Jordan Peterson: My 75 minute explication of evil … ‘What fun is life without a little death?’

In this occasional series, Jordan Peterson writes from his international speaking tour for his book, 12 Rules for Life, where he’s speaking to sold out crowds throughout North America, Europe and Australia.

The last two days in Cambridge were relentless, but in the best possible way. My wife Tammy and I flew in early in the morning from Amsterdam after three days of nonstop press and talks. Then we slept for three hours and found The Maison du Steak, which served an excellent ribeye. The waiter knew of my work and said that it had helped him. We snapped a picture together.

I spoke that night to a capacity crowd of 1,850 at the Corn Exchange — originally a warehouse where farmers and merchants traded cereal grains, but a concert hall since 1971. Pink Floyd’s founder Syd Barrett played his last concert there; it has housed performances by everyone from Boxcar Willie to David Bowie.

Members of Pink Floyd (left to right) Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright. Barrett’s last gig took place at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge.

One of the impossibly cool aspects of this 90-city tour has been the chance to visit all these famous and infamous concert halls — The Orpheum in L.A., The Fillmore in Detroit, London’s Apollo Hammersmith, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (original home of the Grand Ole Opry, where 1,200 people sang Happy Birthday to me in June) — and to follow in the footsteps of performers like Johnny Cash, Minnie Pearl, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen. It’s an unexpected privilege, with a surreal aspect.

That night at the Corn Exchange, I spoke about Rule 6 from my book, 12 Rules for Life: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

It is by far the darkest chapter in what can be a very dark book; a meditation on the deepest motivations of those who have chosen a truly malevolent path. I spoke about the hatred for humanity and for Being itself — for God, really — felt and expressed by the Columbine killers. What is anyone to make of the following statement, penned by Dylan Klebold, perhaps the most literate and creative of the two, the day before the assault?

“About 26.5 hours from now the judgement will begin. Difficult but not impossible, necessary, nerve wracking & fun. What fun is life without a little death?”

Crosses commemorate the 12 students and one teacher killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Constant dwelling in dark places leads to the generation of dark ideas. That is an insufficient explanation, given the horror of the situation. It’s more like this: For centuries, human beings have meditated on the nature of evil, abstracting out its central aspects, and clothing it in personified form. Why? Because evil is a personality. Each villain is an avatar of evil, a partial actor of a very complex part. Each of us is capable both of understanding that part, and of acting it out, in our darkest times.

I delivered what was likely the harshest and most hellish of the many lectures I have given so far to the waiting Cambridge crowd, speaking about Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who was not so much an articulate atheist but someone who hated God for the suffering of life, and Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Gulag Archipelago, and the story of Cain and Abel, which is in truth the account of two fundamental modes of being, one that aims heavenward, and the other aimed at hell.

It is my belief, which I shared with the crowd, that the world is saturated in horror and darkness but that the human spirit has within it, as the great English poet John Milton had it, strength sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. I have learned even more clearly during this lecture tour that there is light to be found in great darkness.

It was an exhausting 75 minutes of explication.

The next morning, I recorded a podcast with Dr. Stephen J. Blackwood, who is attempting, with the support of intellectuals around the world, to establish a new liberal arts college in Savannah, Georgia. He’s hoping to produce an institution that will promote classic liberal and conservative values (as opposed to the appalling and logically incoherent mixture of Marxism and postmodernism that has come to dominate and deconstruct the humanities and social sciences departments of far too many universities.)

I spent the lunchtime after that talking with a dozen scholars — many from Cambridge itself, some who had flown in from Canada and the U.S. — about the necessity of re-establishing solid ground after too many years of incessant, ungrateful and destructive criticism of the traditions of the west, the intellectual canon, and the religious narrative that lies necessarily at the foundation of our culture. A strange truce has lately emerged between those more traditionally religious in their beliefs and rational enlightenment types, such as Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt, many of whom have come to realize that despite their differences they face a common threat from chaotic nihilists and vengeful identity-politics players.

The ceiling of Cambridge King’s College Chapel.

We visited King’s College Chapel afterwards, a building properly regarded as one of the most beautiful in the United Kingdom, with vast vaulted walls and a miraculously filigreed stone ceiling, suspended, impossibly, hundreds of feet in the air, light filtering through ancient stained glass like dappled sunlight through trees. Europe constantly brings me to the edge of tears with its visionary beauty. Why have we forgotten the power of such construction? How were the craftsmen and artists who were our forebears able to produce something so magnificent—the final work, the symphony in stone—over spans of time that exceeded the duration of their single lives? And all constructed to remind men eternally to gaze upward and to aim in the same manner.

Later, in a videotaped discussion with Sir Roger Scruton, author of some 50 books, a much maligned conservative philosopher, we spoke about the soul-deadening modern theory that power constitutes the fundamental human motivation; that the past, the present and the future are nothing but the battleground between the different tribal groups of sex, gender, and race, and that there is no transcendent good or reality with which individuals might establish a genuine relationship.

Dinner after that. Two more steaks, and a bit of a break, before spending 15 minutes at Evensong in another beautiful Cambridge chapel, during the ancient celebration of All Soul’s Day. Then I went to fulfill an invitation to speak to 700 students at the Cambridge Union, the oldest debating society in the world. It was a high-spirited, enthusiastic, contentious, exciting event. Afterward I was interviewed by two student journalists, both female. With the first interviewer, we had a productive and interesting although very brief exchange. The second hated me on sight. Had I possessed the presence of mind, I would have called attention to the giant chip on her shoulder before bothering to engage in the masquerade of an “interview” by a “journalist.” I told her that what I was doing on my tour was not primarily political. That was absolute heresy, as far as she was concerned. EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL, she announced, without a shred of doubt, repeating the mantra that her ideologically-possessed professors had pounded into her head. “Music?” I asked. “Is that political?” “Music is political,” she insisted. “Love? Is that political?” “Most certainly! Love is political. EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL.” “Why do we even bother with all those other categories, then?” I asked, “philosophy, theology, literature, drama …?”

She had the good sense to look momentarily confused (although not a whit less irritated). “Everything is PARTLY political,” she said. “True,” I said, “but the qualifier PARTLY is crucial. The difference between EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL and ‘most things are partly political’ is the difference between good sense and sanity, and ideological extremism and insanity.” But she was too far gone, and myself too much the embodiment of patriarchal evil itself, for such an argument to penetrate her thorny, resentful defenses.

We closed with another dinner. It takes a lot of steaks to fuel 12 solid hours of thinking. I discussed the possibility of returning to Cambridge next fall with an august member of the Divinity School, Dr. Douglas Hedley, Platonist and Neo-Platonist, who looks perfectly cast in his role of Oxbridge humanities scholar. Last year I completed a series of lectures on Genesis, which have proved absurdly popular (the first, on the first sentence of Genesis, has garnered some three million views, which makes it the most watched of all my 300 or so online lectures). I want to return to the series, to discuss Exodus. We talked about the possibility of a seminar, based on Exodus, conducted with Biblical experts (there are many of them at Cambridge) as a means to deepening and expanding what I might then attempt to communicate to what appears to be starving for something beyond bread alone.

Eight hours later, Tammy and I drove to the airport, and flew to Helsinki, where I am sitting and writing these words.

Jordan B. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and the author of the multi-million copy bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. His blog and podcasts can be found at jordanbpeterson.com

 

 

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