This is a series of post on Jordan Peterson’s book ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. It has become popular and it is important to understand why it is appealing to this generation and how it is different from the Gospel. Each post will be on a specific chapter or section of the book and the hope is that we can engage in conversation over these matters. I hope to represent his thought accurately - but due to being human may not always do so.
Summary Chapter 8
Tell the truth, or at least, don’t lie
When we try to bend reality to serve our desires we tell what Alfred Adler called a ‘life-lie’ and become an inauthentic person. When you act out a lie you weaken your character. When a nation is left of nothing but people living a life-lie, of inauthentic individuals, that is when totalitarian regimes can take over because there is no one left with the strength of character to say ‘no, this is untrue’. People are so used to deceiving themselves that they do not know how to speak truth; especially when it requires sacrifice.
You see, to correct a life-lie, to recover authenticity, requires sacrifice. And the bigger the life-lie the larger the sacrifice that must be made. But what Christ showed us is that to bring order to the chaos of our lives we must sacrifice ourselves fully to the truth - to goodness. Every bit of real learning is a little death. Have ambitions - set goals - make order out of chaos - but make those ambitions character oriented rather than status oriented and always be willing to sacrifice yourself for the truth. If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth.
Why are these ideas appealing?
What do you think? Why do you think people are attracted to these ideas?
In Western culture we recognize the importance of truth, even if it is not always practiced. Peterson reinterprets Christ’s life to be radical submission to truth - to reality. And then rightly points out that one of the great problems in many peoples’ lives is their rejection and suppression of the truth - the plain truth. Not truth with a capital ‘T’, but the simple truth in their own lives. They need to quit spending so much or they will go deeply into debt. The relationship they are in is not good for them. They should treat people around them with more respect or there will be negative social consequences. A particular way of thinking is not working out and they need to move on, jettison that way of thought, move on to something different. They need to set boundaries - to say ‘no’ to that abusive or coercive person at work or home.
When we are able to face reality - to tell the truth - to make any sacrifice necessary to align ourselves with reality, then we can begin to bring order to the chaos of our lives and avoid the great lie of the totalitarian state. This message is very appealing because Peterson is right - we do no need to tell truth. We should not live an inauthentic life-lie.
I also think that Peterson’s emphasis on the necessity of sacrifice aligns with something we know to be true. We can think of King Arthur after he killed an enemy king in cold blood and caused war. He recognized his mistake, offered to fight single combat himself instead of wasting the lives of his men and regained his honor. That is a cultural myth that shows an archetype of sacrifice - Arthur recognized he had not shown mercy and he knew he ought to have… It was his sin - his falling short - his mistake - and he did what we know we ought to do - he sacrificed himself - offered his own life. Of course, this myth is post-Christian and we must remember how Christ has influenced culture.
Critique of Chapter 8
Honestly, I liked a lot of what Peterson said in this chapter. I have seen how people living a life-lie have destroyed themselves and their families. It is destructive to lie to ourselves about reality. I enjoyed the chapter.
Where I think Peterson falls short is in his misinterpretation of Christ’s sacrifice and of Christ Himself. Jesus is Truth with a capital ‘T’ - He is The way, The truth and The life and no one comes to the Father but by Him (John 14:6). Jesus did not come to be an example of how we can save ourselves by facing the truths evident to us in our daily lives. Jesus came to give us Himself - the Truth - that we might have life in Him.
Peterson suggests that we can be our own savior - our own Christ - our own sacrifice. If we offer our lives in defense of the truth, we regain our honor and build up our character. However, the Scriptures are clear that only Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to cleanse mankind and renew our hearts. We cannot redeem ourselves. Only the Messiah - the Lamb of God - slain for us, could redeem a lost humanity.
I agree with Peterson that we human are great at suppressing truth in an unhealthy fashion. Unfortunately, Peterson does not recognize that there is one very basic Truth we are suppressing - God Himself. If we read Romans 1, we see that Paul the Apostle also talked about how humanity is suppressing a very basic fact - God exists and is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him and we are all sinners in need of His forgiveness and redemption. The reality of judgment is another fact that humanity is suppressing and yet is acutely aware of… We see that Felix the governor told Paul to leave to avoid facing conviction about God’s judgment and the need to obey His commands.
Acts 24:25 - As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”
Once we have lied to ourselves about Truth with a big ‘T’, how much easier is it to lie in other areas of our lives? Perhaps that is part of what Romans means by being given over to a depraved mind. When we reject God - Truth with a big ‘T’ - we are suddenly susceptible to all manner of lies and rejecting truth with a small ‘t’.
Romans 1:20-23,25 - For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
One other thing missing from Peterson’s chapter is a motivation for telling the truth. Without any absolute morality Peterson’s argument becomes utilitarian - you should do it because it reduces suffering and is optimal for the long term success/enjoyment of your own life, so be a good fellow and hop on board the agenda. But what if someone objects and says that suffering does not bother them? Peterson may label them a psychopath - but he has no real rational basis for saying that they are wrong and he is right. Without a moral law giver there is ultimately no moral law. His argument is actually appealing to a shared sense of morality we have in the West that may not be shared by all cultures, though he has attempted to show that all cultures consider suffering evil. Maintaining this argument requires assuming that assimilation to cultural values is itself a good thing (which it may be for survival), but his argument implies something more than mere pragmatism. He seems to be reaching down to a deeper sense of right and wrong in his emotional appeal, but then trying to keep from admitting it outright in his rational argument. He wants to have his cake and eat it to - to deny God and yet to celebrate the goodness and beauty of Being. I think this is the point at which his argument is weakest.
Quotes from Chapter 8
But I already had an inkling that untruth, however well-meant, can produce unintended consequences.
I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things: I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practise only saying things that the internal voice would not object to. I started to practise telling the truth—or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.
Someone living a life-lie is attempting to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. A life lived in this manner is based, consciously or unconsciously, on two premises. The first is that current knowledge is sufficient to define what is good, unquestioningly, far into the future. The second is that reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices. The first presumption is philosophically unjustifiable. What you are currently aiming at might not be worth attaining, just as what you are currently doing might be an error. The second is even worse. It is valid only if reality is intrinsically intolerable and, simultaneously, something that can be successfully manipulated and distorted.
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.
I have seen people define their utopia and then bend their lives into knots trying to make it reality.
This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues. They adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls.
If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no. If you ever wonder how perfectly ordinary, decent people could find themselves doing the terrible things the gulag camp guards did, you now have your answer. By the time no seriously needed to be said, there
If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character.
Error necessitates sacrifice to correct it, and serious error necessitates serious sacrifice. To accept the truth means to sacrifice—and if you have rejected the truth for a long time, then you’ve run up a dangerously large sacrificial debt. Forest fires burn out deadwood and return trapped elements to the soil. Sometimes, however, fires are suppressed, artificially. That does not stop the deadwood from accumulating. Sooner or later, a fire will start. When it does, it will burn so hot that everything will be destroyed—even the soil in which the forest grows.
An inauthentic person continues to perceive and act in ways his own experience has demonstrated false. He does not speak with his own voice.
Why not complain? Why not take a stand? If you do, other people, equally afraid to speak up, may come to your defence. And if not—maybe it’s time for a revolution. Maybe you should find a job somewhere else, where your soul is less in danger from corruption. For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36)
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.
Sigmund Freud, for his part, analogously believed that “repression” contributed in a non-trivial manner to the development of mental illness (and the difference between repression of truth and a lie is a matter of degree, not kind).
Jung knew that moral problems plagued his patients, and that such problems were caused by untruth.
lies warp the structure of Being. Untruth corrupts the soul and the state alike, and one form of corruption feeds the other.
rationality is subject to the single worst temptation—to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute…It falls in love with its own productions. It elevates them, and worships them as absolutes. Lucifer is, therefore, the spirit of totalitarianism.
Communism, in particular, was attractive not so much to oppressed workers, its hypothetical beneficiaries, but to intellectuals—to those whose arrogant pride in intellect assured them they were always right. But the promised utopia never emerged. Instead humanity experienced the inferno of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the citizens of those states were required to betray their own experience, turn against their fellow citizens, and die in the tens of millions.
How then to envision the future, and establish our direction, without falling prey to the temptation of totalitarian certainty?
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.
Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity.
All people serve their ambition. In that matter, there are no atheists. There are only people who know, and don’t know, what God they serve.
Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.”
For the big lie, you first need the little lie. The little lie is, metaphorically speaking, the bait used by the Father of Lies to hook his victims.
What worked yesterday will not necessarily work today. We have inherited the great machinery of state and culture from our forefathers, but they are dead, and cannot deal with the changes of the day. The living can. We can open our eyes and modify what we have where necessary and keep the machinery running smoothly.
Hell comes later. Hell comes when lies have destroyed the relationship between individual or state and reality itself.
tell the truth is to bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe. Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so that he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness.
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. Communicate it carefully, in an articulate manner, to yourself and others. This will ensure your security and your life more abundantly now, while you inhabit the structure of your current beliefs.
If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth.