The Four Loves – Weeks 3 & 4

Well, I missed last week, so once again playing catch up with the readalong.  🙂  Here are the last two parts – and thanks again to Cleo for hosting this!

Week 3: Friendship

In this chapter, Lewis talks about what he considers to be the “least natural” of the loves: Friendship.  It is less “organic” than the other loves, because, unlike Affection which nurtures or Eros which propagates, Friendship is, in a sense, superfluous in that it is not necessary to our survival. In fact, it can be viewed with distrust by authorities or groups of humans, because it means at least two people have withdrawn from the group and are connected by something which distinguishes them from the rest.

This was the most interesting chapter of the book.  I don’t have a wide circle of friends, but I appreciate each one I have (online and offline), and I think Lewis pinpoints why it is so hard to find good friends.  The problem frequently lies with us.  So often we are looking for someone to give us Affection or at least attention – someone to commiserate with us or praise us.  But real friendship is centered on a common goal.  As he puts it, lovers look each other in the face, but friends stand side-by-side, looking in the same direction.

…Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice.  Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.

My favorite song about friendship, specifically the friendship of close siblings, is “Firebird” by Owl City.

Week 4: Eros & Charity

In chapter 5, Lewis breaks the subject matter of “being in love” into two parts, “Eros” and “Venus,” the latter referring to sexuality and the former referring to the psychological-emotional connection, or what I would call romantic love.  Lewis focuses on Eros, though does refer to Venus as well and how Christian couples should approach it.  I have to admit I didn’t really take anything new from this chapter, as these are topics I’ve read extensively about elsewhere.  That said, I thought it was an insightful chapter nonetheless.

A lot of (great) songs about Eros are depressing, so here’s an upbeat one – “Tear in My Heart” by Twenty One Pilots:

Chapter 6, “Charity,” contains the famous quote: “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”  I also love the passage early in the chapter which compares love to a garden. 

…our “decency and common sense” show grey and deathlike beside the geniality of love. And when the garden is in its full glory the gardener’s contributions to that glory will still have been in a sense paltry compared with those of nature.  Without life springing from the earth, without rain, light and heat descending from the sky, he could do nothing.

Lewis argues, too, that love need not be an “either/or” choice between our fellow mankind versus God.  Rather, we should not be afraid to love others deeply, so long as we love God most.

Charity, from Lewis’s perspective, encompasses three loves: Gift-love, Need-love, and Appreciative-love.  In Gift-love, the acts of charity we perform as Christians are gifts back to God (Lewis references Matthew 25).  In Need-love, we receive love from our loved ones even if we are not always worthy – Charity here means forgiveness.  Finally:

He can awake in man, towards Himself, a supernatural Appreciative love.  This is of all gifts the most to be desired . . . With this all things are possible.

I will always be grateful to the people who showed me charity, however great or small, and whether they realized it or not.  Some of them honestly changed my life.  A song which really sums that up is “An Act of Kindness” by Bastille:

The Time Machine: Then and Now

It’s been about fifteen years since I first read The Time Machine.  It was so unlike anything I’d read before.  Afterwards, I even wrote my own time-travelling story, which was more like fan-fiction than anything else.

I don’t often reread books, but as I build my H. G. Wells collection, I figured I’d reread each book and see how it held up over time.  (No pun intended!)  The Time Machine was the first book by Wells I’d read and seemed like a natural starting point.

The story begins in Victorian England.  A group of friends – a doctor, a journalist, a psychologist, and others – gather at the Time Traveller’s house for their customary meal and conversation.  The Time Traveller at this stage has just created a model of his machine which he says he can build at full-scale and use to travel through time.  The demonstration leaves his guests skeptical, but not long after that, the Time Traveller shows up to one of his own dinners, bedraggled and telling a wild story of adventure and romance.  The rest of the book is a flashback (or is it a flashforward?) which follows his exploits into the future, where the human race has become split into binary factions, the childlike, helpless Elois and the industrious, sinister Morlocks.

I’d like to think I was an astute child, but the sheer selfishness and stupidity of the Time Traveller was apparently lost on me.  For the most important trip of his life, he leaves very unprepared, which comes back to bite him later.  More disturbing is his romance with the woman-child named Weena.  The age difference is ambiguous, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he seems more interested in his own well-being than hers.  Overall he’s a terribly unlikable narrator, and the worst of it is, Wells doesn’t seem to realize that.

The story itself is still exciting, even this many years later.  Unlike the recent adaptations of Doctor Who, which follow a breathless plotline, Wells makes use of “negative space,” if you will, to highlight the more perilous moments.  There’s almost a pastoral bent to his descriptions of the futuristic countryside, forests, and rivers.  It makes for a poignant contrast between the appearances of peace and the realities of warfare (or rather, terrorism), which the Morlocks inflict on the peace-loving Elois.

Is the plot realistic or plausible?  Not really – but I’m not sure it was intended to be. It does, however, give you an insight on the late Victorian psyche, at least from Wells’s perspective.

If you like classic steampunk, then you have to read The Time Machine.  If you can rewind to childhood and read it then, all the better.

12 Rules for Life – Follow-up

Well…I promise I’m not trying to milk this for all it’s worth.  But I realized that after “finishing” the review of 12 Rules for Life, I’d failed to answer my starting questions from Part 1:

  1. What is about [Jordan Peterson] or his message that generates commonality between such disparate groups?
  2. What kind of person, with such a prestigious CV, is so willing to go out on a limb [against political correctness]? Is he really courageous, or is there some other reason?

I think the answer to #1 is pretty simple.  Peterson’s appeal lies in his embrace of core values, like honesty, hard work, integrity, and self-respect.  Any belief systems that value the individual and accountability are going to gravitate towards his message, which puts a big emphasis on you, the individual, taking action – making your life better and making the world better.  So that is what seems to make his following so diverse.

To the second question – my takeaway from reading 12 Rules is that Jordan Peterson is a religious person.  Not necessarily a Christian or even a deist in the traditional sense, he nevertheless holds certain beliefs, and he adheres to them faithfully.  Peterson is the greengrocer in Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” who has chosen not to display state-mandated slogans in his shop window, because he has decided to “live within the truth.” That’s what drives his courage.

I was telling my mom about the book, and she recommended this interview which just came out last Thursday. Though nearly an hour, it goes by very quickly…  I haven’t seen Peterson so emotional before, and it brings out a different side of him, less of the academic and more of the personal, even self-conscious.  He does cover several of the main points of 12 Rules as well.

In January, Peterson announced he is working on a “better book,” a sequel called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, scheduled for a January 2020 release. I’m looking forward to reading it, not only to compare with the first book but to see the progression of his ideas and how the past two years of publicity may have changed (or not) his messaging.

12 Rules for Life – Part 3 of 3

I’ve decided to share these quotes in the order they appear in the book, plus occasional commentary. All quotes are from the 2018 hardcover edition.

Key:

  • plaintext – Worthy quotes
  • bold – Favorite quotes
  • italics – Quotes I disliked

12 Rules for Life: Best and Worst Quotes

The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism.  It’s not communism, either, for that matter . . . We (the sovereign we, the we that has been around since the beginning of life) have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time. (p. 14) – Agreed, seems pretty self-evident.

. . . the familiar Western images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male dual unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ.  (p. 42) – “traditional insistence on the androgyny,” what is he talking about?

You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. (p. 62)

. . . a villain who despairs of his villainy has not become a hero.  A hero is something positive, not just the absence of evil.  (p. 78) – Exactly!

. . . winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult.  You might be winning, but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning.  (p. 88)

Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight?  Could you, and would you, fix that one thing that announces itself humbly in need of repair?  (p. 94)

What would your life look like, if it were better?  (p. 100)

The Old Testament Israelites and their forebears knew that God was not to be trifled with, and that whatever Hell the angry Deity might allow to be engendered if he was crossed was real.  Having recently passed through a century defined by the bottomless horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we might realize the same thing.  (p. 105) – This is a terrible example of conflating all evils with “judgment from God.”  It’s not biblical (see Job).  Granted, Peterson here is speaking of the “Old Testament God” as a concept, not necessarily as a real Person.  But this kind of thing is what I meant by “repurposing the Bible” to fit a philosophy.

. . . if  you look close enough, the biggest of lies is composed of smaller lies, and those are composed of still smaller lies – and the smallest of lies is where the big lie starts. (p. 228)

People think they think, but it’s not true.  It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking . . . Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world. (p. 241)

The past is not necessarily what it was, even though it has already been. (p. 267) – On second reading, I’m not exactly sure this makes logical sense, but I get the gist of it, and it’s a hard truth.

Assume ignorance before malevolence. No one has a direct pipeline to your wants and needs – not even you.  (p. 320) – Good advice for managing conflict.

When [boys] told off the teachers, they were pushing against the authority, to see if there was any real authority there – the kind that could be relied on, in principle, in a crisis. (p. 331) – Yeah, I’m not really buying that one.  Backtalk is backtalk, let’s not romanticize it.

Maybe the environmental problem is ultimately spiritual. If we put ourselves in order, perhaps we will do the same for the world. (p. 364)

12 Rules for Life – Part 2 of 3

A solzhenitsin
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by Evstafiev
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“No one could stand up for communism after The Gulag Archipelago – not even the communists themselves.” (12 Rules for Life, p. 310)

I would like to think that’s true.  Unfortunately, admiration for Joseph Stalin is, by all appearances, far from dead.  The mass murderer has been rebranded as a WWII hero first and dictator second. While not all Russians subscribe to that narrative, there are some who are nostalgic for the USSR.

I once briefly dated someone who felt that way.  It wasn’t apparent on first impressions, but, as we got to know each other better, I learned he was an ardent Stalinist, fully heroizing Stalin and believing all the bad to be exaggerations, lies, or American propaganda, or (barring all that) nothing any worse than what U.S. presidents had done.  Though born in a former Soviet republic, he was not really old enough to remember life in the Soviet Union, yet to him it seemed to be a Golden Age he’d missed out on.

There is really no arguing with someone so dogmatic about their beliefs.  In a certain sense, I can empathize.  I have very strongly anti-communist views, and they are shaped by my family’s background just as, I am sure, his beliefs were cemented by his background.

Chaos, Order, and Communism

There is one place in 12 Rules for Life where Peterson refers to the atrocities of the 20th century as being central to his motivation for formulating his philosophy.  He wanted to know why and how such things could happen.  Throughout the book, he calls out Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China as examples of what can go wrong when, in his viewpoint, you don’t successfully walk the fine line between Chaos and Order.

What are Chaos and Order?  From the Overture (aka introduction):

Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative.  It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity . . .

Chaos, by contrast is where – or when – something unexpected happens . . .  It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture, is simultaneously birth and demise). (p. xxviii)

He adds that Order is symbolically masculine and Chaos is symbolically feminine.

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s no coincidence.  True to his fame, Peterson draws largely upon mythology and Easter and Western religions in this book, including Yin and Yang.  It would be an understatement to say that Peterson uses these narratives as mere analogies.  More on that later…

It’s hard to argue against what seems to be self-evident: the world (both civilizations and uncultivated nature) is essentially binary or polar, in everything from hot vs. cold, north vs. south, and theft vs. charity.  Which is not to say there is no room for nuance or gradients.  It’s just that we live in a world where contrast is the framework upon which everything else hangs.  While, through a Christian lens, I see the moral contrast as being instead Good vs. Evil (and without a gender, symbolic or otherwise), Peterson’s case for Chaos vs. Order – neither one innately immoral unless taken to excess – is a compelling stance.

He always goes back to the Cold War as an example of when Things Fall Apart.  Some may find this repetitive, but I have to say this really hit home with me.  My dad fled a communist country when he was a teenager.  My closest college mentor was a Soviet dissident, and in his case, he escaped a sentence to hard labor.

One of the worst things anyone ever said in my presence was “I’m interested in communism,” with the same nonchalance that you might say “I might want to take up golf.”  It’s a nonchalance that doesn’t understand the broken families, trauma, and unspeakable hardships brought on by that ideology.  I’ll take my former friend’s dogma over nonchalance any day; a casual treatment of the subject is doubly offensive.  (To be fair to the speaker, they didn’t know my personal backstory.  I could have said something, but the context of the conversation was too frivolous to even go there.)

Peterson, at least, gets it, and he takes it seriously.

The Bible References – A Christian Perspective

The biggest complaint I see about this book is the “Bible talk.”  And yes, there are a LOT of biblical references in 12 Rules.

Peterson starts out in the first chapters by retelling the Genesis story of Creation, including Cain and Abel and Original Sin, and later on in the book talks about Jesus’s life and death as well.  You’ll often see mentions of God, or what might be more accurate, “god” with a capital “G.”

To go by his writing, Peterson does not seem to be a Christian.  He has identified as Christian in the recent past (2017), but truthfully, that label doesn’t mesh with the way he talks about God in this book.  At times I found it actually offensive, nothing like the “preachiness” other readers may be expecting as they flip through the pages.

He doesn’t seem to take the Bible as holistic truth, as a Christian does, but rather as a book of universal truths, formulated by humans.  He retells Bible stories in a way I had heard of but had never read before – in the most symbolic and broad sense.  God is symbolic, Adam and Eve are symbolic, etc.  Once in a while, some of his commentary made me look at a passage in a different light, for the better.  Most of the time, though, I was either upset with his handling of the Scripture or just about laughing over it.  Watching him try to condense and stuff the Bible into his philosophy was like watching someone stumble around in shoes two sizes too small.

For a Christian, this is a very serious problem with the book.  In order to sort out the gems from the duds, you have to read it critically, because Peterson, if nothing else, is a persuasive and authoritative writer.  If you are a Christian who holds him in very high esteem, you’re going to be disappointed by what is not even theology, but a general repurposing of the Bible for his philosophy.  It’s as if Hollywood made a movie about your family member and changed their whole personality.  It’s not ok.

I struggle with whether to purchase books like this.  Due to its scope and some really good parts, it is one I wish to re-read, but I’m not sure I’d like to display it on my bookshelf when much of it is so problematic.

The Book He Should Have Written

After finishing the book, I stand by my first impression.  Peterson should have written a memoir, or a novel.

The personal anecdotes are not many, but each one was fascinating, from his run-ins with his friend Chris to his daughter’s struggle with childhood arthritis.  I also enjoyed the scenarios from his clinical practice and hearing about advice he had given various patients, and the thought processes that go into being a psychologist.

Peterson certainly has an appreciation for literature.  I loved the references to The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, and Disney’s Little Mermaid.  It made me want to go back and read those books and find things I’d missed.

In the next part, I’ll share the best and worst quotes.  There’s quite a few, and mostly good ones.