich with Biblical metaphor, so it might be something that a lot of people wind up disliking because of what it is. However, it serves as a nice little breather before Peterson moves on to his next topics.

Here’s some brief highlights:

  • Sacrifice is linked to the notion of preparation; by putting something away now, we prepare for later.
    • This is then expanded to giving these resources to other people, or even to causes (or deities).
    • Because the behaviors associated with sacrifice are so beneficial, even a wasted sacrifice predicts success.

Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgmental father. That’s a good start. But two additional, archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work— which is sacrifice now, to gain later.

One of the things that I found really interesting about this section is how devotion and sacrifice are linked with preparation and pro-social behavior. This isn’t a huge jump, but I’d always considered them to be independent but aligned while Peterson argues that they are all sort of manifestations of the same phenomenon. I think he makes a pretty good point as he develops this argument.

We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.

I like the notion of Peterson’s bargaining. I was reading some of Hayek’s works on evolutionary economics a few months ago, and it sort of laid out this baseline about how people make decisions economically, but it didn’t really present any sort of argument that aligned with how things like sacrifice work out (except, of course, “for the furthering of offspring, which is really a biological imperative”, but that argument’s a little thin sometimes).

  • The real nature of sacrifice is the resistance of temptation; avoiding the act of evil.
    • Evil is defined as unnecessary suffering.

Conscious human malevolence can break the spirit even tragedy could not shake. I remember discovering (with her) that one of my clients had been shocked into years of serious post-traumatic stress disorder— daily physical shaking and terror, and chronic nightly insomnia— by the mere expression on her enraged, drunken boyfriend’s face. His “fallen countenance” (Genesis 4: 5) indicated his clear and conscious desire to do her harm.

Peterson’s work is heavily influenced by the horrors of the 20th century (though in a refreshing twist, he does not succumb to the nihilism that many have embraced), and it is interesting to see how he has been building analogies between the greatest horrors that people can commit and the everyday life of people. While I think there’s some danger there, I think that he does a good job of talking about peoples’ “inner demons” that need to be confronted in order for people to really become what they could be.

I read something today about how “The Last Jedi” is considered by many people to be the worst of the Star Wars films because it breaks with the archetypes (something I’d agree with, though I actually felt the film was passable with some weak points), but I think there is also another point to be made along these lines. Peterson’s argument in this book is simple: “You can rise above the chaos if you are able to know your limits and overcome them.”

Star Wars was always about overcoming limits; it was about the boy from a desert planet who went beyond what anyone could expect to make the galaxy a better place (twice, though it wasn’t quite successful with the prequels).

“The Last Jedi” just didn’t provide that for a lot of people, and I think that’s why we see so much of a backlash against it: gone is the space opera swords and sorcery, and instead in its place is a critique of the way the universe works. Instead of bearing a message of hope, it has a confused and unclear message that is equal parts dark and light.

It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted they would).

In a sense, I suppose that the backlash against “The Last Jedi” could really come back to this Nietzschean sense of God’s death; in an increasingly skeptical and secular society, the only hope is to have a collective belief in a brighter future (or return to the old religious ways, but there are many people for whom that is not considered an acceptable outcome), and the direction that the plot took is more aligned with the nihilism that the earlier Star Wars movies embraced.

  • The problem with solving problems is that we forget that those problems existed.
    • For instance, with organized Christianity there was a backlash against what was seen as undue social control.
    • Order and sacrifice are necessary to even build what we would consider free will: those who cannot resist temptation don’t really live a life, merely follow currents.
    • Christianity as a philosophical movement ended slavery and changed the view of the value of human life in the Western world.

This means that the central problem of life— the dealing with its brute facts— is not merely what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering, but what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering and evil— the conscious and voluntary and vengeful source of the worst suffering.

This is an interesting point, and I think it’s a little above my pay grade, but that’s never stopped me before.

While I find the premise of this interesting, it’s worth noting that one of the things that Peterson says is that, in essence, we’ll always find new problems over the horizon. Nobody who read his work seriously would take that as a defeatist statement, but rather there’s an interesting point to be had here.

What problems have we forgotten about? Where are our abandoned primordial struggles?

This one will probably linger with me for a while, since it’s not only a compelling thought but a worrying one: we are so future-oriented we forget our past.

  • Sacrifice is part of the things that make people advanced; they begin to consider things beyond simply what are known and instead have a mind for what is hoped for.
    • Likewise, the lack of sacrifice is often a sign that something is wrong. It can mean that we have exploited others to achieve our goals, or that we are settling for things that are not what they could be.

Expedience— that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s covering the blood you just spilled with a carpet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong.

Peterson’s most dramatic language in the chapter comes up when he talks about this notion of expedience, and how people will ignore the consequences of their actions if there is a perceived greater end (the end justifies the means, in other words).

I think that this is something that we need to be especially aware of in today’s society. We are so unerringly driven, and encouraged to be in such a fashion active in our society, that we forget that we need to approach our lives in a way that respects our existence in the universe; it may be appropriate to make great changes, but it can also lead to great death, chaos, and evil to forget what is truly important and sacrifice the wrong things.

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