Philosophy

An Open Letter to Vox Day, Regarding Dr. Jordan Peterson

Dear Vox,

I enjoy reading your work. But it is a different kind of amusement I experience than normal, reading your criticisms of Dr. Jordan Peterson. It’s not that your criticisms are inept, or even completely wrong, but they convey a misunderstanding that is tragically mirrored in the misunderstanding I see in my friends and family members to whom I try to explain your ideas.

I think the problem lies in communication style. You are, first and foremost, a dialectician. You may play the rhetorician, and you do it well, but anyone who has read both your debate books about the Existence of Gods and the Question of Free Trade after having read your rhetorical works like SJWs Always Lie and Cuckservative can see that your heart is in the syllogism. I know this based on your minimal to absent tolerance for non-syllogistic thinking, in commenters or in virtually anyone else. You literally have to convert ordinary debate into pseudo-syllogisms (the enthymeme) to find it tolerable. This is not a criticism. Your subsequent precision is one of the reasons I enjoy your work so much.

Unfortunately, it’s also a reason why you are often misunderstood, dismissed as an asshole, or as ridiculous. It may also be why you have a hard time with intellectuals (or humans generally) who are not dialecticians.

Jordan B Peterson is not a syllogistic thinker. This, too, is not a criticism, and I suspect it is why you have a difficult time taking him seriously (it is also probably why you have a hard time taking Nietzsche seriously). So I will attempt to take what I feel are your four biggest criticisms of JBP and answer them in a more direct fashion. Those four criticisms are:

  1. Jordan Peterson is an Existential Relativist
  2. Jordan Peterson is controlled opposition
  3. Jordan Peterson’s philosophy will hurt people
  4. Jordan Peterson is nuts

The quotes are not exact words, but summaries of your arguments in my own words, based on having read and listened to all of your criticisms of JBP in aggregate, as of today.

Existential relativist:

Jordan Peterson is an existential relativist. He is elaborately restructuring his reality in order to avoid emotional pain (gamma behavior), and instead of rejecting the claims of the post-modernists (that reality is unknowable, infinitely interpretable, and that each interpretation is equally valid), he is in fact accepting the claims of the post-modernists and synthesizing them with classical views.

Jordan Peterson does not reject the objectivity of existence and the world. He is actually a pretty ordinary existentialist. The claim is not that reality isn’t real, but that our measurements of reality aren’t as foundationally “true” as our experiences of reality. Peterson holds pain to be objectively true within this domain. The claim that pain is objectively real makes JBP an existential realist, because he believes that the rest of the world can be built on top of that solid foundation.

Source (5 min video).

Controlled opposition:

Jordan Peterson is being pushed by mainstream media as a “right-wing” intellectual so that he can gate-keep the Alt-Right.

Peterson never claimed to be of the right. He has sympathies for some right-wing positions (like respect for tradition as a starting place), but he has always claimed to be a classical liberal. This makes his opposition to the Alt-Right entirely normal.

But just because someone is being pushed by the mainstream doesn’t mean that they are necessarily serving their interests. When Hillary’s campaign information came out, we learned that she had donated to Trump’s primary campaign. Obviously, she had thought she could divide the candidates and hurt Cruz, thus increasing her chances of winning the general. But it didn’t turn out that way.

The mainstream outlets that are now pushing Peterson haven’t the faintest idea what it is they’re even supporting. To them, he’s just a popular guy with some edgy ideas. But he is telling people that the school system is corrupt and that the modern left is pathological. He’s telling men to be prepared to fight (source, 2 min video). It’s possible that the short-term effects of his advice will harm the Alt-Right, but because the identitarian position is the natural one for healthy and self-confident people, his practical advice for being assertive, combative, taking responsibility, and getting your own life in order will ultimately help the Alt-Right in the long-run.

He would be the worst possible choice for moderate-right controlled opposition, exempting maybe Jocko Willink or Mike Rowe.

Harmful:

Jordan Peterson’s philosophy is a bandaid on a bullet wound. By turning people’s attention from existential threats like immigration, globalism, Islam, and the progressive left, and channeling it inward to petty tasks like room-cleaning, Peterson is preparing the West for an even more horrendous war. By trying to run from the problem, he’s making it worse.

Peterson is not saying “don’t fix the world.”

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The reason people joke about groaning when their parents tell them to clean their room but feeling empowered when Jordan Peterson tells them is that Jordan Peterson is presenting the act of cleaning your room as a tool. His claim is that for many people, the world is full of problems, and it is easy to feel helpless before them. If you feel powerless, start small. Clean your room. By taking control of your immediate surroundings, you gain power. This power is not zero sum; if you can clean your room, then you begin to work on fixing your family. If you can fix your family, maybe you can improve your industry. If you can fix your industry, then maybe you can try to save your nation. Without the initial feeling of power, the plight of the nation itself would feel hopeless.

Nuts:

Jordan Peterson has insane dreams that normal people don’t have. He is chronically depressed, and probably got into psychology to figure out what’s wrong with himself. So his philosophy isn’t designed for healthy people; it’s a reconstructed reality for unhealthy people. Healthy people shouldn’t follow it, and unhealthy people who wish to get better shouldn’t follow it.

Jordan Peterson is clearly not a psychologically normal person. But you are wrong to assume that (a) mentally abnormal people cannot create art or ideas that are valuable to healthy people and (b) that most of the valuable contributions to human civilization are the result of psychologically healthy people. Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caeser, and Paul of Tarsus all had epilepsy. John Nash was schizophrenic. Nikola Tesla, Thomas Aquinas, and Soren Kierkegaard were all psychologically abnormal, even weird, by any meaningful metric. These challenges not only did not hinder their work, but may even have been helpful.

Peterson is what you might call a broken person. But the world is full of broken, sinful people, and someone needs to help them. To abandon them as beyond help is to reject the truth of Jesus’ claim that redemption is available to all (not given, but available). Peterson’s own brokenness gives him not only the experience, but the communication ability to speak to other broken people, and to help them heal. That’s what clinical psychiatrists do, and Peterson appears to have a track record of success within that professional domain.

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My defense of Peterson here is not an absolute defense. Jordan  Peterson did wade into waters that he was not ready to swim in. The Jewish IQ matter was one. Condemning the Alt-Right for committing the sin of pride is another, which I myself criticized him for.

But what you are smelling is not sulfur. It’s just a different philosophical framework — existentialism — which is neither Peterson’s own invention, nor is it incompatible with Christianity. He is following in the path of Heideggar, Kierkegaard, and Campbell, who were themselves following in the footsteps of Heraclitus, Augustine, and Plato. When examined in light of these thinkers, Peterson’s philosophy is not even particularly interesting (which is not to say that it is not valuable); only his manner of presentation is.

I would never dream of telling you to lay off Peterson, first because Peterson should be criticized, and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do it better than you; second, because I know you won’t stop just because I ask you nicely. But perhaps you can be more precise and selective in your criticism. Rejecting the existentialism of Heidegger as not merely wrong, but as existential relativism is not a serious position.

Sincerely,

C.B. Robertson

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On Names

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name! I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

— Arthur Miller, The Crucible

The sixth amendment to the Constitution guarantees an accused person the right to face their accuser. This is known as the “confrontation clause,” and in practice, it means that people at least have a right to know who is accusing them, even if they never end up facing them per se. But this concept enshrined in our national founding document was not invented on American soil. Indeed, it is possible the idea predates even the civilizations of Europe, extending back to the age of Mesopotamia.

The preservation of justice in a society is threatened by what is known as the “tragedy of the commons,” the tendency of individuals to free-ride on collective property because it is economically advantageous to do so. There are a number of ways that different societies attempt to deal with this, but among the most common and effective is to give members of that society a stake in the commons. That one’s children may inherit the use of collective property alone may be enough for some people to reject free-riding and abusing the commons for personal gain. What is critical, of course, is that the members of the society be made to have skin in the game.

Among the more important kinds of commons–in conjunction with infrastructure and the environment–is social trust. Defined by PEW as a “belief in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of others,” social trust is a critical, necessary building block for civilization. Civilization requires some stability, and if other people cannot be trusted to act in a predictable (just) manner, then why should you be a chump and let others take advantage of you?

The right to face one’s accuser is perhaps the most critical infusion of skin into the commons game, where social trust is concerned. It creates accountability and incentives which encourage moral behavior and punish immoral behavior.

Now we have the internet, and everything has become a lot more complicated.

The internet represents an intersection of three different rights: freedom of speech, facing one’s accuser, and being left alone. If our rights to privacy and to speak freely are respected, then other people’s right to face their accuser will be lost, should we choose to slander and malign them. If we are held accountable, then our right to be left alone is threatened, should anyone accuse us of slander, or even causing harm. Should restrictions to preempt such predicaments be put into place, then the freedom of speech is imperiled.

This intersection existed, of course, prior to the world-wide web. The general solution was that a degree of each of these freedoms was given up so as to preserve as much as possible of all three. We can say almost anything, can be mostly left alone, and will at least get the chance to know who our accuser is, even if we cannot interrogate them in court.

What the internet has done, however, is throw off the balance. It has introduced the real possibility of anonymity.

Historically, people could try to be anonymous by putting on a mask, by lying about their name and origin, or perhaps by using proxies and servants. But masks are clearly visible (you know you’re dealing with someone whose identity is hidden), lies can, in principle, be discovered and punctured, and servants can be traced back to their masters. Towns were small enough — even cities were small enough — that what went around did come back around.

Now true, real, powerful anonymity is possible. This anonymity has two sources: first, the  People can spread self-serving lies (“fake news”), even allegations, without having their reputational skin in the game.

Part of the use of anonymity is defensive in nature. The fact that these attacks are a possibility is reason enough not to put our own name out there for evaluation and possible attack without reprisal. Having your name known is, in most cases, an intimate and vulnerable state.

Our name can be known by many other people that we don’t know, of course–if we are famous. Even here, the widespread knowledge of our name represents fame or infamy. In a word, honor.

Having honor is caring about what others think of you, specifically of others within your honor group. Honor is, first and foremost, an enforcement mechanism against the tragedy of the commons (a man is not honorable if he takes advantage of his friends, and treason is the deepest depth of dishonor). But it is also something we can be proud of when we act honorably. To a great extent, we measure a man by how honorable he is. And when honorable men are admired, honor itself is reinforced.

This means that the prevalence of online anonymity is not just a threat to social trust and to our right to face our accuser, but to the very heart of what is valued in being men. Our name is a part of our identity, a linguistic association that has been gradually, symbiotically cultivated around our history and our nature. It would be overstating the case to say that the anonymity of the internet and the dishonorable behavior it encourages threatens our very identities as individuals, but it does threaten to erode something special and something important about who we are, which makes us respectable and admirable as individuals, and which makes civilization possible.

We face two spirals: one downward, and one upward.

The former is a path of safety, achieved through hiddenness, anonymity, dishonorable conduct, and a win-lose world of dyscivic cat-fighting. This world is dystopian in its pettiness; a world where it is a casually accepted, grimly amusing fact that someone can have their lives and reputations destroyed for “racism” or “sexual harassment,” arising from anonymous sources, and where real victims are increasingly, cynically, disbelieved. It is a ghost-world, where nothing is solid, no one is “real,” and the experience of attempting to make friends is a global extension of the “Seattle freeze” (by necessity).

The second path is a path of openness, of sincerity, and of honesty — of honor. This path will encourage others to emulate you, because people cannot help but admire courageous, authentic people. But this path does take courage, because it incurs real risk. People do lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their families, and even their lives, for the sake of their name.

In the end, we’re all going to die, and our names will likely be forgotten anyways. Still, it should not be thought of as an easy choice: name or life; honor or security. Our culture has defaulted to security, arising from the all-encompassing logic of liability (cover your ass). But this is not a sustainable path if civilization is to be preserved. The only way that will happen is if we begin to care more about our honor than our safety.

The Problem with Marxism

People who dismiss Marxism in absolute terms do so at their own risk. As a philosophy, it would not have attracted the fanatical devotion of millions of people were there not truths within it that made it compelling. Addressing these criticisms of the status quo might even have prevented the communist revolutions in many places, like addressing the concerns of conservative American voters prior to 2015 might have prevented Trump’s successful campaign for president. Because these concerns were ignored, sufficient popular support managed to win a conflict, rather than a conversation, for the power of the state to act upon these ideas.

As a refresher, here are just a few of the things that Marxists have gotten right:

  1. Inequality – The evidence is pretty firm on the Gini coefficient, which predicts crime, as well as a host of other factors. Within the social sciences, the only thing more scientifically valid than the GC is the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Marx was right that the increasing levels of inequality would be destabilizing and would create conflict.
  2. Business Cycles – Marx wrote extensively about this relatively recent theory in Theories of Surplus and Value. Although not first advanced by him (that honor goes to the French historian Sismondi, in 1819), Marx’s theory of inevitable communist revolution was predicated on increasingly severe business cycles. Whereas previous economists thought that these cycles were caused by external affairs (like war), Marx realized that business cycles were caused by the functioning of the system itself.
  3. Capitalism – The separation of the laborer from the products of his labor is a serious psychological problem. The efficiency pursued by industrialists led to the breaking down (dumbing down) of tasks in order to optimize consistency, and this in turn made laborers unskilled, and disposable. Beyond the decrease in their value, these increases in systematic efficiency of production also reduced the possibilities for improvement, and the achievement of mastery in a craft or trade for the laborer. Marx noticed this, and it served as one of his heavier criticisms of capitalism.
  4. Religion – Marx is often cited as crassly referring to religion as the “opiate of the people.” To dispel the presumption intoned in this crass half-lie, it is worth reading the quote in full:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

— Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

The quote is neither crass nor dismissive, nor is it unserious in its psychological analysis of the motivations behind religious belief. One cannot honestly even say it is wrong. The best one could say–and which I will say–is that it is incomplete in its exploration of alternatives, or in its grasp of the totality of the motives which bring people to religion.

The importance of addressing this subject became clear to me after reading about the possibility of an upcoming debate between the traditionalist (if not entirely conservative) Dr. Jordan Peterson and the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Peterson challenged Zizek to a debate after Zizek wrote about Peterson in the press. It wasn’t a particularly good article, as it fundamentally misunderstood Peterson’s individualism (“clean your room!”) and projected a Capitalist straw man that blames outsiders for his own problems onto Peterson. Perhaps in addition to the “hysteric,” who lies in the expression of a truth, and the “obsessive neurotic,” who tells the truth in the service of a lie, we could add the “lazy,” who lies without realization because he hasn’t done his homework.

Nevertheless, Zizek’s article captures something unique to the Marxist mind, which mirrors one of the left’s own longstanding critique of conservativism.

In his piece on Peterson, Zizek references Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst:

…if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological: the pathological element is the husband’s need for jealousy as the only way to retain his dignity, identity even.

This statement is interesting because it tries to drive a wedge between cause (infidelity) and effect (jealousy) and criticize the effect without noticing the cause.

The claim that jealousy is needed for his dignity and identity frames the matter pathologically from the get-go. We could imagine a situation in which a man is being chased by a hungry bear: isn’t there something pathological about a man’s need to run? What, does he think he will lose his dignity, his identity even, if he does not run from the bear? As a matter of fact, yes, if the bear eats him, his identity as a living being will be greatly threatened, and with it, any posibility of dignity.

In a similar vein, why should a man not feel jealous if his wife is unfaithful? What is pathological about that particular negative thought in that instance? His identity as a loved spouse has been destroyed, and with it, his dignity — his ability to discern truth having been exposed as false.

This is the form of argument which my book addressed on another subject, reuniting the wedged-apart emotions of love and hatred. Love without the possibility of hatred sounds idyllic, but we were not constructed to live in that way.

Jealousy and hatred are not the only blots upon the untrammeled ecstatic happiness of the human experience: fear, disgust, resentment, lethargy, boredom, suspicion, sadness, pain, and despair all haunt our lives from the periphery. Whatever we may think of these emotions in the moment, they exist for a reason, and we ignore them and reject them in all cases as “pathological” at our own peril. Even resentment–an emotion brimming with potential for genuine pathology–can sometimes be a motivator for positive action. In any case, what good is telling someone that the emotion they are experiencing is wrong? They are products of facts and values, and cannot be done away with without one of their causes being changed or done away with.

The Marxist project is all about the pursuit of an unsustainable emotional ideal. Like Lacan and his inhumanly stoic husband, Marxism — and the creative bent of leftists generally — pursue impossible states of equality, stability, purpose, and happiness. They identify problems, and rather than adapting to them, and learning to live within them, seek out their own kinds of final solutions.

A classic leftist critique of conservativism is that of nostalgia: there is no going back, even if the past was idyllic in some ways.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last paragraphs of The Great Gatsby are often quoted in this vein:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Yet the leftists are not different in kind than the conservatives they criticize. They are only different in the direction they are looking: utopia lies in the future!

When the leftists point out that problems and evils also existed in the past, and that it was perhaps not as “golden” as conservatives imagine, they are right. But when conservatives point out that the future will also be full of danger and evil and pathology, they are also right.

In other words, what’s right about Marxism is inextricably bound up in what is wrong with Marxism, because their compulsion to point out the problems of modernity stem from their desire to escape from problems absolutely. What is communism, where no one can own anything, if not a proposed final solution to the problem of inequality? What is the end to personal ownership if not a permanent solution to the uncertainty that emerges in capitalist business cycles — the “end of history?” What is Marxism if not the attempt to refasten the laborer to the fruits of his labor, regardless of what that labor might be? And what is Marxist atheism, if not an attempted great and fatal blow to all comfortable lies that protect states of emptiness, sadness, and oppression?

The Marxist does not see value in the progress of overcoming an obstacle, only negative value in the obstacle’s presence. This is why they tend to make arguments about the pathologies of “unhealthy ideals” when they believe the achievements of such ideals are impossible. In fact, this argument itself was first presented to me by Zizek himself.

A point that Dr. Peterson has been clear on in his lectures is that the world is a chaotic place: we do not know what the problems will be tomorrow, nor is it necessarily true that the solutions we have for the problems of today will continue working tomorrow. In such a world, the ideal solution is not to solve all of the problems once and for all, so that we do not have to worry about them, as Marxists work towards. This is both futile and undesirable. Rather, the answer to the chaotic world is to become the sort of person who can solve problems. On a broader, social level, this means giving people the tools to deal with problems, rather than physically or psychologically removing all of their problems.

God in Solitude and Society

Here’s an odd question: are we closer to God when we are with others? Or are we closer when we are alone?

I recently made the case that God has made his home in the Church, and exists in the unity between its congregation–the church itself being the body of believers:

Jesus is the redeeming quality of self-sacrifice and love latent within humanity, which counterbalances the disobedience revealed in man by Adam. This archetype literally is the bond of connection between people, whether in friendship, in marriage, or merely over a meal.

This is theologically grounded in much of the New Testament, which instructs us first and foremost to love and to serve one another. Because the entirety of the law can be summarized in the two commandments, and because Jesus adds that serving others is a form of serving God, it may be tempting to think that almost the entirety of Christian spirituality is to be found in relationships with other people. Indeed, the fact that one of God’s first comments on mankind is that “it is not good for him to be alone” seems to imply that at the very least, being alone runs contrary to God’s plan for humankind (human nature).

What then are we to make of Jesus going out into the wilderness? The wilderness, of course, is not the only time Jesus goes off on his own; it is only the longest and the most memorable. He also takes some time to himself before walking out to his disciple’s boat, and he spends some brief but valuable moments praying alone in the hours before he is betrayed.

Nor is Jesus the only biblical holy-man who takes time off from the crowds, to spend closer to God. Jonah, though perhaps not very intentionally, wound up in the proverbial wilderness for three full days, and it was this experience that transformed him into a courageous man of the Lord. Moses too experienced his formative–and perhaps most important–experience with God when he was alone in the desert.

This juxtaposition speaks to a mutually-reinforcing duality, rather than an either-or choice or a simple contradiction. To draw from a classical source, G.K. Chesterton once wrote about how Christian theology is full of such dualistic relationships. In his case, he had been persuaded in his younger days–as many Nietzschean types are–that Christianity seemed purpose-made to turn men into sheep. A subsequent reading of history, however, indicated to him that Christianity was so violent and bloodthirsty that it ought to be condemned for making wolves of mankind.

Which was it?

The answer is… yes.

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family…it has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates the evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty grey […] All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure.

The New Testament, even in its most pacifistic beatitudes, does not contradict the Old Testament’s dictum of the seasonality of human purpose. There is a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to love, and a time to hate.

Clearly, we are to spend some time with others, and some time alone with God. Which of these is greater is arguably less important than the importance of practicing both. To answer the original question in a somewhat speculative manner, we may be manifesting distinct but symbiotic aspects of the ideal human in relationship with the divine.

The new questions become the following: first, what is the relationship between time alone and time spent with others? Secondly, which should we spend more time doing?

I suspect the second answer will vary drastically, depending on the individual. A father of twelve and a trappist monk will have different demands made of them, from society and from God, respectively, despite both having an obligation to some balance. Even a father of twelve ought to find regular time alone to pray and to “sharpen the saw,” so that he can fulfill his obligation to love God. Even a trappist monk ought to spend regular time with other people in the world, so that he can fulfill his obligation to love others as he loves himself.

After all, is there anything more spiritually self-indulgent and selfish than keeping God all to yourself?

As for the question of the relationship between the spirit in solitude and in society, I believe the most important one is the latent utility to others within the character that can only be properly developed in solitude. Nietzsche once argued that the development of will and spirit was fundamentally born out of the experience of boredom, and indeed, there is probably no more important virtue for social interaction than patience. Learning to come to terms with the sound and rhythm of your own mind is perhaps only really possible by confronting it directly, without distractions, and without external circumstances that allow us to pin our annoyance with the experience of being on anything outside of our mind… or, conversely, to identify with certainty that our sources of annoyance are coming from outside of our mind. This too we can only learn by discerning what our mind feels like.

With prayer and meditation in solitude, we can understand ourselves, which paves the way for formation, reformation, and transformation. Our own reflective experience turns us gradually, on the pottery wheel of our own consciousness into the sort of person that others appreciate and enjoy as well.

Thomas Aquinas once defined contemplative prayer as “finding the place in yourself where you are here and now being created in the image of God.” In this regard, we are closest to the Father (the Father of creation) when we are alone. By the same token, we are closest to the Son (the Mediator and the Bridegroom) when we are loving and serving others.

Perhaps for this reason, it is all the more important for the father of twelve to come to better know the primordial Father, and for the monk who devotes himself to Jesus to emulate and more closely resemble Jesus the self-sacrificial servant of man.

Cursed Are The Peace-Enforcers

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
–Matthew 5:9

Everyone looks up to the work of “peace-making,” whether it is for secular humanitarian justifications or for religious ones. No one wants to be the source of conflict, yet many go above and beyond this general standard, seeking not only to avoid starting disputes, but to make peace. But what does it mean to “make peace?” The question is less obvious than it at first appears, because in different senses of the phrase, the spirit beneath the word may be contradictory.

Consider the story of Adam and Bob. The two brothers get into a dispute. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that the brothers are five, and the dispute is over a toy. There are two directions this dispute could take. First, the two brothers could work towards a resolution between themselves. Second, the mother could intervene and resolve the dispute for them.

On the first path, it is possible that the dispute escalates to the point that one boy kills the other. This is wildly unlikely, which means that a dispute which is not resolved to both boys’ satisfaction will likely reemerge at a later date. Each brother will have to learn to get along with the other if he wants to avoid being miserable himself. This is how children gradually acquire the skills of empathy and the foundational instincts of game-theory-morality. Conflict, in other words, generates the environment necessary to learn the skills that will be expected of us as mature adults.

What of the second path? What if the mother intervenes and “makes peace” between her two sons, perhaps distracting and placating them, or maybe even adjudicating the dispute in one side’s favor? Trying to get their minds off the matter will certainly solve the immediate predicament, but it does so at the cost of the experience the children would gain in learning to make peace among themselves.

This pattern emerges in parental modeling as well. Recent psychological research seems to indicate that conflicts between parents in can actually be beneficial to the children, so long as the resolution to the argument is also observed:

Some types of conflicts are not disturbing to kids, and kids actually benefit from it,” says Cummings [E. Mark Cummings, Notre Dame University]. When parents have mild to moderate conflict that involves support and compromise and positive emotions, children develop better social skills and self-esteem, enjoy increased emotional security, develop better relationships with parents, do better in school and have fewer psychological problems.

“When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” says Cummings. “It reassures kids that parents can work things through. We know this by the feelings they show, what they say, and their behavior—they run off and play. Constructive conflict is associated with better outcomes over time.”

Even if parents don’t completely resolve the problem but find a partial solution, kids will do fine. “Compromise is best, but we have a whole lot of studies that show that kids benefit from any progress toward resolution,” says Cummings.

By contrast, children who witness even a moderate argument, but who are not allowed to witness the resolution, experience a gradual building of tension and stress around the relationship. Resolution to arguments proves that relationships with people are resilient, even antifragile. Unresolved arguments, by contrast, tend to inflame and enlarge the tension and anxiety surrounding relationships. The world becomes unstable when there is no clear pattern linking calm to storm-clouds, and no visible path from the latter back to the former.

This means that the mother of Adam and Bob, in her intervention, is actually robbing her sons of the experience necessary to become peacemakers themselves.

This simple and illustrative example is by no means a catch-all, implying that in no circumstances should a parent ever intercede in their children’s interactions. Rather, it is a criticism of a particular reason why parents–or friends, family, even strangers–may intercede in a nearby conflict: “conflict is bad, so I will stop the conflict, and this will make me good.” Or, “conflict is bad because I cannot tolerate it, so I will stop it.”

In my recent debate with Zach Ryan Mora on Satanism, I argued that the essential quality of what is satanic is that which is proud and what is judgmental and accusatory in its pride. It may sound a little hyperbolic to describe self-appointed peace-enforcers, who come around and battle against conflict on other’s behalf, as “satanic.” But it touches on a real pulse. Whether they are unable to cope with the potential instability they associate with conflict, or they can’t resist the impulse to push others down to elevate themselves, those who make peace or else are not doing God’s work. This is why Dolores Umbridge is such an easy character to hate: under the pretense of being nice, she neither wanted nor tolerated disagreement, and stifled everything that was good in the process.

Intolerance for disagreement is stifling and hateful because what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true, all matter. Being able to distinguish these qualities from their opposites are what makes life itself either good or bad, and since no one person has the answers, or will ever have all the answers, the sincere pursuit of the good within life will inevitably lead to disagreement, perhaps even conflict. But this conflict is not antithetical to what is good; it is only antithetical to peace.

Arguments and debate represent turning points in the recursive oscillations that move us closer and closer to the ideals that make life good. The helicopter moms and Dolores Umbridges of the world impede, or even obstruct, these oscillations, perhaps out of pride or fear, maybe even envy. But this behavior is not “peacemaking,” in the sense intended in the beattitudes. A more complete elaboration on what “peacemaking” looks like can be found later on in the book of Matthew:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Biblical peacemaking does not avoid confrontation, but actually requires it. It is also not pursued on another’s behalf, but on one’s own behalf: first because we all have our own troubles that are likely great enough; second, because we may not be aware of the full extent of the subject; third, allowing people to become outraged on other’s behalf opens the door to all sorts of perverse incentives and social power-plays, and there is no end to that hallway.

In other words, what Jesus advocates is not “peace” per se when he says “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
–Matthew 10:34

Rather, what he advocates is reconciliation. Reconciliation is itself a form of forgiveness, which is arguably the heart of Christian spiritual practice: “…forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

No one is perfect, which means that participation in the dance means we will inevitably miss some steps. There are two options: correction (and forgiveness), or stepping out. There is no way to take option one and also have peace: the only peace that is even theoretically possible is the silence of death. Whether that death is literal or figurative is essentially irrelevant for those who live there. Life is conflict. There’s simply no getting around it, and it’s a living death to move about the world avoiding any and all collisions with other people.

So blessed are the peacemakers, for they keep fighting fun, and life vivacious. And cursed are the peace-enforcers, who condemn life itself as intolerable or immoral, even if they themselves do not know it.

The Homeric Political Paradigm

It has often been argued that all of politics can be boiled down to Plato versus Aristotle.

Plato takes a lofty, idealistic approach to politics. He sees potentialities and perfect forms, and for him, politics is a means to the approach of the harmonious balance between these purposeful entities, which is justice. To achieve this, a city must have a wise ruler who can direct the coordination of society’s constituent elements, like a conductor directing a symphony. This was necessary for the protection of the city as well as for the success of the individuals.

Aristotle, by contrast, begins with observations of what is, and builds upwards. He is an empiricist and a sort of proto-scientist. Rather than Plato’s dictatorship, used to achieve control from the top down, Aristotle favors a mixed-government style, of the kind which Lycurgus of Sparta instituted, and which Cicero was to go on to defend in De Republica, and which the Founding Fathers of the United States were to refine nearly two millennia later.

There is clearly a distinction in political nature between these two philosophies, but looking backwards across 2,000 years of development, it is difficult to determine which philosopher is “right,” and which is “left.” Does the question even make sense?

The modern right has championed limited government and freedom of speech, and so they might point to Plato’s totalitarianism and claim Aristotle’s republicanism for themselves, perhaps after pointing out the Left’s proclivity for expanding government power. The modern left, on the other hand, has consistently stood for more inclusive representation and a less fixed view of human nature. They might point to Plato’s more aristocratic understanding of virtue, and claim Aristotle’s slightly more plastic view of humanity for themselves, perhaps after pointing out all the right-wing fascist movements of the 20th century. In a similar manner, either side could claim Plato for themselves, and pin Aristotle on the opposition.

The Greek Philosopher distinction can still be made, but it is not obvious, and takes some unpacking to be useful in application to the politics of today.

However, there is an older and more useful Greek thinker that can help us distinguish between the political right and left: Homer.

Daniel Mendelsohn observed that in the realm of classics, there are Iliad people and there are Odyssey people (his father, after taking Daniel’s course on the Odyssey, revealed himself to be an Iliad person). They are dramatically different poems, in which the heroes seem to operate on completely different principles.

In the Iliad, the warriors Achilles and Hector are fighting for honor and duty, respectively. Survival is not even a question. Achilles knows he is fated to die young, and in the famous courtyard scene, Hector says he is compelled to lead the men from the front, regardless of personal risk. The predominant emotions of the story are wrath, vindication, loss, and forgiveness, and the story is essentially of the pursuit of meaning when death is inescapable.

The hero of the eponymous Odyssey, Odysseus, is not the same kind of hero as Achilles or Hector. While generally noble in his actions, and virtuous in the original Greek sense–“capable,” or “masterful”–Odysseus is not afraid of debasing himself, of beating himself, of begging, of submitting to more powerful forces, or of disguising himself as a vagrant. There is no obstacle, physical or moral, which can stop him from surviving to see his family again.

As with Plato and Aristotle, it isn’t immediately obvious based on the actions of the characters which book could be described as “liberal,” and which as “conservative.” The underlying motivations, however, are far more clear than those of the philosophers. To analyze these motivations, we can use Plutchik’s useful breakdown of emotions, and look for patterns which define the characters and the stories themselves.

Wheel-of-Emotions2-441x450.jpg

Of the Iliad:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son, the ruinous wrath that brought down on the Achaians woes innumerable, and hurled down into Hades many strong souls of heroes, and gave their bodies to be a prey to dogs and all winged fowls; and so the counsel of Zeus wrought out its accomplishment from the day when first strife parted Agamemnon king of men and noble Achilles.

If we were to choose words from Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, the key words I’ve emphasized in the opening passage could be labeled rage (x 2), grief, disgust, and anger/contempt, respectively.

Of the Odyssey:

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

To repeat the exercise, we might label them admirationacceptancesadnessfear (x 2), grief, and disapproval.

The clustering is more clear in the case of the Iliad, but there is a discernible core motivation driving the Odyssey as well, especially in the context of the meaning of the paragraph.

These distinctions can be even further distilled by looking merely at the first word of each paragraph in the original Greek language and syntax. For the Iliad, the word is μῆνῐς (mênis). For the Odyssey, the word is ἀνήρ (anḗr). Respectively, these words mean “anger” and “man.”

Mênis actually means slightly more than “anger.” In his book on the subject, Leonard Muellner describes it as “a feeling not separate from the action it entails, of a cosmic sanction, of a social force whose activation brings drastic consequences on the whole community.”

As for anḗr, Odysseus’ virtue as a man derives from his “ingenious” devices and strategems he uses to survive a veritable labyrinth of lethal obstacles and dangers. This genius competence is put to the task not of justice or righteous wrath, but of survival, for himself and his crew. Although he failed to retain his crew, we are told that they perished due to their own sins, and not those of Odysseus.

In short, we have a book about justice on one hand, and survival on the other.

That these two poems were written by (or at least alleged recited by) the same person speaks to the synergy between these two motivations. Justice is an aid to survival, through the establishment of stable and predictable order which people can depend upon and build assumptions around with certainty. And of course, survival is useful–perhaps necessary–for the carrying out and maintenance of cosmic justice. If we ourselves are good and just, then Justice demands our survival.

But the synergistic nature of the relationship between justice and survival does not prevent individuals from being dominated by one motivation or the other. Those who we consider to be of the Left are those who are “justice-dominant.” Those who we consider to be of the right are “survival-dominant.”

This dichotomy is one I wrote about recently for Counter-Currents:

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell argued that the political left–whatever their particular policies–reflected an unconstrained vision of human potential, whereas the political right reflected a constrained vision of human potential. Modern neuroscience seems to support this theory: liberals on average had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is active in navigating social situations, whereas conservatives on average had more grey matter in their amygdala, which (among other things) orients us towards potential dangers and threats. Liberals see options and opportunities; conservatives see risks and dangers.

In fact, “Liberal” and “Conservative,” as labels, are woefully inadequate in encompassing the distinction between those on the Left and those on the Right. This is because “liberal” describes not just one particular theory of justice among many, but also one particular means of going about enacting that theory within a civic order. “Conservative” is a bit more general, and thus broader in its inclusion of right-wing people. However, it is possible to imagine a person who believes that rapid change and “progress” is the surest way to preserve our species. I have personally met transhumanists and people pushing for space exploration who hold precisely this view. Their policies seem to be “liberal,” but their motivations are distinctly right-wing, and their friend-groups and personal politics bear this out, sometimes to extremes which would shock more “moderate,” and less politically-engaged people.

This Homeric theory also carries explanatory power in the realm of parenthood. It is no secret that those with children tend to be more right-wing (“conservative”), and younger people and those without kids tend to be more left-wing (“liberal”). When you become a parent, suddenly survival becomes a viscerally important purpose, and youthful ideals of “justice” often seem abstract, ephemeral, and paltry next to the overwhelming importance of your own children.

This may explain why I myself am slightly more of the left, in my idealism and my psychological profile (high openness, low conscientiousness). I am happily married, but as of the time of this writing, have no children.

It should come as no surprise that Odysseus was not returning to Ithaca merely because it was rightly his kingdom. As he was languishing on Calypso’s island, repelling the Goddess’s sexual advances, he was not longing for home out of a sense of justice, but out of a burning desire to return to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

Achilles had no wife or children that we know of.

This theory also explains why the military is strongly right-wing in nature, while academia is strongly left-wing. In universities, violence is an abstraction, foreign and removed from the daily affairs of life. Survival is a given, and so justice becomes the greatest point of contention. For a soldier, survival is not a given, and so it becomes the single greatest factor in the planning out of every action and every operation. They, like Odysseus, want to come home to their family. While the generals, politicians, and voters may go to war thinking of democracy, human-rights, and the liberal order, soldiers tend to fight for the man at their shoulder. Though they may be just, justice–as a motivation–is an afterthought.

So how do we go about identifying these motivations, in ourselves and others?

Circumstances often dictate the political frame from which we speak. A life of prolonged deprivation in childhood and adolescence may orient a person toward survival-strategies. If food and shelter were not readily available when you were young, ensuring that you have both and more in the future will be paramount in your decision-making. This could lead to advocacy for either traditionally “left-wing” policies (for instance, social services and equitable distribution of resources to favor those who have very little), or “right-wing” policies (property rights and low barriers to entry for those looking to buy and sell in the market). Both are fundamentally rooted in a survival, but are expressed in so-called liberal or conservative policies.

The fact that the “left-wing” policies might be proposed in a fascistic totalitarian society where the policy only applies to citizens of our nation, or that the “right-wing” policies could be proposed in a communistic dictatorship where free-market economics are unknown, is irrelevant. Every policy is enacted in a context. The time and place matter when determining whether a policy is justice-oriented or survival-oriented, as does the character of the advocate. A “right-wing” policy may be rightly viewed as justice-oriented, rather than survival-oriented, when advocated for on behalf of other people.

Others have suggested a quadrilateral analysis of political views, with left and right on the x-axis and authoritarian and libertarian on the y-axis. This is useful in charting the policy positions of various groups at the same point in time, but the problem of the left-right difference remains for both historic and cross-cultural analyses. By looking at the policies–the results of a particular political ideology–instead of the character and motivation of the people who created the political ideology itself, our analysis will always be retroactive and insufficient.

Instead, we must look to the underlying principles, motivations, and experiences of the governed. Through the Homeric lens, we can understand why people group together on seemingly independent issues, such as healthcare, foreign policy, abortion, religion, and literary preference, and we can do so without the slight mischaracterization of Sowell’s “unconstrained vision.” For predictive purposes and for seeking a path to cohesion between separate factions, we can only reach a true understanding through the mind of the governed.

The Instagram Ethos

I’ll take with me
The Polaroids and the memories
But you know I’m gonna leave
Behind the worst of us
–Selena Gomez, Kygo, “It Ain’t Me”

There is a certain philosophy–most prevalently but not exclusively held by college girls–that I would like to put under the microscope.

It is a worldview which, correctly, observes that the early twenties is the period where people have an extraordinary amount of power. They have a sprawling labyrinth of options open to them. They are at their peak in physical beauty, at least if they are women. They have sudden access to financial resources, courtesy of student loans, which can be utilized for all sorts of only peripherally educational activities, such as traveling abroad to foreign countries or throwing parties in their dorms with other students. They are surrounded by friends and strangers in a similar situation, most of whom are sexually available, and who in any case might make for good company at a bar or a concert.

From such a lofty peak of artificial success (we might call it a “success bubble”), it is easy to look beyond graduation, and see that things will only be going downhill. You’ll have responsibilities, you’ll have to work around people significantly less attractive, less interesting, and perhaps even less safe than those around you now. In fact, you’ll probably be working extra hard to pay for the years you’re going to be experiencing anyways.

It’s as if death is coming at 23.

What do you do?

Live like you were dying.

This philosophy, which I will call the Instagram Ethos, says that we are in for a future of mundane and boring drudgery, preceded by a brief spat of glorious power and freedom. To optimize life, we should live life to the fullest in this brief period, accumulating “Polaroids and memories” which will hopefully last us a lifetime and keep us happy in nostalgic reminiscence into our old age.

As a worldview for rationally optimizing utility, it is actually quite understandable. It is a point which is made by, among others, the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Church of Corinth:

If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
–1 Corinthians 15:32

The college sophomore is not quite as naive as Paul uncharitably characterizes the unbeliever; the student at least believes that there is life after school. But they have tacitly accepted a view which characterizes this life after school as something like purgatory. Carpe Diem is no joke, for tomorrow you may not die, but you will clock in and out at your boring job every day, which is a kind of relative death.

Take all the photos you can. #YOLO.

There is a problem with this philosophy, however.

The happiness of the traveling, college, or other “empowered” young life comes from living in the moment, and the ability of the individual to continue to derive joy from these memories is dependent upon a kind of attention and value placed upon these memories.

Notice that this value must be chosen at the expense of the current present moment. What is included in this current present moment?

Among other things, any beauty, quality, love, or meaningful relationships. In short, all of the things which gave the “college experience” and its various analogues their magical quality in the first place.

I am not saying that these things are unachievable. Far from it. But in ordinary life, outside of the success bubble of the early 20’s, these things must be worked for, often for long periods of time. For people who never experienced the success bubble, the hard work makes the reward sweeter. But for people who have not only come down from this artificial peak of humanity, but are now burdened with paying for it, this work makes the re-achievement look impossible or difficult to the point of not being worth pursuit.

The trouble with achieving quality, beauty, love, and meaningful relationships is that they take loyalty.

Patience is one of the most important qualities for achieving all of the above experiences, and patience itself is a form of loyalty: it is sticking with one thing, or waiting for one thing for some principled reason, despite having reasons to do other things.

Humans are even more demanding, and more personal in their need for loyalty. You cannot enter a healthy marriage without the expectation of loyalty. The sorts of friendships worth having, the kinds that give meaning to your life, require loyalty. Given the choice between helping a friend who’s stuck on the side of the road or staying at home and watching the game, only the weakest “friend” would accept you choosing the game over them. Relationships worth having are imbued with value demonstrated through actions.

The Instagram Ethos puts the young person between two competing objects of loyalty: your memories, and your present. No boy-(or girl-)friend wants to be second to your memories of the people you fucked when you were younger. No boss or employer wants your attention focused more intently on your glory days as the star of the team than on the work of the company, because it isn’t sufficiently “satisfying” for you. And no friend is going to want to hang out with you if memories of old buddies are more fond to you than they are in real life. Especially if you refuse to shut up about it, and keep bringing up that one story about that time you and your friends had that one crazy experience.

More likely than rejection by others is your own rejection of them, or at least the refusal to invest the time and effort to build those relationships, to work for the quality and the beauty and the long-term gain. Why bother? You already have this bank of memories to feed off of, don’t you?

Why forgive your friend and get things sorted out when you can think about your other “real” friends you used to have?

Why put in the extra hours of paperwork and dull research at the office when you can show off that A you got in that one hard class, the paper you keep just to remind yourself how smart you once were?

Why work hard to find a virtuous spouse and work through fights and hard times together to build a lasting marriage, when you can easily remember banging someone way hotter than them, and whom you could probably find some simulacrum for anyways?

Of course, the work required to achieve these things does make it inconvenient. It’s especially frustrating to have to re-acquire them after having already had them. Perhaps this is reason enough to avoid the more hedonistic habits of many undergrads.

But the difficulty does not make the good things in life unachievable. And as time goes on, others will achieve them; friends, fellow students, siblings and exes. Eventually, you’ll run out of excuses explaining why everyone else is somehow managing to live a satisfying life, and you’re not. The scrapbook doesn’t help you over failures after life in your prime.

In point of fact, there is no reason that the early 20’s is, or should be, the prime of our life. The quality of life is a matter of our experience in the moment, and this experience is derived from the web of relationships we have with others and to the world. When we let these relationships slip, or never forge them, because we are relying upon Polaroids and memories to keep us going through the purgatory of life, we can make for ourselves a desolate, lonely Hell of an existence, as lonely spinsters and basement-dwelling bachelors. And no one will care.

Above all else, guard your heart,
For everything you do flows from it.
–Proverbs 4:23