I think I know now how the early church felt when it thought about Socrates. He was so close to the truth. He understood that the events of this world needed to be explained by the absolute truths of a transcendental reality he called virtue. Man… was he close. Virtue is an important idea, but actually the perfect is a person named Jesus. Even though he did not know Christ and was most likely unaware of the philosophical implications of Moses’ theology, he understood how Truth actually works. Truths in this world only make sense because of some absolute and perfect Truth that lies outside of this world. Like Socrates, Dr. Peterson has gotten so close, oh so close.
In a recent article for the National Post, ”For true satisfaction, forget happiness and seek long-term goals,” Jordan Peterson sees the framework or structure of truth but then fails to grasp He who is the Truth. Like a ship that is headed in the right direction but taking on more water the further it goes, Peterson’s thought sinks short of its destination.
Dr. Peterson recognizes that pursuing the experience of happiness is not so much a waste of time as it is a danger to human flourishing. If happiness is a moment of pleasure or satisfaction, then we will always be in search of something that is past. “I do not believe you should pursue happiness,” Peterson argues. “If you do so, you will run right into the iteration problem, because ‘happy’ is a right-now thing.” When a person pursues a happiness we would define as pleasure in the moment, that person becomes sour, angry, and even bitter. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made this same argument during his 1978 speech at Harvard, but Solzhenitsyn knew something that Peterson does not.) True happiness, agues Peterson, can only come when a person pursues a good that is greater and more permanent. Yes! Happiness is only realized when a person brings his/her life into alignment with something that is absolutely valuable and perfect. What is that perfect? Solzhenitsyn knew that the perfect must be God; Peterson has not discovered this.
Peterson’s ship of thought saw the port on the horizon but sunk shortly after that moment. Yes, a person who attempts to achieve happiness by focusing on the moment will always fail, but then on what should we focus? Peterson argues that the present moment will never make us happy but the future will. “And so, instead of your short-term impulsive goal, you lay out a much larger-scale goal, which is to act properly in relationship to the long term for everyone.” Blub, blub, blub… Sadly Peterson exchanges what is impossible for what will never be possible. The future of everyone is no more a reality than pleasure in the moment. For which long term for everyone should we aim? August 1 2021, December 3 2030, or June 2, 2365? The future is nothing more than another present which is as transient as this present. There is no real thing called the future unless Peterson is simply using the term “future” to represent some Kantian categorical imperative which allows us to justify our actions. No matter, as a place and time or a categorical imperative, the term future is entirely meaningless.
The future is not only meaningless it is downright dangerous. First if we make the future the goal of life then we get to determine who is working in service to that future and who is not. Why would we tolerate those who are not working for the “long term for everyone.” Nearly every communist revolution since Robespierre’s Paris revolt claimed to be fighting for the future. Why not sacrifice a quarter of a million people in the now to secure a wonderful future. We will all be dead then anyway. Stalin agreed with Robespierre when he was driving a million Kulaks into Siberia to starve to death. A little death now is acceptable if we are to secure a wonderful future. Second, the future is nothing that anyone can actually identify. Is the future a time of economic equity in a world of no private property or is the future a time of open free exchange between property holders? Well, if we are going to define what is good now by what is to be in the future, then we had better figure this out. If history has taught us anything it is that the past has never succeeded to predict the future.
Even though Peterson’s ship sunk, it was pointed in the right direction. People only find meaning when they submit their lives to something greater than themselves and greater than the moment in which they live. But that “greater than themselves” thing must actually be greater than the self. It must also be something that we can understand. More than all of these, it has to be something that is absolutely good, fair, loving, kind, moral, and perfect. The future of everyone is not good let alone even real. But Jesus Christ is flesh and blood, perfectly good, and the definition of love itself. Without him, all other claims of moral goodness reduce to the pleasure some person will feel at some point in time. Maybe Dr. Peterson’s ship did not sink but steamed right back around to its port of origin. Well, I will take him at his best and say, almost Dr. Peterson, almost.