Jordan Peterson is one of the most famous public intellectuals of our time and has recently released a new book called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Where his first book An Antidote to Chaos goes a bit more in depth on how to better structure your life, the second book in this series focusses more on how to escape too rigid structures. I will use Chaos to reference his first book and Order to reference his second. For Peterson, one needs to find a fine balance between chaos and order. Too much order and you live in a tyranny and halt creative endeavors, but too much chaos and we might get overwhelmed by the abyss and stop doing things all together.
One topic which can really summarize Peterson’s philosophy is responsibility. The self-help advice Peterson gives can be boiled down to taking responsibility for yourself and if possible, for others as well. This is the main line in both his works. I wanted to take this time to delve a bit deeper into what we can mean by responsibility.
To take responsibility for something is to say that you have a duty towards that thing or that you can be held accountable for that thing. If you’re taking responsibility for your cat, then you have a duty to take care of your cat and you can be held accountable if you fail to do so. Rule 2 of Chaos says, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” For Peterson, it is clear. You should take responsibility for yourself, which means holding yourself accountable to what you do.
We all have an image of ourselves where we want to be in life. In every person this is different, but every person has such a vision. To take responsibility for ourselves is to take this vision of our future self seriously, to play the game of life seriously. When we play video games, we want to win the game, the same should go for life. This also cannot be rationalized away into nihilism. The fact that you have an image of your ideal self, already implicates that life has meaning. Becoming the edgy nihilist in the room won’t change that. Or as Peterson says: “Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.”
I already talked about how responsibility is important in the ethics of existentialism. I would claim Peterson to be a heavy existentialist, introducing a lot of phenomenology in his book Order. If the things appear to us to have meaning, then they have meaning. The fact that we give meaning towards certain things, means that they are important to us. With this we know what we might want in life and not want. This takes some time to think about, but we can write down what might constitute as hell or heaven, as Peterson would say. It is now our responsibility to act on these things and to land in heaven instead of hell.
This also something that is possible to do. We cannot choose the context of our lives or what other people do to us. The only thing we can change is our attitude towards these things and to still try and improve the things that are important to us. Peterson writes in his book Order about his experience in hospitals last several years. First his daughter had to get a new hip, then his wife was diagnosed with cancer and then he was rehabilitating from a drug problem. He could not choose that these things happened to him or the people that he loved, but he could at least take his responsibility and face that problem willingly.
The fact that you choose to confront this is a typical Nietzschean concept. In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes about the eternal recurrence. The eternal recurrence is a concept Nietzsche created as an alternative to living the religious moral life. He asks if you would have to relive your life in every detail again and again for eternity, would you curse the person granting you this or bless his heart. Peterson would claim that it is your responsibility that you are able to say yes to life.
We now know what to do, but how does one take responsibility for his/her own being according to Peterson? Most of his rules can be applied to the ‘how’ question. Rule 8 of Order says: “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.” This rule tries to highlight the importance of beauty. For Peterson there is a lot of meaning to be had in beauty and to create something beautiful you really have to take responsibility for that thing. Making something beautiful is hard and takes deep thought. It is not something that you’ll do in a day. It might take years to make a room as beautiful as you can make it. This goes hand in hand with the ‘clean your room’ meme.
For Peterson, responsibility is the greatest thing that will give you meaning in life. Life is suffering as Arthur Schopenhauer said, Nietzsche took over and Peterson also claims. But you can make the suffering a bit less by taking up the burden of responsibility. Lessening the suffering in the world is where meaning is to be found. Happiness is not the goal. It’s the by-product of living the meaningful life, but for that you have to choose that life is worth living and you do that by taking responsibility. Write down what would be your heaven and go towards it. Write down what would constitute hell and you have something good to fear. If you know these things you can aim with a goal. And the positive message is, is that you might just be able to succeed in your shot. Now go live that life you’ve always wanted to live. Peterson believes in you. I do too.