The following is an extract taken from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series.
The extract was taken from the following podcast recording:
- “13 – Maps of Meaning 10, 11, 12, & 13” from The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast
The extract begins at around the 46/47 minute mark of the above podcast recording.
I have decided to share this as it was something that really struck me and has stuck with me since initially listening to it. There are some really profound ideas in this short amount of text, multiple readings/playing were required to extract the necessary wisdom from it.
I’ve underlined and emboldened key ideas which stuck in my head, more for personal reference rather than anything.
I’ve also made minor edits to the text to remove superfluous language that was likely used to increase the impact of the rhetoric in the physical lecture, so as to make it a better flowing read.
Here is the extract:
“This is from Wisdom:
[Quoting the Bible]: ‘For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves: Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.’ [end of Bible quoting]
So Nietzsche says at the end of the 1900’s: rationality undermines our faith in religion. But you have a piece of writing from more than 2000 years ago that says: ‘look, what is it about being alive? It’s short and there’s nothing to it. Our thoughts are biologically produced and when we die there’s nothing left.’
Well, that’s a very modern thought. Yet it was expressed thousands of years ago. So you know, I think, merely from observing that that the crisis of faith that characterizes modern society is a reflection of the permanent crisis of faith that characterizes human beings.
So what’s happening with the totalitarian?
The totalitarian is afraid of the unknown. For good reason. He’s very interested in sustaining his own belief structure. The combination of those two things, which can start off trivially, is that the more you’re convinced that you have to maintain the stability of your current belief structure, the more afraid you are of anything that’s unknown. And the more afraid you are of anything that’s unknown, the less likely you are to go out and explore it. Then the less likely you are to go out and explore it, the weaker you get because you stop gathering information. And then the weaker you get, the more necessary it is that you have to have this frame of reference, and it has to remain in tact. And this sort of thing starts to cycle and cycle.
So you undermine your own sense of your own autonomy and ability, and you make yourself more and more a rigid tool of the propagandistic system, and you more and more adopt the stance of enmity towards anything that you don’t understand. And that’s a spiral that goes rapidly downhill, rapidly into a state that’s characterized by complete internal chaos.
And I think that’s a good definition of what is meant in metaphysical language by ‘Hell’.
Hell is a bottomless pit. Why? Well, I don’t care how bad things are for you or around you, there’s always some bloody thing you can do to make it worse. There’s always some suffering you can extend to others, there’s always some bit of stubbornness or rejection that you can pull off that will make your already terrible situation worse. So there’s no bottom. And that seems to me to be right.
If you do just a cursory historical analysis, no matter what terrible account you can come across with regards to, say, concentration camp brutality, in some other book there’s some worse story. Limited only by the absolute ends of the most brutal form of imagination. All a consequence, I think, of this process.
You can’t really say what causes it because, on the one hand, there’s cowardice, pride, and lack of faith: ‘anything I don’t understand doesn’t exist, plus, I’m not the person to confront it anyways’; that’s the lack of faith. Each of those things feeds into the other, and it’s very difficult to say where it starts.
The thing that’s kind of interesting about these self-referential processes is that they don’t have to start dramatically. The loot can start very small. And it picks up speed very rapidly. So you imagine you’re speaking into a tape recorder and the speaker is on, you get too close to the speaker with the microphone and you get some feedback. And if you bring the microphone a little closer, the feedback develops more and more intensely, and it can blow up the whole system. It doesn’t have to start dramatically to move forward very rapidly. And what that means, at least in principle, is that even small mistakes anywhere along this circle can start the development of precisely this kind of spiral.
And so you say: do people need to be abused to become totalitarian? And the answer to that is no because everyone’s been abused sufficiently by some occurrences in their life to justify taking a negative tack on the nature of experience.
You say, well how cowardly do you have to be in order to run away from things? Well, not that cowardly because under most circumstances your life is characterized by sins of omission, right? There are things that you left undone.
And just exactly how rigid do you want your belief systems to be? And you say, well, I like them to be stable because without that stability then I’m terrified. Fair enough, but that’s all sign of a kind of existential weakness. And then if social circumstances come round and give your life a good tweak, say, like they did with the Germans prior to WWII, you just never know what side you’re going to end up on.
And so all these little tiny mistakes – mistakes that I think are marked by your own conscience – are precisely that which leads you down this terrible path. And if you think well, no, that can’t be right. Well then you have to remember that in these processes, say, of de-Kulakisation and the immense wave of deaths that characterized the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, most people were involved. And if they weren’t involved in direct acts of commission, they were absolutely involved in direct acts of omission. They knew. But they didn’t say anything.
Classically, sins of commission are regarded as being much more evil than sins of omission, but I actually think that’s backwards. The sins of omission are worse, because every time you walk away…well, what do you do when you walk away from a Nazi? What are you walking away from? You’re walking away from a domain that’s likely to expand into something that’s completely undifferentiated from Hell. And it’s no wonder that you walk away from that. But the fact that you walk away from it makes it much more likely that it’s going to happen.
So then I think: we look for economic reasons to explain great terrible acts, right? We look for social reasons, we look for political reasons; but we have Nietzsche’s observation which is something like this: I don’t care whether or not your life has been characterized by suffering and deprivation, the mere fact of suffering and deprivation does not allow you to draw a particular conclusion. You can’t say that there’s a causal path between economic deprivation, say, and the rise of a totalitarian state. Because any event is susceptible to multiple interpretations. How do these states come about then? Well, I think we look for social, political, and economic reasons because that’s the easiest place to look; if you ratchet up the level of description to social forces that are beyond your control, then you never have to worry about what it is that you are doing or not doing that’s actually causing this sort of thing.
But I think if you look at the historical record – especially if you look at it from a mythological perspective – then the story is basically clear and it goes something like this:
Every time you make a mistake that you know is a mistake and you don’t fix it, the world moves more towards that. And it might be trivial – maybe – but it might not be.
So you look at Adolf Eichmann, for example, who was the little bureaucrat who planned The Final Solution and you find out: he’s just your little ratty guy. You see him in a bar, you don’t even notice him. He’s a negligible nobody.
But he’s the guy who planned The Final Solution.
He was a normal person. I mean, maybe even slightly less than normal, right? He was no monster; he wasn’t the sort of person you’d remark on if you saw him, precisely the opposite: invisible, quiet, unassuming.
Presuming, no doubt, that – at least until he was arrested – he was just doing what he was told. And that was just fine.”
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Thanks again for reading – until next time & have a great weekend.