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 Faces, you’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.
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.
(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)