The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
I am reading Jordan B. Peterson’s Beyond order: 12 more rules for life. Peterson is seen as a divisive character, associated with a right-wing ideology or perhaps more accurately, against a left-wing one. The ideas in his book, however, are worth considering. This post picks out three.
1. Find a home for your thinking
Peterson argues that we should respect existing institutions and structures. You may not like what is going on in the world and believe that the structures you see are oppressive ones that are built by men and need to be torn down. Tearing down without a plan for replacement, however, results in chaos.
There’s a great documentary by the BBC called People’s Century that has an episode on the end of colonialism, as European powers withdrew from their former colonies. Some colonies made the transition to self-rule and democracy while others faltered, falling into an endless series of military coups and dictatorships.
What made the difference? The Perivuan economist, Hernando de Soto, argues that democracy is more than just having a vote – it’s about having a system of institutions that have the checks and balances needed to support democratic society. In many countries this means a separation of political power, the judiciary and the military. If you control how the law is made, who can be put in jail and start a war without opposition you are a dangerous person indeed. Read the news to find out what happens when that is the case.
Robust democracies have institutions that support this ability to have checks and balances. Start a business, join a university, work for an NGO – find a home where you can develop your thinking and argue your position. In doing so you will make an impact – one that makes society better as a whole.
2. Have an ending in mind
I have argued in this blog elsewhere about my dislike of goal oriented behaviour – and its related concepts of winning, victory or domination. But having a goal is different from seeking an end, having a destination of some sort. Peterson gives an example of the difference by talking about Harry Potter and the snitch.
In the book you have a game, quidditch, that has rules and goals and players. But there’s also the snitch, a thing that if you catch, you win the game, regardless of what else happens. The snitch operates inside and outside the boundary of the game, it can go anywhere, and in chasing it Harry Potter crashes through the stadium, literally undermining the foundations of the game.
The message here is that getting to the end you want may need you to be willing to change everything around you, including the rules of the game. But how do you do that?
3. Seek the highest god (good)
Peterson draws on myths that show how societies intuited what needed to be done. In Mesopotamia they told the story of Tiamut, the primordial goddess of chaos and Apsu, the eternal father of order, who brought about children who became the elemental gods that formed the world. The children waged war on the father and killed him and the mother, enraged, created demons and monsters to control her children and grandchildren. The other gods called on a young but talented god, Marduk, born with eyes all around his head and the ability to speak magic words to fight and defeat Tiamut and he did, but on condition that he took his place atop the hierarchy of gods.
The highest god, then, or the highest good, came from having the ability to pay attention (the eyes all around the head), the ability to use language effectively (the magic words) and the will to take action to defeat chaos. These three: attention, language, and action are the skills we must develop if we want to achieve our goals and defeat our monsters.