Jordan Peterson: The Two Towers

Jordan Peterson paints a picture of human psychology as a balance between good and evil. He talks about myth the way Joseph Campbell does. But the devil is in the details; he misses the third force in human narrative. The neutral.

Dr. Peterson believes that all humans have good and evil within them, and by understanding this, they can further understand themselves. But good and evil are completely relative. There is no group of “evil” people who thought their actions were evil. The Nazis, the Communists, the Ancien Regime all believed they were doing “the right thing.” They sure as shit knew the difference between good and evil. They turned their enemies into demons, and slayed them. And it was abominable.

The Balance Between Light and Dark

陰陽和-the balance between the light and the dark. It’s a phrase from an ancient Chinese children’s book called The Jade Forest: Youth Education. It served as a way to teach children about the world. Yin is the evil that Petersen talks about. Yang is the good. He says that good and evil are within all things, all humans. He’s right in that respect. But he’s missing the third, and most important part: balance.

For all I know he might understand that third aspect, the balance, the neutral. But in the 25+ hours I’ve listened to him speak on the subject, it seems like he doesn’t.

Which brings me to the point: Jordan Peterson is Saruman. The Lord of the Rings is a tale of imbalance between the forces of good and evil. Sauron is evil, the elves are good. Everyone else is somewhere in between. I’ve always found the wizards to be the most interesting characters in that story. Specifically, the difference between Gandalf and Saruman. Both are powerful wizards. Both have the ability to influence the world, far beyond the comprehension of anyone with whom they interact. Saruman, the leader of the wizards, knew much, but his hubris caused him to violate his own balance and seek the path of darkness. Gandalf, on the other hand, practiced 無為.

Saruman sought power, which was his downfall, but why did he seek power? LOTR lore provides no answer that I have found. My guess is that he saw the world in terms of good and evil, saw the evil in himself, and began questioning the validity of his own convictions. He met force with force. Gandalf, on the other hand, was like water.

He affected Middle Earth through subtle, gentle, and sometimes violent ways. He was neutral. And he was effective.

Meeting force with force only leads to destruction. Be like water: be gentle, be decisive, be constant, and be flowing. Do not be Saruman.

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.

11 Comments

  1. Isaiah "The Curious Monkey" Hickman Reply

    Isaiah (nice name, btw!), while I appreciate your thoughts on this, I have some counterpoints that I would like to make, maybe offer another perspective. Personally, as much as I have thought about morality and what it is and what is means, I believe the idea of moral relativism to be something that is very toxic. While I understand and even agree with your point that a person or group of people may not see their actions as evil, I do not believe that proves the point of a relative morality…on the contrary, I believe that moral relativism (also along with some probable sociopathic and other problematic mental tendencies) is precisely the thing that leads one to do evil things in the belief that they are not. If a man was absolutely convinced that he needed to rape a woman in order to save her, does that mean he is not morally responsible and did not commit an evil act? Or a woman who drowns her children because she believed god told her to do so, did she not commit an evil act? Of course they did, and an overwhelming majority of society would agree. This is why the law recognizes mental incapacity.
    I also would like to address the idea of what you call “the neutral”. I don’t believe morality has a neutral. Of course there are morally neutral actions, like brushing your teeth or taking a nap, but these actions are neutral specifically because they have no moral value; they are not engaged in any way with something being wrong or right. Morality exists because it is our actions that define it, having an “evil” thought or a “good” thought doesn’t play into morality because there is no action to it, there is no initiation of force. This is why there is no such thing as a thought crime, because your thoughts have no positive or negative effect on others, it is the action itself that is determined to be moral or immoral. And this is why I believe that the ying and yang symbol is the way that it is. If there were a neutral, there would be a gray line running between the two. Instead, the black and white are butted up right against each other, indicating there is a specific line, a delineation between the two.
    Would love to hear your and any other’s reaction to this. Keep striving for that belt!

    1. Isaiah Gooley Post author Reply

      I’m not really talking about morality. I’m talking about human nature and action. Morality has no utility for me, personally. And I don’t think that thinking of things in a moral context is necessarily useful for mental or cultural health.

      The question “why is hurting another person evil?” rarely gets asked. And even when it does get asked, the answers are often vacuous. That’s why thinking of things in terms of human (animal) nature is more useful for fleshing out human behavior.

      This is why the neutral isn’t a grey line in between light and dark. Neither light nor dark are evil or good. They represent a system in equilibrium. Equilibrium is neutral.

  2. Erich Wenzel Reply

    Isaiah,

    He says you have to confront the darkness within yourself. Be able to see how someone could be Nazi and then once you understand that darkness you can turn away from it. I think what he actually talks about is balance not to just strive for power and confronting with force. He’s constantly repeats know yourself before you can confront others ideology.

    1. Isaiah "The Curious Monkey" Hickman Reply

      Erich,

      I’m not sure who you are responding to, the writer and myself are both named Isaiah (weird, this is a first for me lol). If you were replying to me, yes I understand Jordan Peterson’s perspective about recognizing both good and evil within yourself and coming to understanding it as the pathway to knowing yourself (and I agree with, btw). My referencing of moral relativity and moral neutrality was directed towards the writer’s opinions on morality, which seems to be the view he has (which, personally, I don’t agree with).

      If you were replying to the writer in an attempt to help him understand Peterson’s perspective more clearly, then please disregard my reply to you. 🙂

    2. Isaiah Gooley Post author Reply

      I understand that, but again, it’s not a question of confronting the evil and turning away from it. It’s the idea of absolute evil in the first place.

      A deep dive on the LOTR: Saruman, Gandalf, and Sauron are all of the same species. They all have the potential to do anything that the others do. Saruman and Sauron operate in absolutes, and Gandalf (the Grey) operates on a different set of conditions. That’s the point I’m coming to here.

      Absolutely nobody knows if their actions are righteous or not before they act. To say one can predict the outcome of their actions accurately, always, is a fallacy. That’s the point. It’s not an argument for moral relativism, but an argument against moral framing. Nature has no morals.

      1. Erich Wenzel Reply

        Isaiah “The Curious Monkey” – I was replying to the author of the post and I appreciate your comment.

        Isaiah Gooley – Understand what Gandalf and the wizards are is more of the form of demigod. They are not of this world. Gandalf is only “grey” for half the story. It can scene as Saruman strayed from the path as in the book he becomes of “many colors”. So this in turn leaves a vacancy within order. So then Gandalf who sacrifices himself is brought back – “to be saruman as he should have been”.

        Righteous is to strong of a term. But we all have built in senses of what to do in particular situations its a feeling and there is a scale as to what those actions are specifically. Predicting in the future is the not the outcome. To understand yourself and the actions you take as an hypothesis and then being able to as a thought experiment infer what those different actions might cause. We all have a way to know if those are outcomes are good or bad in the cultural context.

        Nature may not have morals. But we as humans, are obsessed with out emotions (Descartes’s Error) and trying to pretend that we are in control or without them. I think moral framing is very important to understanding why we are drawn to particular stories like LotR, Star Wars, and many others including the Bible and all religious texts.

        1. Isaiah Gooley Post author Reply

          I think moral framing is important to understand the text, not the meaning. Meaning is subjective. There is no absolute meaning to the Lord of the Rings. That is the nature of narrative: without the observer or the reader, it’s just a series of events and not a story.

          I guess I don’t really understand what you’re arguing, though. Gods and demigods are not infallible or omniscient in any mythology save one. To say “Saruman as he should have been” elevates Gandalf above the environment he exists, be it Middle Earth or elsewhere in time and space. The lore simply states that these beings helped form the world before there was a world, and therefore are beyond comprehension.

          “Saruman as he should have been” could mean many things.

  3. Joseph Jackowski Reply

    Jordan Peterson has referenced Yin-Yang before and specifically talked about “living in Dao (or Tao)”. So drawing the comparison to something specifically referenced, and then saying he’s neglected that view point seems off base to me. Also, I think you may be misunderstanding Yin-Yang, it’s closer to Order-Chaos than it is to strict Good-Evil. So Peterson has mentioned Eastern Religious Philosophy and it’s desire to find a balance between Chaos and Order, which is very different from what you suggest: balancing Good and Evil, there are implications there.

    The comparison to The Lord of the Rings, though welcomed, is off-base also. This is likely because you’re premises about the nature of Yin-Yang are off. LOTR, demonstrates a very straight forward, good vs. evil story – much closer to the Western tradition. However, the key thing to note about Order-Chaos is that they both contain good and evil, respectively. If you have too much Order, it becomes tyrannical. If you have too much Chaos, it becomes anarchical. Though the need for the balance is to, in part, avoid leaning too far one way or the other, when it comes to Good vs. Evil it’s better to avoid Evil action all together; this shouldn’t be confused with avoiding Chaos, as it sometimes is. However, incorporating “the Shadow”, or understanding your own capability for Evil and then bringing it under control, may be closer to what you’re getting at.

    1. Isaiah Gooley Post author Reply

      Are you sure my understanding of Yin and Yang are off? Are you basing your opinion on translations, or on primary source documents?

      Because even the most learned scholars in Imperial China could not agree to what the hell the Dao is, or what dark and light, yin and yang mean.

      And I don’t read the Lord of the Rings as a simple morality tale of good and evil anymore. I assume you’ve read Joseph Campbell, and I also assume that we took away very different things from that book. Just like I disagree with the way you describe what Dao is. Remember: 道可道非常道,名可名非常名.

      The whole point of my use of neutral here is the ambiguity. Also, it is always Dao: Wade Giles Romanization is obsolete.

      1. Joseph Jackowski Reply

        First let me say I actually enjoyed your article. I know it may seem otherwise, but I want to clarify that I found it interesting. Secondly, I need to address that your conclusion about Peterson’s stance, or lack there of, on Tao is unfounded due to his having address it in the past; I believe within his Maps of Meaning lectures, though I don’t remember which one. Essentially, he’s talked about it, you missed that, and now your conclusions fails as a result. Though that isn’t the only reason I believe it has missed the mark. The other reason is your comment “nature has no morals” and I think this is a misunderstanding of Jordan Peterson’s concept of an evolved emergent ethic. The idea IS that nature – natural selection – produces a moral ethic.

        Then you use this idea to undermine moral framing. If there are no natural morals, then any moral framework is a social construction, essentially. This leads to moral relativism, though it seems closer to a postmodern view – which makes sense since you assume we’re both deriving different interpretations from Joseph Campbell (though for the record, I’m reading Carl Jung not Campbell). You also make a mistake in your understanding of the prevalence of absolutes, which is a major flaw in moral ambiguity. You say in an earlier comment “Absolutely nobody knows if their actions are righteous or not before they act”, which is an absolute, right after criticizing Saruman and Sauron’s stance on absolutes. This is a self defeating argument, there cannot absolutely be no absolutes. So it seems to me that you’ve come to a morally relativistic conclusion about Jordan Peterson based on flawed premises, viewed through a postmodern lens, and this leads you to make incorrect conclusions about The Lord of the Rings (who’s author was a Western Christian, which makes me doubt that he took the stance of Taoists). That’s my criticism in a nut shell.

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