Jordan Peterson: Thoughts from Tralfamadore and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord

I recently listened to the Audible recording of Slaughterhouse-Five (narrated by James Franco) while riding on a KC-10 into Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

I was on terminal leave. Terminal leave is something that a service member can use at the end of their enlistment if they never took a vacation. I had 60 days, two years worth, saved up.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel I read many years ago, before I joined the Air Force. When I was a boy, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I thought that I could be a hero. That I could save people. That joining the military was an honor, and a privilege, and my duty as an American. Until last year.

The reason for the change is not important. Suffice to say that the most useful things that the military taught me are how to speak Chinese and that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. Which brings me back to Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim is a normal dude. He doesn’t want to fight a war. He doesn’t think of himself as anything special. In fact, he constantly retreats into himself. He is stuck in a stupor, until he says to Bertram Copeland Rumfoord the words “I was there.”

Rumfoord is writing a history of the War, and the one thing he wants to write about more than anything is Dresden. Billy Pilgrim was there.

Rumfoord dismisses him. Doesn’t believe him. Calls him a liar. How can this man, Billy Pilgrim, who doesn’t even seem to value his own life, have been at Dresden? Billy was at death’s door when he met Rumfoord. But there he was, beneath the flames as so many men, women, and children burned in American flames. So it goes.

Jordan Peterson is a good man, a smart man. He has spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge to help people. But he wasn’t there. He didn’t see the horror. He’s no hero. He’s no genius. He is a compassionate man who helps a lot of people.

There is no good or evil in Slaughterhouse-Five.  No hero. No villain. Only people. People with their own lives. People with their own experience. And they all die in the end. So it goes.

The Relevant Philosophy

This is the third in a series of articles I wrote in response to Jordan Peterson’s latest appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. I find Peterson pompous and boring most of the time, but I have a lot of time to kill. I have listened to hours of his interviews and lectures. He is an honorable man. And his moral philosophy is full of holes.

Know Yourself and know the Other, thus, no Battle will be perilous.

-Sunzi, The Art of War (translation by Isaiah Gooley)

Jordan Peterson speaks in terms of archetypes. The hero, the villain, and the innocent all play important roles in his narrative. Similar to Joseph Campbell. If you’ve ever read or listened to Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Facesyou’ll know that much of his deconstruction of myth is based on the work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. He looks to the best psychology of his day and forms his understanding of the stories we tell each other to tell the story of us, Humans. Campbell’s conclusions are very different than Peterson’s. Peterson frames his story in terms of the Great Evil lurking within humanity versus the Great Good that inhabits the same space. Moral virtue is turning towards the Good.

The Master said, “He who loves his parents will not dare being hated by any man, and he who reveres his parents will not dare being contemned by any man. When the love and reverence are thus carried to the utmost in the service of his parents, the lessons of his virtue affect all the people, and he becomes a pattern to the four seas. This is the filial piety of the Son of Heaven.

– The Classic of Filial Piety (translated by James Legge)

Humans communicate through stories. When European nations formed out of fiefdoms and duchies in the 19th century, they constructed stories to unite fractious populations under one flag. Children learn through stories. Storytellers are integral parts of every human society since the dawn of time. People look at their own past as a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. We may think we’re special. We may think we’re unique. And in a way, we are special. We are made of star stuff. But so is everything.

Readers who have been led to believe that the Vedas of the ancient Brahmans, the Avesta of the Zoroastrians, the Triptaka of the Buddhists, the Kings of Confucius, or the Koran of Mohammed are books full of primeval wisdom and religious enthusiasm, or at least of sound and simple moral teaching, will be disappointed on consulting these volumes. Looking at many of the books that have lately been published on the religions of the ancient world, I do not wonder that such a belief should have been raised; but I have long felt that it was high time to dispel such illusions, and to place the study of the ancient religions of the world on a more real and sound, on a more truly historical basis. It is but natural that those who write on ancient religions, and who have studied them from translations only, not from the original documents, should have had eyes for their bright rather than for their dark sides.

-Max Müller, Sacred Books of the East

“To know the Way broadly is to see it in all things.” I keep referencing this line from Musashi because that’s exactly what Joseph Campbell is explaining in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. When he describes Dao (道, meaning “way/path”), he describes it as the image of Yahweh, out of which Adam was made, both male and female, wrath and mercy.  The Dao is in all things, and so is God. When Musashi describes Dao, he does so as a warrior. But he says that while dance and art are not the Way of the warrior, if one masters his Way, he can see the mastery, the component parts, and the nature of all other Ways.

Now, I don’t speak Japanese, and I sure as shit can’t read Kanbun. But I can read a bit of Classical Chinese. That translation is pretty accurate. (I spent about three hours translating from Kanbun to Classical Chinese, just to check.) I was raised a good Catholic boy, so I’ve read the Bible a few times from end to end. My last seven years have been spent as a professional Chinese-English language analyst. I’ve read the original text of the Classic of the Philosophy of the Way. Joseph Campbell’s argument is compelling.

Psychoanalysis, the modern science of reading dreams, has taught us to take heed of these unsubstantial images. Also it has found a way to let them do their work. The dangerous crises of self-development are permitted to come to pass under the protecting eye of an experienced initiate in the lore and language of dreams, who then enacts the role and character of the ancient mystagogue, or guide of souls, the initiating medicine man of the primitive forest sanctuaries of trial and initiation. The doctor is the modern master of the mythological realm, the knower of all the secret ways and words of potency.

-Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Jordan Peterson does not speak of stories and archetypes and human beings in the same way that Joseph Campbell does.

Which brings me to the way I learn now. Through podcasts: Mixed Mental Arts, Tangentially Speaking, Hardcore History, Radiolab, and through Youtube: Crash Course, The Big Think. 

You have the power to do the research yourself. You have the ability to figure this shit out, for yourself. Don’t take my word for it that this is the relevant philosophy. Do the work, and then come talk to me. I’ll be waiting.

道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。無名天地之始;有名萬物之母。故常無欲,以觀其少;常有慾,以觀其徼。凄涼這,同處而異名,同謂之玄。玄之又玄,眾妙之門。

(Embodying the Dao)
The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

Dao De Jing (translated by James Legge)

Isaiah is a linguist, a student, and a musician. He likes whiskey and showtunes. Check out his music on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. His website is https://greatghouls.com, where he writes personal blogs that aren't too well thought out.

5 Comments

  1. Mike Reply

    I enjoyed you on the podcast and look forward to more – but I have to disagree with some of your points in this and some of your other articles.

    I went through a Joseph Campbell phase and read nearly all of his writings and listened to most of his audio lectures. And since that time (which was ~10 years ago) I have often wondered how his theories would have to be modified given our current knowledge of psychiatry, neurology, anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology etc. I think I have found the answer in Jordan Peterson. I think the way he deconstructs mythological stories and integrates our current science is a leap forward – but is also very consistent with Joseph Campbell.

    Joseph Campbell was big on the idea of the archetype – and why not? That was cutting edge psychology in his time. But it can be difficult to understand – especially trying to make sense of it straight from Jung. Jordan Peterson also talks about the Archetype and does a good job of explaining how it works and how we arrive at archetypal heroes.

    Just listen to his first interview on Joe Rogan https://youtu.be/04wyGK6k6HE
    from around 2:06:10 through about 2:16:13. He discussed the idea of the Archetype and our communal construction of heroes. He speaks about this in many of his other lectures as well.

    So all that to say I disagree that “Jordan Peterson does not speak of stories and archetypes and human beings in the same way that Joseph Campbell does.” He’s a different person with a different educational background so he uses different modes of explanation but I think Jordan and Joseph are on the same page.

    Cheers
    Or do I have to say “Everybody Poops!”

  2. Thomas Brussel Reply

    Listen

    Do I have your attention? Good, because you sure had mine when I dared look up Jordan Peterson’s name on this website. Well it seems that the ‘Mixed Mental Arts’ that this site teaches is a little too mixed, because when I summoned up the courage to look his name up again, in the hope that I would excavate his interview with Byran Callen; I saw your little manic outburst concerning how he ‘groups all SJW’s together.’ Well I’m sorry to tell you, Jordan Peterson is not Sauron, and he sure as hell is not stone as you tried to trick me into believing. Before I become manic myself I’ll attempt to elucidate for you a philosophy that is prescribed for people who try to pour their mania down other people’s throats. It’s that of ‘Jinn’. Hence the term ‘Genius’. I presume you think of Bruce Lee as a Genius. But Bruce Lee had a calling, and stuck to it with a passion bordering on conviction. To further clarify I’ll invoke another genius, who like you I presume, has also seen war. His name was Saladin;

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOqmiUBP7ns

    Saladin grew up in an age when one could listen to one’s calling without having to battle with the urge to look at one’s mobile phone in the hope that doing so would reveal it. He heard his calling and he let it wash him repeatedly into the great sea of meaning. So I ask this -when it washed him up outside Jerusalem do you think he was like ‘water’? Did he drink from the Tyrant’s Cup? No. I must also remind you that an idea integral to Peterson’s understanding of human psychology is that of the Jungian ‘Shadow’. Thus, when lectures his students he does not tell them they are potential angels and servants of God. He tells them they are potential Nazis. He says that in order to prevent such a disaster, in essence one must exalt the truth and align themselves with the principles of logic. Plain and simple. Like water.

    Now I’m sure at one point in your young life you had a calling. Perhaps it spoke to you. Why wouldn’t it have? After all it was a malicious fairy in a suit and tie that showed it to you. Well it seems your ‘calling’ took you somewhere unpleasant. Somewhere hellish. At the risk of milking the man for what he’s worth, I’ll tell you that Jordan Peterson said that if you corrupt yourself, you corrupt your whole society. In the Information Age wherein we’re all connected in some way, the global family this has created is by principle is not merely pathological, but a pathology. So when a possessed distance relative walks into your room at night screams at you to be impartial, the seeds of a real and true Hell are easily sown.

    “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
    – Dante Alighieri

    Now if aren’t already overwhelmed with disgust for the man, I recommend that you listen to his recent Q&A. I should also say that your struggles aren’t the matter of military treatises from the 5th Century BCE, but a matter of modern and revolutionary psychology designed for the wars and personal conflicts particular to modernity. I must remind you, Jordan Peterson is not a myth – he is an individual. Consider that – for a long time. Not because I’m your daddy, but because I’m your distant cousin who hates being haunted by other peoples insanity. This is a brilliant organization you’re a part of. Please do it your full service. I’ll finish with this;

    ‘What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

      1. Thomas Brussel Reply

        I apologize in general for the previous comment. It was lofty to an excess and was’t very measured. I also used the wrong Lord of the Rings character/ figure, I said Sauron instead of Saruman (haven’t seen any of the films). My point is that Peterson is doing is grand in scale, and is doing it for a noble end. He is under a great deal of stress in terms of what he’s up against. He feels as though he is, and I believe he is, bearing the burden of a great deal of the work needed to align Western universities with their original goal. This is to make people productive citizens who exalt the truth. Ever since he has taken on this role and faced the PC culture resident in many of such institutions, he’s had to take a more rhetorical approach as he cannot account for the individual lives of all those who he considers are aligned with the SJW movement; as well as the current manifestations of post-modernist thought. He thinks such people exert a very dangerous influence on Western politics in-particular, so he’s had to be ruthless and over-productive; even to the detriment of his physical and mental health, and sometimes his arguments. What is important in what Jordan Peterson is doing is that he understands where human lives and societies lead if they don’t orient themselves morally and neglect the truth for the sake of an agenda. I don’t think he should be disregarded as a thinker because he wants to efficiently weed out politically correct thought and dogma from societies that suffer from what I call ‘ideological manic depression’. Concerning the dichotomy between good and evil that he supports, he defines evil as roughly ‘the desire to inflict suffering for its own sake’. I’m not implying you are evil by any definition, but I get the impression that you are drawn to ideas that are magnanimous in nature, but to the expense of those with the intention of ‘burning off the deadwood’ so to speak. I don’t believe this is a good approach to fostering healthy discourse. In any case, I apologize again for my rhetoric and I wish you the best of luck.

        1. Isaiah Gooley Post author Reply

          My point in criticizing Jordan Peterson is solely on the basis of what he says, not who he is, nor what he intends to do.

          He has a flat misunderstanding of what post-modernism is, who his enemies are, the scope of history surrounding Russia before and after the Soviet period, communism throughout the world, or a cohesive idea of how the world works outside of his ivory tower. That is the issue I take.

          His diatribes read like Revelations as opposed to an objective description of social groups or individuals. Are his treatment methods effective for his patients? Probably. That doesn’t make his moral philosophy right.

          Call me evil if you want, that matters not, however, even Peterson’s own definition of good and evil borders on post-structuralist thought. Especially considering that Derrida was a Jew in Vichy controlled Algeria himself was anti-communist who emphasized the capacity of individuals to act in violent or altruistic ways both given different circumstance. Also, Nietzsche laid the ground work for post-structural thought.

          Good and evil as Peterson describes them are purely Western (and I’m including Islamic philosophy in this), and the extent to which Peterson defines them are rooted in Calvinist theology. It’s the same shit that British and American sociologists, anthropologists, social darwinists, eugenicists, and phrenologists touted as “TRUTH” since the turn of the 19th century. My opinion, based on the evidence that I have read, is that particular philosophy is bunk. We can argue the merits of that statement, but again, it has nothing to do with Peterson the person. He’s just some dude who talks funny to me.

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