Summary – Jordan Peterson on Existentialism and Authenticity: “A truth you cannot live, is not true”
In this lecture, Peterson talks about the concept of ‘authenticity’, which is an important aspect of the existentialist philosophy. The problem, he states, is that most modern people, especially intelligent people, identify themselves with the contents of their intellect. If you can learn concepts on an abstract level, you are able to absorb them in an abstract way and identify yourself with those metaphysical concepts. On the other hand, those ideas are likely to have nothing to do with you as a person.
This makes those intelligent people inauthentic, and the eminence of authenticity is a core existentialist belief. On a bigger scale, you can adjust yourself and others to a type of ideology, because you think it is a rational framework with integrity, but has nothing to do with you as a person and the human condition.
‘’There are thinkers like Sholzenitsyn who ascribed the worst catastrophes of the 20th century to that kind of inauthenticity. Which is the development of a coherent and rational ideology, say like a communist ideology and then the attempt to force that on the world and on people, despite the fact that the rational formulation and the reality of the people and the world have very little in common.’’
But how can you, as a person, detect your own authenticity? Your body reacts to what you do and the world around you, and you can use that information to conclude if you’re being inauthentic or not. You need to detach yourself from your ideas and thoughts, because most of what you think and say is what you absorbed from the outside world. Peterson puts forward an example of you talking in a group, where you say things to enhance your public image, or hide things that you’re ashamed, while they actually constitute a positive side of you. His advice is to reflect on whether the way you present yourself makes you essentially weak or strong.
“Now Nietzsche said for example: ‘Everyone has perjured themselves at least once in the attempt to maintain their good name’. Make a rule that if you start to say something and it makes you feel weak, a kind of self-betrayal. That’s existential in authenticity, you can feel it right away. The rule is: shut up. If that happens, stop talking.”
As a metaphor, Peterson uses the story of the Lord of the Rings. In the books, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are walking through a swamp. They need to follow the trail to the other side of the swamps. In the water lie dead people, representations of lives and ideas already past. You need to test the ground with every footstep, to see if it’s solid enough. One slip and you fall in the water, into chaos.
“That’s a dramatic representation of what I’m suggesting to you. All you have to do, is notice and pay attention. You’re making your capacity to pay attention super ordinate to your capacity to think and to speak.”
If you do this, Peterson states, you will find out that most things you say and think are not a representation of who you are as a person. They are ‘dead souls’ lurking in the swamps. Some ideas might be a representation or apply to you as a person, but most of them are some kind of camouflage you use for all kind of reasons to institute an image you want others to see.
Another example Peterson gives, are the essays students write. The essays are full of clichés, because students want to stay safe. But sometimes there are parts of essays where the authenticity of the student pops up in an original and authentic idea of their own.
“The problem is, if you get criticized for that, you’re just going to get back into your shell, because that hurts, because it’s actually a part of you that you’ve exposed. That’s a terrifying thing, but it’s an absolute prerequisite to genuine communication and thought.”
Peterson asserts that it’s not a modern way of thinking because the Mesopotamians already thought, thousands of years ago, that the ‘’highest God’’, was a God which had eyes all around its head and ‘‘spoke with magic words’’. With this magic and with these words, this God could do unbelievable things, like letting the sun rise and fall. Peterson uses this story as a metaphor to represent the power of authentic thought and authentic speech, which can create wonderful things.
‘’The reason the Mesopotamians had figured this out, was because they realized that the capacity to pay attention, which is the eyes of course (like the eyes of the God) and the capacity to speak properly is in fact the highest virtue.’’
Besides the concept of authenticity, existentialists are focused on the concept of truth. The truth is a very difficult concept, Peterson explains, because sometimes there are various definitions and functions of truths. It depends on the context and the purpose. In itself, it is impossible for human beings to know the truth, because we are not able to acknowledge and absorb all the information there is. So we don’t really know, but that doesn’t make the truth, as a metaphysical concept, less important. Maybe you can’t know the truth, but you can know what is false.
“Here’s a way to clean up your life. Stop doing the things that you know are wrong that you could stop doing. Then move on to other things that pop up in your field of apprehension that you also know you should stop doing and could stop doing, because you strengthened yourself by stopping to do the particular stupid thing that you were doing before. You can do that repeatedly for an indefinite period.”
By being mindful of what you think and say in an authentic matter, you aid the world. You treat yourself and others as an authentic human being, because you give each other the space and opportunity to think and act in a way that constitutes their personhood.
It’s difficult, Peterson explains, but with training and willpower, you get better and better and do the things you actually want to do. Begin with the smaller problems and by handling those, the bigger problems will get smaller and smaller.
Peterson explains this by elaborating on the difference between the existentialists and the psychoanalysts, like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The psychoanalysts explained psychopathologie through childhood trauma, resulting in neuroses or repression. Existentialists, on the other hand, claimed that psychopathology arises merely through the conditions of existence itself: ‘’Existence itself can make the normal, pathological’’.
“People are self-conscious, so that’s a big problem. Because we’re self-conscious we know that we’re going to die. We’re aware of our temporal limitations. Everyone knows that they’re prone to illness of all sorts and aging. So is everyone else they know, and that you can be damaged incomprehensibly by untruth, by falsehood and by betrayal. And there are hundreds of things wrong with you that you’re actually aware of at almost all times.”
What can we do about that? Peterson suggests that ‘’we should stop doing things which are inadequate and wrong’’. The existentialist explanation is twofold: If you stop doing wrong things, others won’t be affected by the potentially wrong consequences and you also stop ‘’bullying yourself’’ so these tragic characteristics of life become bearable.
Normally, Peterson states, people lie to themselves and tell themselves positive falsehoods to make life bearable. That’s the most awful thing to do. There are lots of critics who say that religion is a form of illusion that makes the fear of death manageable, but that would be weird, because religion states ‘Hell’ as a place of eternal suffering.
The existentialists claim that lies make people sick, but there are other things which make people sick. Not having a job, not having meaningful relationships with friends, family, or a partner. According to Peterson, if people have everything and still feel bad, they are depressed and need antidepressants. Lies become a part of you when in the relationships you have, you’re living a lie and are in self-deceit, when the relationships aren’t positive or productive, but you think they are.
“This is the real point of the existentialists where clinical psychology and the claims on morality become aligned. My experiences being that in these situations where persons have five terrible things going on in their lives, that there is just deception twisted in all of that. People are betraying each other, no fidelity in the relationships, no clear genuine communication, everything is manipulation, and no one is clear about what they are up to. Nothing hurts people more than deception.”
Existentialists are romantics, not rationalists, Peterson explains. The fundament of existentialism is that life is irrational, and you can’t be rational about what happens in life. It is fundamentally unexplainable. Why here, why now, why me? It’s how it is, but you can’t explain it. It doesn’t mean it’s is just or fair, but it is irrational, and you can’t make the irrational rational by trying to explain or justify it.
You are just a part in a giant world with an infinite amount of possible experiences. It’s an existential problem that maybe has nothing to do with you, but you can make it your problem.
So the claim of the existentialists that life is in itself unbearable is strengthened by the weaknesses and inadequacies of mankind when people don’t correct or repair those features of themselves. People can’t do anything about the existential features of life itself, but you can do something about yourself and address what you need to address about yourself. Peterson calls it a ‘moral obligation’ to carry the burden of life and address your own problems, or you will suffer for it.
“Moral relativists like to think of morality as just arbitrary, like it’s a cultural construction you know. One thinks that A is bad in society and two thinks that B is bad and when you get right down to it there’s no commonality underneath all that. But the existentialist sort of undercut all that and they just say: what’s immoral are those things that you could change that you do that result in outcomes that are catastrophic for you. That’s universal.”
Peterson continues with the nature of truth, when he states that the existentialists have another definition of truth compared with the definition of truth of objective materialism. Objective materialism constructs the truth through scientific experiments. You have a procedure and when you follow the procedure you will get the same outcome. It doesn’t matter who follows the procedure, the causal construction is universal, and therefore real; a clear separation of what is subjective and what is real.
The existentialists have another definition. While the objective materialists formulate descriptions of ‘the truth’, the existentialists see the truth as a way of being, of existing. It is reflected in what you do and choose, and the consequences of those actions and choices.
“Nietzsche would say: it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what you do. If I want to know what you believe, I don’t ask you, I watch how you act and I assume that your true beliefs are those that are directing your actions. So truth is discovered in action and that’s a very different claim [compared with the objective materialists]. It’s not the claim of a passive observer, but a claim of someone who’s actively interacting with the world.”
One of the things Peterson says to like most about the existentialist writers is the passion and integrity they have when writing their ideas and visions. They are committed to what they say. The rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment wanted to escape the irrationality of human beings and transcend it with logic and rationality. Passion and reason were deemed antagonists, while the existentialists refuted that claim. They saw rationality as a tool to live properly and act properly as human beings. They are complementary domains in guiding existence. Passions are not merely a destructive force, but also a source of human information and excellence.
This connects with the idea of purpose and meaning in life. You do things with passion and effort when you want to have or do something, a goal. In the debates between atheists and theists, Peterson explains, the one thing that scares the atheists is when the religious person points out that when there is no ultimate meaning, there is no meaning at all. When there is no meaning at all, you don’t want to put effort into your actions and don’t make the right choices. Why choose the difficult path, albeit righteous, when no one judges you or when it has no inherent meaning, to begin with? You end up in a form of nihilism. But the existentialists said something different.
“Nietzsche viewed the emergence of nihilism as a kind of cultural pathology. You remember of course that it was Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’. It’s like a truism, but that isn’t what Nietzsche said. He said ‘God is dead and we have killed him’ and we’ll never find enough water to wash away the blood’. Which is a very different statement. It wasn’t like he was proclaiming it triumphantly, it was more like a catastrophic loss of meaning.”
Beyond that point, science and religion slowly their separate ways, where science was used to construct what reality is and what is objectively true or not. There is a distinction between those two realms, because there is a fundamental difference between morality based on religious and historical development and scientific reasoning.
“He [Nietzsche) said that it’s pretty clear that the scientific rationalists are going to demolish the substructure of Western religious belief and then, of course, the substructure of that sort of belief all around the world. And there’s going to be consequences for that. (…) What’s going to happen in Europe is that there’ll be the rise of the socialist/communist utopian schemes that will possess people and that will produce a war and the consequence of that war will be that hundreds of millions of people died.”
Nietzsche predicted this around 1850, when no one really took him seriously and almost 80 years before the disasters of the 20th century actually happened. He predicted the rise of totalitarian regimes, which he described as another outcome of the ‘Death of God’. A cultural and philosophical death and the birth of nihilism, which destroys the very conceptual foundations of human existence and human perceptions of the world around them. Besides Nietzsche, who wrote philosophical work, there was a Russian writer, Dostoyevski, who wrote at the same time as Nietzsche about similar subjects.
“In the book ‘the Possessed’ he [Dostoyevski] talked about its description of the Russian political-economic ideological scene and what he saw happening was that as people moved away from their enmeshment in a historically conditioned meaning system, judeo-christianity, that they started to become susceptible to utopian rationalist ideologies. It was out of one belief system and in with another, and the other was more dangerous because the religious system sort of emerged from the bottom-up, whereas the utopian schemes were rationally constructed ideologies and they’re just imposed on people.”
Nihilists can be rational, and they can argue their entire thinking process and explain why they think like they think, and why they believe something, or nothing at all. It doesn’t matter, because they are nihilistic. Peterson explains that it doesn’t matter if you can explain it perfectly, when you are nihilistic, you lose the ability to truly live and exist.
A human being can’t live like that, because nihilism leads to a pathological way of living and thinking and therefore has dramatic consequences on the life of human beings. That’s an important existential claim, which is linked to the other parts of this lecture.
“A truth you cannot live, is not true.”
If it’s pathological, it’s not you. If it’s not you, it’s not authentic. If it’s not authentic, you don’t really live.