Saturday, February 24, 2018

Ayn Rand vs. Jordan Peterson: The Benevolent vs. Malevolent Universe Premise

"Always look on the bright side of death/Just before you draw your terminal breath." -Monty Python's Life of Brian
  Compare and Contrast: Ayn Rand vs. Jordan Peterson.
By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”- Ayn Rand

“I’ve said that some people will tell you that the purpose of life is to be happy, and those people are idiots.” -Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson has said that, while being a fan of Rand’s fiction, that he’s not a fan of her philosophy. So, then, whose philosophy does Peterson hold in high regard? Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung. And this creates a philosophical schism between Peterson and Objectivists in the way of “sense of life”, in the idea of “the malevolent vs. benevolent universe” premise.

Regarding Jung, I've already discussed how, despite some similarities, he and Rand differ on the concept of self and ego. When Rand, in the essay "What Can One Do?", talks about working with others of differing beliefs to achieve a specific goal, and warns against those who who "ascribe his views to the entire membership, or to use the group to serve some hidden ideological purpose",
that can be related to her concern over the superficial similarity between Objectivism and the ideas of Nietzsche, whose influence on her had been expunged by the time of The Fountainhead. Despite the surface similarities of individualism and selfishness, she ultimately saw his views at odds with hers, and the mature version of her ideas that became Objectivism explicitly make clear her objections. So, then, by logical consequence, she’s already made the case against Jordan Peterson, whose superficial similarity to Objectivism’s individualism is also informed by Jung and Nietzsche. This is seen most prominently in their respective “sense of life.”

Peterson and the Malevolent Universe Premise

As I discussed in the past few posts, Peterson seems to hold a “malevolent universe premise” as his “sense of life”. That’s not to say that he celebrates it, or promotes nihilism; quite the opposite. And he's not coddling people who would say, "well, I made bad decisions in my life, and I don't want to take responsibility, so life sucks." But what he does hold is suffering as metaphysically important. Peterson make statements such as “life is a mistake”, it’s tragic, suffering, etc. For him, the suffering is something to be overcome:

There is a difference between evil and tragedy. Tragedy does seem to be built into the structure of the world. But human beings seem to be equipped to deal with tragedy, but we are not equipped to deal with malevolence. That destroys people. I think that metaphysically thinking the world is structured such that humans have a choice between good and evil. Why do we have a choice? We don't know."

That said, Peterson does not celebrate suffering, but sees it as something to be overcome:

“I’ve said that some people will tell you that the purpose of life is to be happy, and those people are idiots. Happiness is something that’s done in by the first harsh blow that reality deals you. There are many circumstances in life where the expectation of happiness as a response will put you in absolutely the wrong psychological state to be prepared for what must be done.”- Jordan Peterson, “Say No To Happiness”

“The human capacity for eternal transformation is the antidote to unbearable suffering and tragedy.”

Hipster Dali-Doing lobsters before it was cool
Now, here, and Objectivist might say, “whose life is based on suffering” By what standard? Is he projecting his own experience, or that of his clinical clients, onto life as a whole? Here, Peterson might point to the animal ancestry of man, as he does when he says that we share a neurological structure for dominance hierarchy that is found in lobsters. He might say, as Hobbes did, that nature is “nasty, brutish, and short." And as for tragedy being “built into the structure of the world”, he can point to the biblical story of the exile from Eden, the fall of man and original sin, the punishment of painful childbirth. Indeed, the sexual act for many species is nasty, brutish, and short. Certain insects devour the males after sex, or lay eggs in the male so that the offspring feed off the carcass, and in the case of bedbugs, experience “traumatic insemination”.

True Suffering: Rosie O'Donnell as dominatrix.
The history of human sexuality has its own share of violence to it, as exemplified in the works of the Marque de Sade up to the more recent (and best-selling) 50 Shades of Gray. And before an Objectivist could object, the response would point right back to Rand herself, from the cruelty of the sex scene in Night of January 16th to the infamous “rape scene” of The Fountainhead. All this, just to perpetuate the species. Love and romance isn’t always a “beautiful union.” Attempts to depict such violent forms of sex in humans as psychological aberrations would have to ignore the similar violence in other species. This points to another crucial difference between Rand and Peterson: Rand believes in the idea of the mind being tabula rasa, and Jordan, a pragmatic believer in evolutionary psychology, believes that there is something evolutionary underlying and guiding behavior. If not conceptual in nature, it’s there, nonetheless. On this issue, Rand would agree, as she told Nathaniel Branden about a women’s desire to be dominated by a man:

I recall a conversation I had with her in the early years of our relationship, when she was expounding on her idea of feminine hero-worship. I was in my twenties at the time. I asked her: 'don’t men worship women? I mean, the women they love?"
"Oh, I suppose so, but that's not how I would think of it. By "worship," I mean our highest capacity for admiration, reverence, looking up. I see man as superior to woman, and..."
"Oh, Ayn," I protested. You don't. You're joking!"
"I am not joking," she answered seriously.
"Superior in what? Intelligence? Creativity? Moral worth?"
"No, of course not. In spiritual or intellectual matters the sexes are equal. But man is bigger, stronger, faster-better able to cope with nature."
"You mean, at the pure physical level?"
"The physical is not unimportant." Later, I often heard her reiterate that point.

So both Rand and Peterson see the violence inherent in sex. But they both see that there is also the difference between dominance and abuse.  Both want people to be strong and able to withstand and overcome suffering. Great. But why? What for? Then what? That’s where Rand and Jordan diverge. For Peterson, the goal is for man to survive; for Rand, for man to thrive. What I don’t get a sense of from Jordan is a sense of the Aristotelian idea of eudaimonia. Actually, by embracing the Nietzschean and Jungian aspect, he seems to outright reject such a thing:

“It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

(His calling happiness a “side effect”, “fleeting and unpredictable”, I suppose, is meant to conjure up the attributed “wisdom of Solomon”: as the story goes, Solomon requested a ring with an inscription that would make him sad when he was happy, and happy, when he was sad. The resulting inscription was “this, too, shall pass.”)

I suspect this lack of eudaimonia, and a lack of romanticism, in general, is largely a result of Peterson considering himself a pragmatist. (Rand had argued against pragmatism, of course.) That pragmatism informs Peterson’s attitude about purpose, as he quotes holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”

Frankl’s opinion on happiness is the same as Peterson’s, as well:

“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

There is a particular line that Peterson quotes that sticks out, to me:

Weak and miserable as I am, I can still stand up to the terrible tragedy of life and prevail!- Strengthen the Individual: Acounterpoint to Post Modern Political Correctness

"Twis-ted Sis-ter? What is THAT?" Oh, Neidermeyer...
This sentiment is one that rankles those of the Objectivist mindset, to call oneself “weak and miserable.”  And it would even contradict Peterson’s own admonition to “stop saying things that make you weak!” Still, that is a step up from Byronic Romanticism, which Rand portrayed as doomed heroism, that told one to struggle despite being deterministically fated to fail, as opposed to Rand's "Romantic Realism", which says that happiness can be achieved in this world.

Also, this line brings to my mind a quote from Nietzsche as something that I would use to question Peterson about all this:

You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought and not that you have escaped a yoke. Are you such a one as was permitted to escape a yoke? There are some who threw away their ultimate worth when they threw away their servitude. Free from what? What is that to Zarathustra! But your eyes should announce to me brightly: free for what?- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The question begging to be asked here of Peterson is what is the purpose, then, of overcoming the struggle and tragedy, if not happiness? (The question already holds the answer. Revealed by his admiration for Nietzsche, Peterson would say that the freedom is not to be spent in pursuit of some eudaimonic happiness, but in an continual striving to evolve, a continue cycle of struggle and triumph, an “eternal return.” Here, it is tempting to invoke Rand’s disowning of her own Nietzschean influence, but I do think there is something similar retained in her own work, in her depiction of life as not a circle, but a straight line of goals. See her description of Dagny Taggart's meditation into the woods, before the tunnel disaster, in Atlas Shrugged.)

Here, I think, we see the difference between Rand and Peterson’s approach to individualism. Peterson's promotes individualism of the Jung/Nietzsche variety, contra Rand, who would never hold that the road to individualism ultimately leads back into "the whole", or some "collective unconscious."

Objectivism and the Benevolent Universe

In contrast, Objectivism holds a secular view of the “benevolent universe” premise. Instead of the world being divinely created for us, Peikoff describes it, thusly:

Although accidents and failures are possible, they are not, according to Objectivism, the essence of human life. On the contrary, the achievement of values is the norm—speaking now for the moral man, moral by the Objectivist definition. Success and happiness are the metaphysically to-be-expected. In other words, Objectivism rejects the view that human fulfillment is impossible, that man is doomed to misery, that the universe is malevolent. We advocate the “benevolent universe” premise.
The “benevolent universe” does not mean that the universe feels kindly to man or that it is out to help him achieve his goals. No, the universe is neutral; it simply is; it is indifferent to you. You must care about and adapt to it, not the other way around. But reality is “benevolent” in the sense that if you do adapt to it—i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally, then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values. You will, because those values are based on reality.

Pain, suffering, failure do not have metaphysical significance—they do not reveal the nature of reality. Ayn Rand’s heroes, accordingly, refuse to take pain seriously, i.e., metaphysically. You remember when Dagny asks Ragnar in the valley how his wife can live through the months he is away at sea, and he answers (I quote just part of this passage):

“We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.”

This is why Ayn Rand’s heroes respond to disaster, when it does strike, with a single instantaneous response: action—what can they do? If there’s any chance at all, they refuse to accept defeat. They do what they can to counter the danger, because they are on the premise that success, not failure, is the to-be-expected.

Teleology, Purpose, and the "Pursuit of Happyness"

But that brings up another difference in their approach: The purpose of life gets into the idea of teleology. If one is religious, that person is going to have a different view than an atheist as to the purpose. Or an Objectivist.

Here, I think, is another intersect between Peterson and Rand on the matter. The etymology of happiness: "good fortune," from happy + -ness.

late 14c., "lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;" of events, "turning out well," from hap (n.) "chance, fortune" + -y (2).

The key being that happiness, in the sense of luck, favored by fortune, etc, was something that happened to one externally. As suggested in the earlier Viktor Frankl quote, the words "happy" and "happen" share a root word", "hap".

Now, Rand and Peterson would meet on the fact that happiness is not the standard of value; they were not hedonists. But still, we need to go further: Without reason or effort, happiness is outside of volition. It really would be luck or good fortune, something that simply "happens" to you. But with reason, happiness is something that can be achieved. "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." This is where the malevolent/benevolent universe premise really kicks in. The benevolent universe, as Peikoff explained, is not of the supernatural variety, but of a logical, scientific one. That we don't have to simply adjust to our environment, but that we can adjust it to us, that the rules don't arbitrarily change, that it can be done.

Again, returning to Eudaimonia: In
philosophy, happiness is translated from the Greek concept of eudaimonia, and refers to the good life, or flourishing, as opposed to an emotion.

Rand vs. Nietzsche on the Pursuit of Happiness

  Nietzsche, like Peterson, also disparaged happiness: "Man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does."
Nietzsche believed that happiness as one's ultimate goal "makes one contemptible." As a warning against seeking "mere happiness,” he depicted a "last man”, a picture of a hedonist who avoided struggle and effort. In essence, he was saying that anything worth doing would be a struggle, or to quote Kennedy, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Since Rand, who also rejected hedonism, had a similar attitude, as Ronald Merrill, in The Ideas of Ayn Rand, describes as “The Galt-Like Golfer”:

What about a highly productive man who, rich at thirty, retires and spends the rest of his life playing golf? Has he really done anything wrong? Yes, he has, by the standards of Objectivist ethics. Again, it’s not what he has that counts, nor even what he does, but what he is. By living in idleness, he is diminishing his productive capacity and ability, and thus acting against his own life. In reality skills decline if not practiced— business skills, not just golf! Knowledge is forgotten or becomes obsolete if not used; ability and ambition decay if not presented with new challenges. And that matters, because— in reality— fortunes are vulnerable to inflation, depression, and confiscation. Merrill, Ronald E.. Ayn Rand Explained: From Tyranny to Tea Party (Ideas Explained) (p. 158). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
And here’s what Rand has to say about happiness as a purpose: Rand, contra Jordan: "The maintenance of life & the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement."
Service to Others and Self vs. Man as an End in Himself

Now, harkening back to this essay’s opening quote from Rand regarding people of differing beliefs working together: here's the difference between Rand and Peterson: Aristotle and Plato. Aristotelian ideas largely inspire Objectivism, and Plato, the Jungian Analytic Psychology that inspires Peterson.  And Rand, writing of the dual between Apollo and Dionysus, took Nietzsche to task for his emphasis of emotion, over reason. (While holding that there is no duality, if the two are properly integrated.) And again, the teleology comes into play. Jung's ideas do promote a kind of individualism, but as part of a cycle. The ego individuates into the Self, but then returns the "cosmic collective unconsciousness." Jung holds that the second half of life goes to accepting mortality, and therein, results in suffering.

Here, I have to briefly mention Peterson's definition of sacrifice as "delayed gratification", to surrender something now for something better, later. Rand has also addressed that definition of sacrifice, but rejected it, at least in the sense of the "now" being "this life" and the something better being "the afterlife". (The afterlife is something Peterson is ambiguous and agnostic on, it has to be said.) That said, he does share a theme with Rand's essay there, in "The Ethics of Emergencies."
Peterson has said that one should not sacrifice ones's life to someone drowning, for example. But he does hold it as a "duty" for one to better oneself for the sake of others and one's self. (See Yaron Brook contra Peterson on sacrifice. And, as Amy Peikoff pointed out, Objectivism rejects the use of the word "duty" in that context. In Rand's own words, regarding Roark, she wrote that it would be alien for Roark to "serve himself".

“As to your sentence that Roark would want to serve that kind of God-that is the only sentence in your letter which was offensive to me. The word “Roark” and the word “serve” are opposites—the two antagonists who will never meet and must not be connected. There is no such conception as “service” in Roark’s consciousness nor in the kind of universe to which he belongs and which he represents. Roark would not “serve God” nor anyone nor anything. He would never even use such a word in relation to himself. He would never think of “serving himself” or “serving his art.” Roark is a man who does not serve- that is his whole meaning. Roark is man as an end in himself. That which is an end in itself does not serve anything. That which serves is the means to something which is the end.

Weltschmerz, and loss of purpose
"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."
-Reinhold Niebuhr, “Serenity Prayer”

I think that the concept of weltschmerz can explain what Peterson is getting at in his crusade against the “pursuit of happiness” as the meaning of life: mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. Given that Rand’s goal of her writing was the depiction of an “ideal man”, and found the world wanting for them, she had a bout of weltschmerz of her own.  Indeed, Rand’s critics have even pointed to Rand’s personal life, the loss of friendships and trashing of her work by critics, and the depression that followed, and said that Rand died lonely and miserable. Her defenders would claim the opposite, that her pain “only went down so far”, and that Rand herself claimed that she still loved life, and this world.

Now, previously, I said that Peterson and Rand both rejected happiness as the standard of value, and both suggest that having a purpose is more important, that a man with a purpose can endure anything. But a purpose implies a goal to be achieved, and if that goal is not achieved, it may result in something like weltschmerz. But more paradoxically, a succession completion of a goal may result in depression as well, if there is no new goal to replace it. If the purpose it taken away, then happiness is fleeting, as well. I already mentioned Merrill’s discussion of the “Galt-Like Golfer”. I can think of other examples, such as musicians who achieved their goals of selling millions of records and becoming world-famous overnight, only to find their motivation was gone, afterwards. Ayn Rand said something similar about why she stopped writing fiction. After Atlas Shrugged was completed, she had created not one, but four versions of her ideal man, already, which was the purpose of her work, and the fuel for her motor was gone. And it also explains the Chinese curse “may you get what you wish for.” It also puts the ending of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in a more ominous light:

Charlie, do you know what happened to the man who got everything he wanted?

No, what?

He lived happily ever after.

It’s why the Philadelphia Eagles, in their Super Bowl victory of 2018, relished their underdog status, because “underdogs are always hungry!.”

Another question: is weltschmerz always such a bad thing? In Rand’s context, it could be an indicator that a course correction is needed:

In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death. Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.
For example, since Objectivism holds that happiness is not the standard of value, it cautions against using emotions as a tool of cognition in determining values, as well. And when one’s reasons and emotions clash, it advises reason over emotion. That’s not to say that if one sees injustice in the world, or people suffering because of oppression, or disaster, etc, that one shouldn’t feel such a clash. But Objectivism would hold that we have the power to change that. “I love this world. I hate the shape of the things in it.” Roark, in contrast to Henry Cameron, Gail Wynand and Dominique Francon, is an explicit rejection of the ultimate power of weltschmerz, that such depression is a momentary reaction. An observation from Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead notes that Dominique “never aquires the fundamental motivation that is Cameron’s and Roark’s: to reshape, for oneself, the earth into a place of joy. Until the end of the story, she does not fully comprehend the nature and possibility of such a motivation.”

One might say the same about Peterson.

Critics like Peterson might say that Rand’s work is a “white-washing” or repression of her true feelings, but Objectivists would say that Peterson is reifying the negative aspects of life, the suffering and tragedy, as the whole. Jordan would argue the statistics in favor of a malevolent universe premise; Rand would say that statistics aren’t the deciding factor, and point to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the turn-of-the-century art and music as counter-examples to those statistics. They may see the same phenomena, but their assessment is where they differ, on what they choose to give metaphysical significance.

Vicious Cycles and Eternal Returns

Not a Tide Pod. Still not edible. 
A common misconception is that of thinking of ‘survival’ as if it were some single vital action that occurs after all the other actions [necessary to life] have been completed. ‘Survival’, however, means the continuation of the organism’s life, and the organism’s life is an integrated sum composed of all those specific actions which contribute to maintaining the organism in existence. In this sense in living action the parts are for the sake of the whole: the specific goal-directed actions are for the sake of the organism’s capacity to repeat those actions in the future. An ultimate goal, if it is truly ultimate, must be an ‘end in itself’. An ‘end in itself’ gives the appearance of a vicious
circle: it is something sought for the sake of itself. This circularity vanishes when we regard life as an end in itself: actions at a given time benefit survival, which means they make possible the organism’s repetition of those actions in the future, being then again directed toward survival, which means their repetition, and so on. (pp. 64– 65)  Binswanger, Harry, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts

Here is an example of Rand rejecting a view of life as a “vicious cycle” in favor of something more hopeful:

 Philosophically, Romanticism is a crusade to glorify man’s existence; psychologically, it is experienced simply as the desire to make life interesting. This desire is the root and motor of Romantic imagination. Its greatest example, in popular literature, is O. Henry, whose unique characteristic is the pyrotechnical virtuosity of an inexhaustible imagination projecting the gaiety of a benevolent, almost childlike sense of life. More than any other writer, O. Henry represents the spirit of youth—specifically, the cardinal element of youth: the expectation of finding something wonderfully unexpected around all of life’s corners.  .  Ayn Rand. The Romantic Manifesto (Kindle Locations 1588-1589). Signet. Kindle Edition.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, or, Post-Edenic Morality

Rand sees evil as impotent to create, with only having the power to destroy. Peterson seems to see evil as a potent force. In Jungian terms, it’s a result of our “shadow side.” And it will always be with us as long as people remain blind to their own capacity for evil. That is why he puts such emphasis on “getting yourself together,” clean your room, etc. Know thyself. Indeed, in my own study of the comparison between Rand and Jung, I found examples of how that “shadow self” bring out the monstrous capabilities of even good people, even in Objectivists. This is the crux of Peterson’s comments about Rand’s fiction being problematic because the characters are either too good or too evil. I take his characterization as wrong on its face, not just in the fiction, but the philosophy. 

Rand echoed something similar when she relayed this anecdote about Jean-Paul Sartre:
Sartre recounts a conversation he had with an American while visiting in this country. The American insisted that all international problems could be solved if men would just get together and be rational; Sartre disagreed and after a while discussion between them became impossible. ‘I believe in the existence of evil,’ says Sartre, ‘and he does not.’ ” This, again, is a euphemism: it is not merely the existence but the power of evil that Europeans believe in. Americans do not believe in the power of evil and do not understand its nature. The first part of their attitude is (philosophically) true, but the second makes them vulnerable. On the day when Americans grasp the cause of evil’s impotence— its mindless, fear-ridden, envy-eaten smallness— they will be free of all the man-hating manipulators of history, foreign and domestic.  Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It (p. 212). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

Still, there is the capacity for goodness, and self-knowledge. And since Objectivism holds that errors of knowledge are not errors of morality per se, and that we are not omniscient, we have to constantly strive to keep true. There is debate over the Objectivist idea of a person’s capability of being “morally perfect”, even among Objectivists. But even allowing for the imperfection of man, Peterson’s emphasis on the monstrous capability of a person, their “shadow side”, seems to be so influenced by Jung and Nietzsche as to be a border-line endorsement of the biblical “original sin.” In the Peterson view, civilization is but a thin veil, to be pulled back like the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Rand’s view of man is one of a moral upward-mobility, and that we are not determined by lobster-like biology, but that the power of ideas gives us choice, and responsibility, to transcend our animal nature.

 Peterson, in contrast, claims that, if we are honest, people would admit to fantasizing about a return to a pre-moral state of brutal animal innocence. I don’t think he’s wrong to caution against it. Invoking the Stanford Prison Experiment, he cautions against thinking that one wouldn’t have participated in Nazi atrocities, if placed in that environment. But Peikoff would indict those who would fantasize about such a return, while simultaneously rejecting the resulting work and effort required of man after the exit from Eden as the “suffering” that Peterson sees it as, but as a blessing:

 Effort does not mean pain or duty, but it does mean struggle, because conceptual knowledge is a volitional attainment that involves the risk of error and the need of continual, scrupulous mental work….
Their opposites are the anti-effort mentalities, who seek to coast through life, hoping that knowledge and values will somehow materialize without labor or cost whenever one wishes for them. This attitude represents the subversion of virtue at the root; it is resentment of the fact that virtue is necessary. The best symbol here is the Garden of Eden before the Fall, which the Judeo-Christian tradition regards as paradise. Such a projection elevates mental stagnation to the status of ideal. No long-range action is required of Adam and Eve, no work, no plan, no focus; they need merely lie around, munch fruit, and follow orders.

So, again, we are presented with a yin-yang view of life: Peterson, the warning against the dark side, Rand via Objectivism, pointing towards the light.

Objectivism as “Anti-Pollyanna”

It has to be reiterated, at this point, that Objectivism does not deny the existence of suffering and tragedy. And if Objectivism holds that the physical world can be tamed and made hospitable, there is still the reality of “man’s inhumanity to man.” (As Sartre put it, “hell is other people.”) In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Peikoff has a chapter on happiness that could serve as a refutation of Peterson on its own. One line stands out to me, regarding the image of optimism as a “Pollyanne-esque delusion:

The benevolent universe premise has nothing to do with “optimism,” if this means Leibniz’s idea that “all is for the best.” A great many things in the human realm are clearly for the worst. Nor does the premise mean that “the truth will prevail.” Unless one adds the critical word “ultimately.” Nor is benevolence the attitude of a Pollyanna; it is not the pretense that there is always a chance of success, even in those situations where there isn’t any. The corrective to all these errors, however, is not “pessimism,” which is merely another form of pretense.”

(As an exercise for the reader, compare and contrast Pollyanna's "Glad Game" to the idea that "crisis equals opportunity.")

Rand made a similar point, while discussing music, in The Romantic Manifesto:

It must be stressed that the pattern is not so gross and simple as preferring gay music to sad  music or vice versa, according to a “benevolent” or “malevolent” view of the universe. The issue is much more complex and much more specifically musical than that: it is not merely what particular emotion a given composition conveys, but how it conveys it, by what musical means or method. (For instance, I like operetta music of a certain kind, but I would take a funeral march in preference to “The Blue Danube Waltz” or to the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette Mac-Donald kind of music.) As in the case of any other art  Ayn Rand. The Romantic Manifesto (Kindle Locations 706-710). Signet. Kindle Edition. 
"Sad songs say so much..."
So why does Peterson disagree with Rand so emphatically on the role of tragedy? It may be tempting to know his biography, to ask, what happened to him in his life to give him such an outlook? "Who hurt you, Jordan?" "Lighten up, Francis!" (In all seriousness, Amy Peikoff notes that Peterson, in his book 12 Rules For Life, does go into some biographic detail that contributed to his outlook. I don't mean to make light of that. But, while I haven't read those details, and they probably are important in looking at how they shaped Peterson's ideas, for the purpose of this essay, it's more important to examine the overall fact that both he and Rand have experienced suffering, but have come to differing conclusions and contrasts in their "sense of life". )

But if you look at Rand’s biography, and see what she suffered in Soviet Russia, one then might ask, why didn’t Rand succumb to the same? Indeed, here is an example of why Objectivism is not a symbol of Pollyanna-like naïve optimism. Though The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged both have happy-endings, We the Living does not. The original title, Airtight, reflects the reason for that. Her escape from the Soviet Union was a fluke, she said, and that in such an environment, such naïve optimism would get one killed, that such an air-tight environment of terror does not permit happiness and fulfillment, and to write a happy ending would betray those who were suffering and dying. But then, she also wrote Kira as dying with a smile on her face, because she had, in her attempt to escape, seen a better alternative, a better way, abroad. And that it didn’t have to be like this, if only we choose better, and fight for it. So, even then, it wasn’t a denial a suffering, but neither was it a reification of suffering as the whole. Rand chose to acknowledge the reality of suffering and tragedy, but not to give it metaphysical significance.

So, then, why didn’t Rand succumb to the Nietzschean worldview that has inspired Peterson? And why does Peterson choose to see suffering as metaphysically important? Why does Peterson surround himself with Soviet art, as a reminded of the horrors of communism (which he is dedicated to fighting), while Rand wrote We the Living, to “get Russia out of her system?”  Peterson, has suggested the Kantian idea of that we see the world through certain filters, and I suspect that Kantian influence is a major cause of his friction with Objectivism.
Rand and Peterson are seeing the same phenomenon, but viewing it through different belief systems. Still, they both converge on the idea of purpose. When he writes of people like Viktor Frankl, and how he survived in the concentration camps, it’s a similar situation to Rand’s. Frankl would envision life on the outside, keeping a positive spirit, and with purpose.

Peikoff’s answer to that, in a callback to the “Serenity Prayer”, invokes the commonality between Rand and Peterson on the idea of purpose, while also invoking the Objectivist idea of evil as “impotent”:

The corrective is realism; i.e., the recognition of reality, along with the knowledge of life that this brings: the knowledge that happiness, though scarce, is no miracle. It is scare because it is a culmination that only a demanding cause, moral and philosophical, can produce. It is no miracle because, when the cause is enacted, its effect follows naturally-and inevitably.”

Viewing Peterson as Rand Viewed Dostoevsky

Now, where does that leave Peterson as an ally to the Objectivish? Can his malevolent sense of life be reconciled on a deeper level? Where I place Peterson is in the same spirit as Rand discussed her admiration for writers with whom she differed philosophically, like Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Romantic Manifesto:

The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important—as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man's nature—or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre—or he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola). He may present monsters as objects of moral denunciation (Dostoevsky), or as objects of terror (Goya)—or he may demand sympathy for his monsters, and thus crawl outside the limits of the realm of values, including esthetic ones.

For instance: I love the work of Victor Hugo, in a deeper sense than admiration for his superlative literary genius, and I find many similarities between his sense of life and mine, although I disagree with virtually all of his explicit philosophy—I like Dostoevsky, for his superb mastery of plot structure and for his merciless dissection of the psychology of evil, even though his philosophy and his sense of life are almost diametrically opposed to mine—I like the early novels of Mickey Spillane, for his plot ingenuity and moralistic style, even though his sense of life clashes with mine, and no explicit philosophical element is involved in his work—I cannot stand Tolstoy, and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet, from a purely literary viewpoint, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer.

... in sense-of-life terms: Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral—Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide—Spillane gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park—Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.”


Ok, maybe not that happy...
Do I run the risk of being too generous to Peterson’s motives? Does his admiration for Nietzsche’s idea run the risk of undermining Objectivism? On the one hand, I do think that he genuinely wants to help people. As for promoting liberty over socialism, he's got kids today reading, of all things, The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, for cryin' out loud. And given his work as a psychiatrist who deals with PTSD victims, etc, he’s seen and heard a lot of dark experiences, I’m sure. Given that he makes a stand for individualism and capitalism, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt as to his personal motives. But at the same time, I’d counter that generosity with what Rand wrote in contrast to his views on pragmatism, duty, sacrifice and the necessity of suffering. (I'm also reminded of Diana Hsieh's essay, "False Friends of Objectivism", which made the argument that libertarianism was too broad an umbrella, using the example of a medical doctor aligning with a "witch doctor" or "holistic healer" under the premise that both claim to want to heal people. And, um...yeah...her critical take on my own project at the time, "Jungian Objectivism"...oh, the irony...) 

Anyway...Since Peterson is currently being touted as a hero against the left, a mentor to young people, and even as a genius by his more hard-core fans, I have to reiterate that his views are not, in fact, new, but merely Nietzsche and Jung repackaged for a new generation. (I suppose those ideas may seem new to a younger generation, who wouldn’t know better, but I think that even some Objectivish-minded people, or at least libertarian-minded people who might not share the atheistic approach of Objectivism), may be wowed by Peterson’s use of Jung’s analytical psychology. Since I’ve already gone that route, myself, I’m looking at that in the rear-view mirror…again, the irony...)

But since he is out there, fighting a good fight against the left, I support him. Since he is trying to help people do the same, I applaud him. But I take that his "toughen up!" approach is best suited for those who are weak, and suffering, or not quite there, yet. For those who need to  first learn to, or how to, survive. But once there, there needs to be someone to say, to quote Mr. Belvedere, that life is "more than mere survival." That a life of struggle simply to overcome is a life without pleasure, and pleasure is important, too. That was Rand. If Peterson is Sparta, Rand was Athens. Now, one could warn about the decadence of Athens, and the meme that hard times create good men, good men create good times, good times create hard times, etc...But again, Objectivism does address that by rejecting hedonism and recognizing purpose of meaning. That was Rand, and her benevolent universe premise. The purpose of her art was to show the ideal man. That life could be good. That "it is real, it is possible, it is yours."

So, to sum up: because of my own personal experience, I get where Peterson is coming from, and why he is pushes the "life is suffering, so get it together!" stance. "Whatever gets you through night", as the song goes. Hey, I still ocassionally listen to heavy metal music, Pink Floyd The Wall, and have a thing for monsters and dragons in mythology, myself. And just as I think Peterson is wrong to reify suffering and tragedy, I don't want to reify the brighter side of life to someone living in a warzone or under a brutal dictatorship. "The true is the whole." Mankind has the capacity for good and evil, so happiness and suffering are part and parcel of our experience. But, in the long run, I choose, and choose to promote, Rand's benevolent universe over Peterson's malevolent view. Might as well make the most of it, to the best of our context and ability.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bosch Fawstin vs. Jordan Peterson on Happiness and Life as a "Terrible Tragedy"

“Some people tell you that the purpose of life is to be happy and those people are idiots.” -unhappy idiot Jordan Peterson, who believes happiness is just an affected feeling at odds with reality. Happiness is the hard earned state that can only come from achieving one’s values.”- Bosch Fawstin, on Twitter

In a previous post, I looked at Amy Peikoff’s take on Jordan Peterson, and her observation that he spends a lot of time occupied with the darker side of life. I also noted that, while I hoped that Amy herself has never had to deal with that darker side in any significant way, I have, and can understand where Peterson is coming from, when counseling his clients, even if I ultimately share a different worldview. I put this difference down to the dual of the "benevolent vs. malevolent universe premise" between Objectivism and Peterson, which I am going to outline in a follow-up post.
But while prepping for that, I came across two Twitter posts by Objectivist, and Islam critic/cartoonist, Bosch Fawstin, that related:

Jordan Peterson says Ayn Rand isn’t “sophisticsted” [sic] enough as a thinker, whereas Peterson calls life a “terrible tragedy”, which can come out of the mouth of any bum on the street or most professors in academia. Rand was a genius who was innocent of that kind of “sophistication”. (link)

“Some people tell you that the purpose of life is to be happy and those people are idiots.” -unhappy idiot Jordan Peterson, who believes happiness is just an affected feeling at odds with reality. Happiness is the hard earned state that can only come from achieving one’s values. (link)

To which one person replied, “I wd [sic] suggest to not dismiss ProfPeterson as an "idiot" based on a lone provocative quip. He has an overwhelmingly insightful, positive message.”

(To that, I replied “Well, if Peterson doesn't want to be called an "idiot" based on isolated quips, then maybe he shouldn't call others "idiots" in a context that can be isolated in an isolated quip, if he doesn't really mean it.” That said, I do have to add that I don't see Peterson as an idiot, even if I disagree with his metaphysics.)

Other comments followed that suggested a misunderstanding of what Peterson is trying to say.  It seems the overlap in some places between Peterson and Rand have some confused, based on surface level similarities.  Some see Peterson as positive, others, negative. Indeed, both Peterson and Fawstin are pro-individualism and capitalism...they should be allies, right? I will comment on that, at the conclusion...) But that meeting place of Objectivist and religious conservative comes from two different sources, and those dueling foundations are the cause of the friction, resulting in a very different "sense of life", which results in a strained partnership at best, one that still results in each calling the other "idiots".
I looked up the “idiot” line that Fawstin quoted, to see if a fuller context revealed Jordan's line as just a  misinterpreted "quip", as someone else claimed, with a fuller meaning in a different light. It didn't:
I’ve said that some people will tell you that the purpose of life is to be happy, and those people are idiots. Happiness is something that’s done in by the first harsh blow that reality deals you. There are many circumstances in life where the expectation of happiness as a response will put you in absolutely the wrong psychological state to be prepared for what must be done.”

That is an except of a larger speech, which is transcribed here. It goes on in that vein that reveals the difference in the sense of life between Peterson and Objectivism.

But even providing that larger context, there still seemed to be disagreement on that Twitter thread regarding Peterson’s sense of life. (I personally think that the ambiguity is a symptom of a larger problem I have, but not exclusive to Peterson; I think he gets it from Jung. Both he and Jung were ambivalent about their belief in a supernatural realm or afterlife, and that bothers me, as well. I hope to do a post on that at some point, soon.)

Still, I wasn’t quite done digging, yet. Fawstin had repeated, again, that Peterson saw life as a “terrible tragedy”:

Agree, but when Peterson says that life is a “terrible tragedy”, he loses me. It’s such a typical position for an academic to have that it’s ridiculous that he can say that, yet be considered some kind of fresh new, serious voice. That’s a hopeless position. Unlike Rand’s.

I personally agree with Fawstin's take, but, because of other’s insisting their was more to Peterson’s view than that (and a post insinuating that we were ignorant of Peterson's work), I looked for the full context.

"Weak and miserable as I am, I can still stand up to the terrible tragedy of life and prevail!" (-from Peterson's speech entitled "Strengthen the Individual: A Counterpointto Post Modern Political Correctness")

To which Fawstin replied:

“At once, better, and then the “weak and miserable” part makes it even worse, despite the defiance expressed. Alien language”

I had to bow out, at this point,  given that this could have gone on in this vein, all night, and given I had other things I needed to do. But I want to note, now, that if we zoomed out even father from the quote, it would have revealed that it wasn’t Peterson saying that HE was “weak and miserable”, but quoting how he would counsel someone else who was in that state, as encouragement to get through it. So, with a name like "Strengthen the Individual", it has to be good, right? Rand liked to strengthen individuals, right? Well, so did Nietzsche, and we know where she thought of him, eventually. AND if I am correct, the line is not original with Peterson, but a paraphrase of a Christian quote: “Weak and miserable as I am, I am no less thine, than all other creatures.”

Which would only prove Fawstin’s point, that Peterson’s language and sense of life is alien and antithetical to the Objectivist sense of life. And to go on looking for fuller context to isolated quotes would only reveal that tension in Peterson's work of survival and suffering.

A side note: the difference between Peterson and Fawstin, re: religion, is not just a result of Peterson's ambivalent gnosticism (alienating him from both Objectivists AND more orthodox Christians and Catholics, as seen here) and Fawstin's atheistic Objectivism. For those who do not know, Fawstin, who was born into an Islamic family, is now an apostate from Islam, and a very vocal critic. (As seen in his comic boos series The Infidel.) Now, Peterson has also been a vocal critic of Islam, but not of religion, as a whole. Since Peterson's sense of life is based on Jungian/Nietzschean ideas, mixed with a "gnostic" type of Christianity, it's no wonder, then, that he and Fawstin differ in spirit, even if they are both fighting the same battles, on the surface.

But do they really differ so much that both have to see each other as "idiots"? Is there no significant common ground?  Because Peterson is a gnostic, and not a traditional Christian, I think it's a mistake to oversimplify his approach as supporting a Christian kind of weakness. (Indeed, he's made the point that the "meek shall inherit the earth" is actually not about being weak, but about self-restraint.)  I'd point to this video as an example, where Peterson comes out strongly against self-sacrifice, even with family (he sounds like he could have been counseling Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged.) Or, this one, entitled "Stop Saying Things That Make You Weak!".)

Without knowing Peterson's personal history it's hard to say with certainty, but I suspect that what is going on is what Ayn Rand speculated about regarding the clash of ideas within her favorite novelist, Victor Hugo. Hugo, she thought, had a wonderful sense of life that was hampered by a Christian morality, and it created a tension in his work. Yet she did not call him an idiot. Of course, Hugo lived in a pre-Objectivist era, whereas Peterson is familiar with Rand's ideas, and has rejected them, even as he seems to embrace them. (And, yes, he's the one who first lobbed the "idiot" label,  but that was not directly tossed at Objectivists. I suspect his manner of speaking, while seeming to be more conventional in its morality, is being used to "wake up" some of his more conventional clients, who may not be familiar with Objectivism, and who are struggling psychologically.) And there is something true in his words about people who think that life is supposed to be about happiness as the standard of value, whereas Objectivism holds that happiness is the result, not the standard, of value, and has to be not found, but created. (Again, more on that in a follow-up.) Can one hold a contradictory idea and still get to the same place? Should one judge Peterson not by what he says, but by what he does? (Of course, O'ism would push for an integration of the two.) How do his patients fare with his counseling? Are the results compatible with the goals of Objectivism?

Anyway, I wonder if there is tension between Objectivists and Peterson not because they are so different, but because they are so similar; "the good is the enemy of the better." I will have more to say on that, in another post, but as a counter-point to that speculation, I will again say that Peterson's ambiguity and ambivalence about his religious beliefs suggest either a sloppy thinker in the wording of his arguments, or the possibility of something else being smuggled in. Objectivists, holding that "A is A", are more strict in "checking their premises", "defining their terms", and "saying what you mean, and meaning what you say." (Contrast Peterson with Rand, whose epitaph to Atlas Shrugged was "And I Mean It!". To me, that is a point in their favor. So, as a caution, and and as teaser to the followup, I will conclude with this argument from Rand on alliances with similar-yet-different philosophies, since the above is exactly what she was getting at:

 The only groups one may properly join today are ad hoc committees, i.e., groups organized to achieve a single, specific, clearly defined goal, on which men of differing views can agree. In such cases, no one may attempt to ascribe his views to the entire membership, or to use the group to serve some hidden ideological purpose (and this has to be watched very, very vigilantly).

Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It (pp. 202-203). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.